If you're stranded out in the woods or at sea, a signal mirror can save your life — that is, if you use it effectively. Some signal mirrors have instructions printed on one side to help users out. But if you don't have such an aid, here are some basic tips.
You can use a signal mirror in two basic ways. If you don't see anyone in the distance, simply sweep the horizon with the mirror, in hopes that you'll catch the eye of a rescue craft or team that isn't yet in your visual range [source: U.S. Air Force]. But once you do spot rescuers you should aim the reflected light at them, and then send a signal so that they can tell that you're a person out there who needs help.
The technique for using the signal mirror is pretty straightforward.
- Use the mirror to reflect sunlight on to a nearby surface like a raft or your hand.
- Slowly bring the mirror up to your eye, while making sure that the reflective surface is not obscured by your brimmed hat or fingers.
- Tilt the mirror up toward the sun (not directly into it, though), until you see a small bead of light.
- Once you've found the bead of light, move it toward your intended target (plane or searcher). Keep the bead of light in view as you do this [sources: Nester, U.S. Air Force].
If you're improvising your mirror, hold up two fingers in a V shape and angle the mirror (or credit card or compact) so that most of the light passes through the V. This will help you to find the bead of light.
It's possible to send detailed messages with a mirror by using Morse code, and some people carry cheat sheets to show them how. But you don't need to do that to be rescued. Just flash the mirror toward your target, and then cover it or turn it away from the target. Do that three times in quick succession. That's the international distress signal, which any rescuer should recognize [source: Nester].
Another important tip: It's crucial to know when to stop signaling. Once a vehicle or aircraft has spotted you and is zooming in to pick you up, avoid flashing reflected light into the rescuers' eyes, so that you don't cause them to become momentarily blinded and crash [source: Murray].
Author's Note: How to Use a Signal Mirror
I've always been fascinated with stories of wilderness survival and people who have extreme experiences in the outdoors. In my work as a journalist, I've met and interviewed survival experts, and I've noticed that they tend to have extremely methodical, detail-oriented problem-solving strategies. While they prepare and equip themselves carefully for their adventures, what gives them the most protection is their own ability to analyze unexpected situations and improvise solutions.
- Associated Press. "Lucky Rescue Saves Rafter from Medford." Register-Guard. May 19, 1987. (May 19, 2013) http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=j_dVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=fuEDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7042,4938546&dq=used-a-signal-mirror&hl=en
- Associated Press. "A Signal and a Spruce Tree." St. Joseph Gazette. Aug. 1, 1962. (May 19, 2013) http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=KMhiAAAAIBAJ&sjid=lHgNAAAAIBAJ&pg=3498,1746642&dq=signal-mirror+rescuers+wilderness&hl=en
- Cargal, Michael. "The Captain's Guide to LifeRaft Survival." Sheridan House. 1990. (May 19, 2013) http://books.google.com/books?id=QMM18iu2RbQC&pg=PA24&dq=signal+mirror&hl=en&sa=X&ei=jJOVUfyrFOen0AGUsYC4Aw&ved=0CFUQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=signal%20mirror&f=false
- Coe, Lewis. "The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States." McFarland and Co. 2003. (May 19, 2013) http://books.google.com/books?id=pzkZPIXm89UC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Davenport, Gregory J. "Surviving the Desert." Stackpole Books. 2004. (May 19, 2013) http://books.google.com/books?id=syFSHDUQqS8C&pg=PT9&dq=signal+mirror&hl=en&sa=X&ei=jJOVUfyrFOen0AGUsYC4Aw&ved=0CEwQ6AEwBg
- Denver Post. "Guard Helicopter Rescues Two Hikers." Denver Post. Aug. 13, 2009. (May 19. 2013)http://bit.ly/12Fnz2b
- Editors of Stackpole Books. "Survival Wisdom & Know How: Everything You Need to Know to Thrive in The Wilderness." Stackpole Books. 2007. (May 19, 2013) http://books.google.com/books?id=WWxbKbhqwWQC&pg=PA420&dq=signal+mirror&hl=en&sa=X&ei=SJSVUYG_DePy0wG65YCwBg&ved=0CFAQ6AEwBDgK
- Flying Magazine. "Safety Equipment." October 1944. (May 19, 2013) http://books.google.com/books?id=n29lcdffPWgC&pg=PA183&dq=signal+mirror+survival&hl=en&sa=X&ei=SYuZUdPRNKnB4APv14CQBA&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=signal%20mirror%20survival&f=false
- Galloway, David. "Use a Busted Cellphone as a Survival Signal Mirror." Lifehacker.com. June 17, 2012. (May 20, 2013) http://lifehacker.com/5919009/use-a-busted-cellphone-as-a-survival-signal-mirror
- The Gazette. "Three Stranded 10 Days on Ledge Rescued." The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Co.). June 25, 1992. (May 19, 2013) http://bit.ly/17RdvaS
- L.L. Bean. "ACR Hot Shot™ Signal Mirror with Whistle." Llbean.com. (May 19, 2013). http://www.llbean.com/llb/shop/41451?feat=sr&term=signal%20mirror
- McCann, John. "Stay Alive - Emergency Signaling for Help." Krause Publications. 2011. (May 19, 2013) http://books.google.com/books?id=syFSHDUQqS8C&pg=PT9&dq=signal+mirror&hl=en&sa=X&ei=jJOVUfyrFOen0AGUsYC4Aw&ved=0CEwQ6AEwBg
- McDougal, Len. "Signaling for Help." Backpacker. April 1996. (May 19, 2013) http://books.google.com/books?id=gN4DAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA118&dq=signal+mirror&hl=en&sa=X&ei=jJOVUfyrFOen0AGUsYC4Aw&ved=0CEgQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=signal%20mirror&f=false
- Murray, Malcolm. "The Signal Mirror: A Low-Tech Lifesaver." Scouting. March-April 2001. (May 19, 2013) http://www.scoutingmagazine.org/issues/0103/d-outs.html
- Pesola, Brady. "San Diego Summer Hiking and Preparation." San Diego Reader. April 24, 2011. (May 19, 2013) http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/hiking-san-diego/2011/apr/24/san-diego-summer-hiking-and-preparation/
- Santa Maria Times. "AG hiker rescued after using signal mirror." Santamariatimes.com. Jan. 9, 2012. (May 20, 2013)http://santamariatimes.com/news/local/ag-hiker-rescued-after-using-signal-mirror/article_34cdd476-3b21-11e1-80e8-001871e3ce6c.html
- Shepard, Alan. "Escape at Sea After Orbiting." Life Magazine. May 9 1960. (May 19, 2013) http://books.google.com/books?id=81AEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA64&dq=signal+mirror+survival&hl=en&sa=X&ei=4o2ZUYP5LOTE4AOalIGACw&ved=0CDEQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=signal%20mirror%20survival&f=false
- U.S. Department of the Air Force. "U.S. Air Force Survival Handbook." Skyhorse Publishing. 2008. (May 19, 2013) http://books.google.com/books?id=uYz4ODJ5XhsC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false