Calling for Help Without a Cell Phone

These Emergency Signal Essentials Bring Rescuers to You

Editor’s Note: Before we get into calling for help without a cell phone, we want to clarify that if your phone has power but no signal, 911 still works. When you dial 911, your phone initiates its emergency call function to send a signal to the nearest cell tower.

You’re stranded in the middle of nowhere, injured and without help in sight. Your cell phone is dead and it’s not going to be the lifeline you were counting on it to be. Whether you find yourself in the deepest of forests or stalled out on the most desolate of desert highways, this is a situation you don’t want to find yourself in. Calling for help without a cell phone, however, may be easier to achieve than you ever imagined. 

The two primary ways that you can attract help to your location include sight and sound signals. People are naturally going to notice and investigate a repetitive sound or visual anomaly (such as a whistle or flashing lights), particularly if they can be recognized as international signals of distress, such as the Morse code signal for “SOS.” People are naturally curious, and you want them to be attracted to your location if help is needed, so sound off and light their way whenever possible.

Get Noisy

Invest in a Safety Whistle

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One of the best audible ways to attract attention to your location is by using a safety whistle. Whistles are lightweight, compact, can be kept on your key ring or attached to your pack, and are extremely durable. The sound from a safety/distress whistle can carry over a quarter mile by land and half a mile across bodies of water. Sound from a whistle is also omnidirectional. So, if you’re stuck in a canyon, for example, an individual completely out of your line of sight both vertically or laterally could potentially hear your distress signal. The other benefit is that whistles require very little physical exertion to use, as opposed to, say, yelling at the top of your lungs for any duration of time.

No Whistle? No Problem

The same principles apply to creating other loud signals. Banging pots and pans, pounding rocks together, hitting branches against trees or hollow logs, and any other means of generating a loud noise in consistent intervals are better than yelling alone. Gunshots for example, depending on your location, can carry for miles. As ammunition is limited, this may be a last resort. A good rule for signaling is to provide about five seconds between sounds to increase the chances that someone will interpret the sound as deliberate and be allowed time to hone in on the origin of the noise.

Visual Signals

Visual signals are best used when audible distress calls will not work. This is especially the case when rescuers are far off or are inside vehicles (land, sea, or air) where they cannot hear your calls for help. Some of the most common types of visual distress signals include flashlights, mirrors, flares, signal flags, and fire and its resulting smoke. In order for a visual signal to attract attention, you will either be creating a widely visible signal of distress for all to see, such as smoke from a fire or a signal flare, or you may be directly targeting your efforts at visible rescue sources that you can see, but who may not be able to see or hear you. For the latter, think directing the light from a flashlight or reflection from a signal mirror from the top of a mountain range to the camp at the base of the mountain below.


Flashlights are good for low-light and nighttime conditions, and high-powered LED flashlights are especially great for signaling help and generally retain power longer. When using a flashlight, remember that Morse code for “SOS” is three short flashes, followed by three longer flashes, followed by three short flashes. You can click the light on and off, or pass your hand in front of the beam in this sequence to relay this signal. 

Signal Mirrors

signal mirror

Compact signal mirrors aren’t just for making sure you look good with that new pack on. To use one as intended, you’ll want to look through the little hole in the center of the mirror and center your potential rescuer through it. Then extend your other hand and make a “V” with your fingers, center the rescuer between your fingers and then shine the reflected light between your fingers’ “V” formation. This method should help to best reflect the light onto or near your target’s location, where it will attract attention.


Flares and flare guns are highly visible light sources, particularly at night. Flares also double as a quick ignition source to create fire, which in turn produces smoke. Be mindful of your environment and surroundings to avoid accidentally spreading uncontained fire. Suddenly having to outrun a forest fire will not improve your situation. Controlled smoke, however, can be a great signal during both night and day. Adding green, leafy plant matter to a fire will produce white or lighter-colored smoke, whereas rubber tires or other manmade materials will produce thick, darker smoke. Cover your nose and mouth with a wet bandana or shirt when working with smoke signals to avoid inhalation.


Flags have been used for centuries as effective signaling devices. The international symbol for distress is a flag of any national origin being flown upside down. For national flags with symmetrical designs (i.e., Japan), simply tie a knot in the flag to signal the same. A white or light-colored shirt can be draped or attached to your stranded vehicle, and “SOS” or other distress messages may be scrawled on them. 

Pre-Excursion Preparations

As always, remember that preparedness is the name of the game. Part of being prepared is planning for the worst. Calling for help without a cell phone is not an ideal situation, but it’s a possible event on any adventure. Whenever possible, mitigate the risk of being stranded by letting those close to you know where you’re going and when you plan on being back. Leave an itinerary, draw a map, or send an email to friends and family before embarking on your journey with the intended routes, waypoints, and contact information of those who may be in your travel party. This type of preparation doesn’t make you reliant or weak but rather leaves you easy to locate should things not go according to plan.

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