Signal Mirrors For Rescue

One of the most important signaling devices you can have in your survival kit is a signal mirror! It is often underrated as a signaling device, but is a very valuable tool for daytime signaling, and can even be used at night with a full moon. During the day, with a good sun, the flash from a signal mirror can be seen for more than ten miles.

The above photo shows my wife, Denise, using a signal mirror and the flash it produces.

There are many types of mirrors available on the market, in many shapes and sizes. However, this a piece of equipment that you should attempt to get the best you can afford.

The above photo shows various sizes and shapes of signal mirrors from my collection.


One of the recommendations I often make in regard to signal mirrors, is get one with a Retro-Reflective grid. A Retro-Reflective grid allows the user of the signal mirror to be very accurate in regard to the aiming of the mirror. This is important, as you want to make sure that the flash from the mirror is aimed directly at the place you want, such as on a rescue aircraft. It is not difficult, but let's first explain how a Retro-Reflective grid works.

A signal mirror with a Retro-Reflective grid has a hole in the center for viewing through the mirror. This hole has a small screen mesh type material installed in this center hole. Before the screen mesh is installed, it is first coated with small spherical beads. These beads work on the same principle as the streets signs, which reflect the lights of your car directly back towards you. This technology, allowing a high angularity of reflection, was first invented by 3M and is known as Retro-Reflectivity. The high angularity of the reflection causes the reflected light to return on the same path as originated, as opposed to off at another angle.

So what does all this technical mumbo-jumbo mean? Well the hole in the center of the mirror allows you to look through the center for aiming purposes. The retro-reflective grid catches the sun's rays and creates a small burst of light on the grid. This small burst is not the sun, but a reflection on the grid, and is called your "Aiming Indicator." If you move the mirror and place this small burst directly on your target, and gently move the mirror back and forth, you will be flashing the reflection from the sun, directly on your target. It is that easy and it is very accurate.

The above photo shows a close-up view of the retro-reflective grid on a signal mirror.The above photo shows the Aiming Indicator, which is a reflective burst from the sun which appears on the grid. 
Just place this "burst" on your target and the mirror is flashing directly on it.

There are a few companies that manufacture this type of mirror. The first, is S.I.Howard Glass Company, and they make laminated glass signal mirrors in 2" x 3" and 3" x  5". These mirrors are shatter resistant. They have directions for use printed on the back of the mirror.

The above photo shows both the 2x3 & 3x5 signal mirrors made by S.I. Howard Glass Company   
with retro-reflective grids.

The second company who manufacturers these type of mirrors is Coghlan's, who bought out the original company who made them, Vector 1. They offer a 2" x 3" laminated glass that is shatter resistant. They also offer a thin glass signal mirror that is encapsulated in a break resistant acrylic, and is called the Sight-Grid Signal Mirror. Each mirror has directions on the back and has a reinforced lanyard  hole.

The above photo is a view of the Coghlan's 2x3 Laminated Glass Signal Mirror with retro-reflective grid.

There are various other signal mirrors that utilize a retro-reflective grid, which are different from the "screen" type shown above. The first is made by Adventure Medical Kits (S.O.L.) and is called the Rescue Flash®. The aiming device on this mirror is called a 3M® reflective aimer. It is made from durable LEXAN® polycarbonate, is 2" x 3", and has directions printed on the back. The next is the Ultimate Survival Technologies StarFlash® Floating Signal Mirror. It is also made of 100% lexan polycarbonate and is 2" x 3" and has directions printed on the back. The aiming device is called a retro-reflective fabric aimer. Ultimate Survival Technologies also makes a StarFlash® Micro which is only 1.5" x 2". It also utilizes the retro-reflective fabric aimer, but is not floatable. It is a great size for small survival kits, like a survival Tin kit.

The above photo shows, from left to right, the Coghlan's Site-Grid Signal Mirror, the Adventure Medical Kits Rescue Flash®  Signal Mirror, the Ultimate Survival Technologies StarFlash® Signal Mirror and StarFlash® Micro.


There are other signal mirrors available that do not have a retro-reflective grid, and although they are less expensive, I do not recommend them as your primary signal mirror, but only as a back-up. Some have a sighting hole in the center and some don't even have that. They will work for their intended purpose, but not as well as a good quality mirror. One is called the Featherweight Signal Mirror which is very thin and is made of metalized polymer. It measures 3.13" x 4.25" and even though it has a hole in the center for aiming it would probably be better for a shaving mirror in camp. The next is in my collection but can't seem to find a manufacturers name. It is red on one side and a regular mirror on the other, but doesn't have a sighting hole. The red side is supposed to be used at night with a high power flashlight, but I have not found it to be very effective. Another is the BestGlide Compact Emergency Signal Mirror. This is one of the smallest and thinnest signal mirrors we have seen and will fit in a wallet or any small survival kit tin! It measures only 1-1/2" x 2" and is only 1/32" thick. It is made from   highly polished metal, which makes it durable and will not crack like plastic mirrors. It has directions for use on the back side of the mirror. The last is a polished metal Dog-Tag type signal mirror that can be carried on a chain like a military Dog Tag. Again, keep in mind that none of these signal mirrors should be considered as your primary device, but only as a back-up.

