Signal Mirrors – an often under appreciated piece of your survival gear
There may come a time when you will need to attract the attention of a rescuer. It could be because your car has broken down and left you stranded miles from help. You might be injured and unable to get back to family and friends. You might be lost and have no idea which direction to take to get back to your vehicle or perhaps your camp. In situations like these you need to be able to draw attention to yourself, to signal quickly and effectively. Not being able to do so could place your life in danger. With emergency signaling several things must be remembered. First, if you haven’t left a trip plan with a couple of reliable family members or friends indicating what your intentions are, where do those who will be looking for you, search? Second, if no one knows you are in trouble, your attempts to signal for help may be totally ignored. Third, even if search and rescue personnel are looking for you it may still be very difficult to locate you unless you do something to increase your chances of being seen or heard.
A casual review of any survival book will show a multitude of techniques for drawing the attention of casual passers-by or that of designated SAR forces sent out to find you. Some of the procedures are effective and some are not. Some require expensive sophisticated electronic equipment and others may be improvised from the materials on hand. It has long been my position that it is better to be prepared and have the equipment you need to survive and signal than it is to be in a crisis, lacking that equipment and have to “improvise” it. Too much has been made of a survivor’s ability to manufacture the tools and other equipment needed to maintain life from the natural resources that are available and from the remains of whatever vehicle you were traveling in. How do you improvise the warm jacket you need to protect you from the assaults of the weather? How do you construct a good knife? How do you quickly cobble together a windproof, waterproof shelter from sticks, bark and other vegetation you may have? Wouldn’t it be better to have a small collection of equipment with you at all times that you could depend on to shelter yourself, the means to ignite a fire and the ability to signal to others that you are in trouble and need help? I think so but what about you? What do you think?
It is important to remember that, when people are looking for you, you are a tiny, very difficult to find object on the face-of-the-earth. You must make yourself bigger and therefore more visible if you expect to be found quickly. One way to expedite your rescue is to bounce (reflect) a beam of sunlight from your position to that of a rescuer. Remember that the person on the receiving end of your signal must recognize the reflected light for what it is – an emergency signal, and respond to it. If no one knows you are missing it can be hard to convince people that your signal is in fact an emergency signal not some stray flash of light reflecting from a car’s windshield or other incidental reflection. On the other hand, if an active search is taking place any glint of light that is seen will be investigated.
Purposefully made signal mirrors have been around for a long time. Certainly as far back as WWII. Other mirrors made from a variety of polished, reflective surfaces have been around for an even longer time. On the market today are a variety of emergency signaling mirrors made from highly polished metal, plastic and glass. It pays to know a bit about these materials before you choose one for your emergency kit. Modern signal mirrors, specifically those made from plastic and glass, have a sighting mechanism built into them. Metal mirrors do not but often have a hole or cross through the center to assist in aiming the device. The brightness of a mirror is determined:
- By the material from which the mirror surface is made. Glass is the most reflective and while glass is more prone to breaking, with reasonable care, it should last a lifetime. The reflectivity of plastic is generally not as good as glass but is usually sufficient for signaling purposes. Plastic mirrors should be protected from water since they may warp when wet. Metal mirrors, when new, are highly reflective but lack an aiming mechanism.
- The size of the mirror. Within reason, the larger the surface area the brighter the reflected light. A three-inch by four-inch mirror is a perfect size. Smaller, the mirror becomes difficult to hold with cold fingers. Bigger, bulk and weight become an issue.
- Its condition – damage, even minor dings, reduces the brilliance of the mirror surface.
There are glass mirrors available from three manufactures currently on the market:
Rescue Reflectors Inc. (www.rescuereflectors.com) Hand-crafted in the United States – these are the most brilliant signal mirrors with brightest sunspot available.
Vector 1 Inc. Imported from Japan and sold mainly under the Coghlan’s label. A good mirror with a bright sunspot. Older version of this mirror were not waterproof however that changed in 2010. “The new watertight design can be distinguished from the older design by the details of the lanyard hole. The new waterproof design has a beveled/countersunk lanyard hole that lacks the metal grommet present in the older non-watertight design”.
Howard Glass. Made in the United States – the original provider of Mil-Spec signal mirrors to the US military. A good mirror but with a mediocre sunspot. This mirror works well but, because of the difficulty of locating the sunspot, it is not as easy to use as either the Rescue Reflectors or the Vector 1 mirrors.
Note: There are also glass mirrors on the market that are manufactured in Taiwan. These should be avoided. From outward appearances they look very similar to the mirrors described above however the aiming mechanism does not work.
