How To Make A Signal Fire

Creating signals is a basic step in emergency situations. Fire and smoke are two effective visuals used to draw attention to your location. Sometimes circumstances may force you to create hastily built fires for immediate use. When time permits (and as a way to put your mind at ease) constructing more intricate and perhaps effective fire/smoke signals may ultimately make your rescue come that much sooner.

A group of three visuals, purposefully placed, is usually recognized internationally as a signal for help. Hunters know, too, that three quick, but sequenced gunshots is the audio equivalent of three bright fires or dense columns of smoke, as an emergency sign. For backwoods emergencies, creating three signal fires is an early step in working towards your rescue.

Obviously, these fires need to be burning in an area where they can be seen from above and from distances on the ground. Higher is usually better, as is being positioned in openings with long lines of sight and clear views of the sky in all directions. Once that location is found, it’s important to clear away an area on the ground in which the three fires will be built.

Equally critical to starting the fire, is fuel to keep it going. Piling up various sizes of fuel (from kindling to branches) assures you that your fire won’t just quickly flash, and then die. It is important, however, that the fuel is of appropriate size and dryness to be able to ignite quickly.

By day you want to produce volumes of thick, quick-rising smoke that stands out starkly against the background (white smoke against the dark greens of a coniferous forest, for example; black smoke against a snowy backdrop). You are not trying to build up a nice set of coals for dinner, you are hoping for either bright, radiant tongues of fire that quickly reaches skyward, or bellowing clouds of high-visible smoke – both of which bombard the sky with: “HERE I AM!”

A good style of signal fire is a Tripod Tower structure that enables you to build a fire up off the ground and create a framework that allows for a taller, if not bigger fire. It’s perhaps most effective for creating smoke. Foliage can be draped over the frame, onto which a platform within the support poles has been built. Your starter fire is built upon this platform. The overhanging foliage helps keep the fire material dry as well as keeping rain/snow out. It’s then there to serve as a good smoke-producing fuel.

If you’ve ever seen those home fire safety videos that show a Christmas tree flash fire, you can appreciate the effectiveness of using bone dry and brittle evergreens as a signal fire fuel source. Dead, but full shaped and densely branched evergreen species can be cut and propped up as single, upright flame-producing signals.

Larger branches or a cluster of more spindly-shaped dead conifers can be stacked like corn stalks to produce a similar effect. Even a well-constructed pile of smaller branches will create that almost instant flash of leaping light for your signal fire. With any of these options, placing a quick-ignite tinder pile at the base of the dead limbs gives you a head start in igniting the structure from the bottom.

Besides the practical emergency necessity of a good signal fire arrangement comes the psychological benefit of keeping your positive mental attitude focused on building these essential survival signals.

Shop Sportsman’s Guide for a huge selection of emergency supplies >

Leave a Reply

Commenting Policy - We encourage open expression of your thoughts and ideas. But there are a few rules:

No abusive comments, threats, or personal attacks. Use clean language. No discussion of illegal activity. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally hateful comments are not tolerated. Keep comments on topic. Please don't spam.

While we reserve the right to remove or modify comments at our sole discretion, the Sportsman's Guide does not bear any responsibility for user comments. The views expressed within the comment section do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of The Sportsman's Guide.