Above, on the left is the Featherweight Signal Mirror discussed above. The top right shows the red-sided
signal mirror. Center bottom is the BestGlide Compact Emergency Signal Mirror, and to the right the
Dog-Tag signal mirror.


There are also other items you can use in an emergency. Basically, anything that can reflect the sun could be used in an emergency.  If you have a vehicle you could remove the rear-view mirror and use that. You could use the polished end of a soda can, an old music CD or video DVD, a computer hard drive, or even the shiny surface of aluminum foil. 

Although not found in the field, the above photo shows a computer hard drive which is metal, very shiny,
has a sighting hole in the middle, and can be used as an improvised signal mirror.

However, you rarely have these items around when you need them. However, after some experimentation I have found that the glass or plastic display from items such as a smart or cell phone, small digital camera, or a handheld GPS, provide adequate reflection of the sun for use as an improvised signal mirror. Keep in mind that an improvised mirror is never going to be as effective as a mirror designed for the purpose of signaling. I am an advocate of carrying the real thing. But, in an emergency situation, anything is better than nothing. 

The above photo shows various electronic devices that have a glass or plastic display that can be used for
signaling. This shows me using the screen of my smart phone as an improvised signal mirror.

The above photo shows me using the screen of my smart phone as an improvised signal mirror.


There will be occasions when the angle of the sun will not allow the use of a retro-reflective grid to aim a signal mirror. In this case, you will need to use an alternate aiming method, as you would with a mirror that does not have a retro-reflective grid.

In this case you will hold one arm outstretched and spread your index and middle figure, make a "V", like the sign for victory. It doesn't matter if you have your fingers facing towards you or away from you. Whichever is the most comfortable on your wrist is fine. Hold the signal mirror in the opposite hand. You will then need to get the sunlight to reflect off the mirror. You will then manipulate the mirror, until you can reflect the sun onto your outstretched fingers. You want the reflection of the sun to be across both outstretched fingers, so that the reflection of the sun will pass between the two fingers. In this manner you know the sun's reflection is being aimed straight ahead between your fingers.

The above photo shows the reflection of the sun, off the mirror, onto and across your two fingers.
  You now know the reflection is now between your fingers.

The above photo is a close-up of the reflection of the mirror across the fingers. You want to see the reflection
on both fingers to ensure the flash from the mirror is being directed between them.

Keep your eye, signal mirror and your outstretched fingers in a straight line. You then, carefully, must move the outstretched hand, keeping the reflected sunlight between the two fingers, until you have your target between your two fingers. This can take some practice and your movement must be slow and methodical in order to keep everything lined up.  At this point, you will move the mirror gently back and forth which will flash your target with the sunlight from the mirror.

The above photo shows me using two fingers as an alternative method for sighting  a signal mirror. 

Sometimes you will have the sun to your back but need to signal forward. In this case you will need to lay on your back with the top of your head facing the sun. Hold the mirror in one hand and reach back with that arm. You will raise the other arm up and forward and spread your index and middle figure, making a "V" as you would if you were using the standing technique. Try to keep the hand behind your head, which is holding the mirror, in a straight line between that hand, your aiming eye, and your with the outstretched  fingers. You will now need to catch the sun's reflection on the mirror behind you and direct it through the "V" of your forward fingers. You can always shift your position on the ground to ensure you are in-line with  your intended target. This can take some  practice, so you might want to work on the technique before you need it. 

This shows me demonstrating the technique for laying on your back in order to signal when the sun is behind you.

As you can see, using a signal mirror is not a difficult. However, it is a skill that you should practice before you need it. Practice signaling on an object other than a plane, as you don't want to give the false impression that you need help. But when you do, knowing how to use a signal mirror quickly and effectively can get you rescued.

This shows students, that I'm instructing, practicing aiming a signal mirror, using my wife, Denise, as a target.

Hopefully, this article has provided you with the information that will help you identify the various types of signal mirrors available, so that you can select the best one for your needs.  You should also know the various types of devices which can be used as improvised signal mirrors in the event you are caught in an emergency situation without a real one. Lastly, if you don't have a mirror with a retro-reflective grid, or are not able to use it because of the suns position, you will understand the alternate aiming techniques. Knowing how to use a signal mirror quickly and effectively can get you rescued.

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Copyright © 2015 by John D. McCann

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