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International Mountain Distress/rescue Signal

The international mountain distress signal is 3 of "anything" (blasts of whistle, flashes of light...etc) or 6 of "anything"??
I'm sure the distress/rescue signal is 3 of "anything" in N America but 6 of "anything" in the UK and Hong Kong. But what about the rest of Europe, S America, NZ/Australia, Japan (I think it is 3...), Nepal, China...etc? I found a UIAA Mountain Code but it doesn't say anything about signalling. I like to know how "international" is the so called "International Mountain Distress Signal". I tried googling but no luck. Could anyone share some insight on this issue? I tried but failed to post this at the Thanks :-)

Les, I did a bit of searching and found reference to both 3 and 6. Found the following on a US orienteering site:

"The international distress signal is 6 long blasts followed by a long silence. The rescue reply is 3 short blasts." Another US orienteering site had the same info.

However,another site with search and rescue info on it said the international color is orange and the number is 3, so it doesn't seem universal.

Yet another site:
"International Distress Signal (more info)
Six quick successive whistle blasts (if no whistle, Six quick successive torch/camera flashes, or wave any available bright clothing). Then....
Wait one minute.
Repeat the signal every minute until help arrives
Notes: ignore all replies to your distress signal and continue to signal. This is important and helps those coming to you actually find you.
In the US and Canada the Signal is three whistle blasts etc."

All the UK sites I saw said 6. Orienteers might use 6 even in the US since it is an international sport. A Swiss site also said 6.

However, I looked in my old copy of Mountaincraft (New Zealand) and it says 3 short blasts within 30 seconds with a reply of 2. Couldn't find anything on Australia, but my guess is they use the NZ standard.

NZ is 6?

Thanks Tom D
This NZ link says "6":

Now you see my confusion. It doesn't seem to have one but actully TWO "international" standards!! I would love to see an offical table listing countries and number of distress signals. Maybe some international climbers can shed light on this issue.

Even though I've been orienteering for years in MI, it didn't occur to me to search in that direction. I simply assume it is "3" in orienteering. N Am scouts books and my NASAR manuals says "3". Thanks for your input :-))

Could someone plz xpost this to mtncommunity?

Since most of the old timers have migrated to mtncommunity. Could one of their registered member plz cross-post my original post to mtncommunity>climbing? I tried posting there as a guest but it didn't work.

Dave... thanks for maintaining this forum, but it is pretty slow here (vs. there). Maybe you should give out a virtual beer to each poster to bump up your hits :-))

Re: NZ is 6?

Les -

Several books I have state that the distress signal is 3 of anything (whistle, mirror flashes, flashlight blinks, smoke columns, bright panels of cloth on the ground, etc) in North America and 6 in the rest of the world. Supposedly the "3" comes from the international radio signal SOS ...---... (3 short, 3 long, 3 short), but the 6 was adopted because it is a longer repetition, hence more likely to be heard. Verbally, it is "mayday", from the French "m'aidez", which means "help me".

The idea of the whistle is that it takes less energy to blow a whistle than to yell, and good signal whistles penetrate distance and wind noise better than a yell. There are several signal whistles that are quite penetrating (to the point where the user should plug his ears and not blow close to anyone else). The Fox 40 people have 3 families of whistles, one being for kids that is somewhat less loud than the other 2 (one a traditional whistle shape, the other a flat whistle). There is also a double-chambered "Storm Whistle" that, by my measurements with a sound meter, is equal in loudness to the Fox 40, but has a "pebble" that potentially could freeze in place in cold weather. I talked to the Fox 40 people at the recent OR Show, and they said they had come out with the kid version because kids have a tendency to play with the whistles and blow them close to each other's ears.

Re: NZ is 6?

Well, that is interesting because the Victoria Univ. field manual you linked to cites as a reference the same Mountaincraft book I mentioned in my earlier post--same year and edition (1980). I checked it again to make sure I was right and yep, it says 3 within 30 seconds, wait a minute and 3 more. Perhaps it used to be 3 and now everyone is changing over to 6?


Whoah, how did you get a 1980 vintage Mountaincraft? That's got to be a collectors item. The 'new' edition of Mountaincraft (1988?) also says that it's 3 blasts. Having climbed a bit in Aus and NZ I must say I've never heard anyone ever talk about whistle distress signals, not even on mountaineering/rescue/safety courses etc, and probably 99% of people wouldn't have an idea that there is a 'standard'.

Now I know!


Re: NZ

Andrew, I think I bought my Mountaincraft book back in 1986, probably at at Alpine Guides at Mt. Cook when I was down there taking the Alpine Guides technical mountaineering course or maybe at AlpSports in Christchurch afterwards. I've also got an old map of Mt. Cook and a guidebook, plus I've got a lot of history of the old huts that I got by writing to the park service. Where did you climb in NZ? I just climbed in the Mt.Cook park for the course. I loved it there. Did a few nice tracks as well-Milford, the Routeburn and up around Arthur's Pass. A friend of mine and I planned to climb at Arthur's Pass, but the weather packed up once we got to the hut.

Re: NZ

Hey Tom, I hope you got good weather when you were there, there's some great climbing around Cook when it's not blowing horizontal rain/sleet/snow. I'm from just over the ditch in Sydney so NZ is local and I seem to spend most summers there either climbing or tramping (or transalpining...a mix of both). Spent a fair bit of time in Cook NP and a bit in Arthur's pass, but my personal fave area is Westland/Fiordland. Leave the track and there's some fantastic wilderness where you won't see another soul for weeks. Great stuff (if it's not raining/sleeting/snowing...)

Re: NZ

Andrew, We had good weather for the course, but I had my share of the usual Kiwi rain while there. Hit some nasty weather at Arthur's Pass around Easter. I did the Copland Pass track twice and got rained on pretty good once I got over to the Fox side. That's why I like the mountain huts and the caravan parks with the on site caravans and the little huts some of them have. Beats a tent any day. I was there on and off over about a two year period, but spent a lot of time in Christchurch.

Re: NZ

Ahhh...(sigh, getting all misty-eyed thinking about NZ). One of the things I have to do this week is to try to negotiate holiday leave for this summer to head back over again.

You'd probably be interested to know that the Copeland track is very rarely done nowadays since glacial recession has disrupted access up the Hooker Valley. Basically, Hooker hut is completely cut off from everywhere.

Re: NZ

Andrew, I saw that about Copland. Here's a link I found with the whole story
Too bad. I did that route twice and it was a great way to get to the West Coast. I guess you can still get over using the Fitzgerald route, but it has been so long since I was there, not sure exactly where that goes, other than looking at their map. I remember going to up to Mueller Hut for an overnight. Not really climbing, just a steep walk, but a fabulous view of the valley, Mt. Cook and the glacier below. I was up there by myself, which is pretty unusual.

October 23, 2020
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