There are currently about half a dozen varieties of plastic signaling mirrors on the market. Some with and some without an aiming mechanism. The advantage of plastic over glass is its weight – they are considerably lighter and therefore some of them float. An advantage in an aquatic environment! Plastic mirrors are tougher than glass making them less susceptible to damage if dropped. Typically they are not as brilliant as a glass mirror. The reflective surface is not as durable and is easily scratched which affects both the range and brilliance of the mirror. Plastic mirrors use either a “ retroreflective encapsulate bead fabric” disc or a wire or fabric screen in the construction of their aiming mechanism. In my experience the fabric mechanism is much harder to use. The plastic mirrors manufactured by Rescue Reflections and by Adventure Medical Kits use either a wire screen or fiber glass threads for the aiming device – these work very well. Plastic mirrors also come in a variety of sizes. Once again a 2” x 3” is sufficient. Of the plastic mirrors available the best are manufactured by Rescue Reflectors Inc. (www.rescuereflectors) Adventure Medical Kits (adventuremedicalkits.com) and, with reservations noted above, Ultimate Survival (www.ultimatesurvival.com
It is not difficult to use a glass mirror effectively but it does require some practice. (Plastic mirrors are more difficult) Face towards the sun. Place the mirror close to your eye and reflect the sun’s rays onto the palm of your outstretched hand (or other nearby object). Move the mirror, keeping the reflected light on your palm, until you can look through the hole in the mirror, from the back, at the light on your palm. When you do this you should be able to detect a miniature sunspot formed on the mirror aiming screen. “The fireball is produced by retrodirective reflection from small metalized glass spheres adhered to a mesh grid or cloth disk with a center hole sandwiched between two layers. This disk is in a clear spot between two pieces of laminated glass………” (www.equipped.org) Once you see the sunspot lower your hand. Adjust the angle of the reflective surface until the sunspot is superimposed on your target – a plane, car or person on a distance hillside. On a sunny day the beam of light from a glass mirror has been seen twenty to thirty miles away!
METAL SIGNALING MIRRORS
Metal mirrors commonly found in inexpensive commercial survival kits lack an effective aiming device. Usually larger than the typical glass or plastic mirrors, metal mirrors can reflect sunlight but are not as bright are, heavier, easily scratched & dulled and tend to distort the reflected sunlight. A small hole through the center of the mirror is used to aim the mirror as described below. The reflective surface must be protected or scratches and other “dings” will result which affect both the brilliance and the reflectivity of the polished surface. Metal mirrors are also inclined to flex or bend which also reduces their effectiveness.
IMPROVISED MIRRORS can be improvised from any available highly polished surface or from a material that can be highly polished. The mirror inside a Ranger compass for example, a ladies compact mirror, the rear view mirror from a vehicle, a CD ROM or DVD or even the hologram on a credit card could be used. Lacking an aiming mechanism use the following procedure for increasing your chances of accurately reflecting light to a target. With your arm extended and the palm of your hand facing you bring the mirror up close to your eye. I like to bring the upper edge of the mirror up just below my eye so that I am looking over the top of it. Manipulate the mirror until the sunlight is reflected onto the palm of your hand then, keeping the light on your palm, move your hand until it covers your target. Spread your fingers (see the picture) and locate the target between your fingers. With the light reflected onto the palm of your hand, and the target between your fingers, the light that passes through your fingers is directed at the target. Others like to extend their hand with their thumb sticking straight up into the air. Reflect the sun light onto the tip of your thumb and then line it up with the target. Using either procedure, an aircraft can be tracked across the sky maximizing the possibility of the signal being seen. This process requires the use of both hands! Without the use of one hand the mirror can still be used to randomly reflect light towards a target but there is no guarantee that the target will see the reflected light.
Regardless of the type of mirror being used sunlight is required for the device to be effective. On a bright sunny day the reflected light is brilliant. When the sky is slightly overcast the mirror still works although the sunspot may be a bit more difficult to pick out and the range will be reduced. At night, with a full moon, it is possible to reflect moonlight over a short distance – perhaps half a mile. Shining a flashlight at the mirror thinking that the mirror will amplify the light is a common misconception. If a flashlight is available shine the beam directly at an aircraft. Many of the aircraft conducting searches at night are flown by crew members using night vision goggles which enable them to detect even very low levels of light. The advantages of a mirror are many: they require no batteries to work, there are no moving parts, they are directional, they can be used one handed, and require no maintenance. While there are many other signaling devices available it is hard to beat the simplicity of a good mirror. Having one with you when you’re in trouble could make the difference between sleeping in your own bed or out under a tree!
Kenya, East Africa and came to America in 1965 and joined the U.S. Air Force. He is a graduate of the Air Force Survival Instructor Training School and has served as an instructor at the Basic Survival School, Spokane, Washington; the Arctic Survival School, Fairbanks, Alaska, and the Jungle Survival School, Republic of the Philippines.
For twelve years, Peter was the Survival Training Director at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado. He retired from the Air Force in 1995 after 30 years of service.
In 1992, concerned with the number of accidents that were occurring in the outdoors annually and the number of tourists traveling overseas who were involved in unpleasant and sometimes life-threatening incidents Peter created OutdoorSafe.com
He is the author of “Surviving a Wilderness Emergency” and has addressed over 20,000 people as the featured speaker at numerous seminars, conferences and national conventions.
Check out Peter’s blog at: OutdoorSafe.blogspot.com