Skip to Content

How to Make a Successful Signal Fire

A signal fire is one of the most important and effective skills to have in a wilderness survival situation. If you know how to make a proper signal fire you will be able to send billows of white smoke up into the air. This should catch the eye of any air rescue or rescue squad that is looking for you.

greenery burning to create smoke
Knowing how to build a signal fire is an important survival skill

There are more people entering the woods every single year. They go to camp, adventure, hike, fish, and even climb rocks! The number of people getting injured and lost in the woods is also increasing. It is important that you know how to survive in the wilderness and how to signal for help if you get lost.

In this article, we are going to establish where, why, when, and how to make a signal fire that will get you rescued.

Establish Your Goal

While you might think that establishing rescue goals sounds silly, it will make a big difference. What time of day do you want to burn this rescue fire, where and for how long are you going to keep the fire going?

You do not want to start your signal fire too early or too late and wind up wasting fuel and smoke that rescue teams could see.

Most people who are found are found in the first 24 hours. Things get complex after that. So, assuming you know when the world will understand that you have become lost, you should have that signal fire going!

Signal Fire Location

Campfire with a lot of smoke close up
It’s important to choose a location where the smoke from your signal fire can be seen

The most important part of planning your signal fire is location, location, location. Where you place this signal fire will play a massive role in the amount of success you have with this fire.

If you build a signal fire under a dense canopy of tall trees, then no one is going to see the smoke. The smoke will be swallowed up by that canopy. If you choose a location that is in a valley then there is a good chance that the smoke will not reach high enough to be seen.

You want to look for the highest and clearest woodland that you can possibly find. This will assure that the field of view for your fire is seen from as many directions as possible.

Burning the Right Materials

You want billows of white smoke to come from your signal fire. The key to creating white smoke is the use of green foliage. Evergreen is the best for this, too. I look for things like pine, cedar, and even cypress.

When a fire is set beneath green foliage it heats and then burns. This creates a billowing white smoke that can be seen for miles if you are positioned in the right spot.

Building the fire properly is essential because piling moist green foliage on top of a fire is likely going to suffocate and eventually extinguish it. So, let’s move on to the process of building this fire properly.

How to Build a Signal Fire

The signal fire is made up of three essential pieces:

  1. The Teepee
  2. The Green Foliage
  3. The Fire

Build The Teepee

Building the teepee fire with sticks
Building the teepee

Start by building the teepee. This is simply a collection of sticks that are all similar in size and length, leaning against one another, in a circular fashion to create what looks like the framework of a teepee. If you have trouble with this, you can use paracord to tie a tripod of sticks together at the top and then lay sticks on that sturdy base.

This part of the signal fire will bear the weight of the green foliage, so you need it to be sturdy and effective.

Build the teepee base wide enough that you can have a fire underneath it without catching the legs of the teepee on fire.

Gather The Foliage

Next, using a hatchet or folding saw you are going to gather the green foliage. Keep some of the branches attached to the foliage as it helps with affixing it to the teepee.

Collect a lot but be sure you take a little from each tree. If you trim a tree bare of its leaves then it will likely die!

To start, I take a few of the branches of foliage and tie them, pointing downward, to my teepee. Then I will stick the branches from the rest of the foliage into the tight spaces. Once you have a full head of foliage on your teepee it is time to start the fire

Light Your Fire

Lighting your signal fire
Lighting your signal fire

Once you have your teepee covered with foliage you are going to build a fire at the base, inside the teepee. I prefer a log cabin-style fire build for this. These fires allow for maximum airflow and seem to be easy for anyone to get started.

  • Create a bed of pine needles or small sticks.
  • Add two medium sized pieces of fuel (split firewood) parallel to one another
  • Then add another two pieces of medium sized fuel turned 90 degrees on top of the other to make it look like the beginning of building a log cabin
  • Add one more layer of wood, following the pattern, before starting the fire
  • Place your tinder and kindling in the center of this log cabin build and start your fire
  • Add plenty of kindling and the fire will catch the log cabin fuel and you will then be off to the races
  • Just make sure you have plenty of fuel to sustain the fire

Sustain The Fire

As the fire grows it will start to put out billows of white smoke from the burning of the green foliage. This is the essence of the signal fire, and the hope is that people in the air or SAR teams in the air and on the ground can see that thick white smoke and head in your direction.

It will be up to you to sustain both the smoke from the foliage and the fire that is burning beneath it. Be sure that you have plenty of foliage and fuel to sustain this fire for as many hours as you have planned to.