What should you do if you hear someone blowing a whistle? How to best determine it's a distress call and not just someone playing with a whistle?

Recently I was at a state park on a weekend and observed a younger person blowing in the whistle built into their chest strap on a pack and was playing with it.

A distress signal is supposed to be groups of three, but if people don't know enough to not play with the emergency whistle then they probably don't know that either. Perhaps if the whistle seems to be blown with intent and not irregular tweets by a kid, check it out?
if i heard the whistle multiple times, would go to whistle. if it was someone playing with it, would tell them that it's an emergency whistle, not a toy. then i would go back to what i was doing.
What they said. If your kid wants to play with an emergency whistle: 1.Get them a harmonica 2.wait till they are famous 3.profit.
I agree with you to some extent. If someone is blowing a whistle in the backcountry with no care for the consequences, I doubt it is because they are doing it with ill intent. Simply they may not know the severity of their actions. I believe a good portion of individuals on this forum are highly experienced to some degree, and coaching someone without as much experience is something we need to do more of. Explaining to the individual how serious their action is, and outlining why it is important to be responsible with their whistle, would likely have an impact on future behaviour.
It can't go any worse than that time I tried to explain to a couple that they need to pack out their toilet paper :)
Yes. Respond assuming it’s an emergency. If it’s a child playing with it, teaching moment. If it’s an adult playing with it, beat them until it becomes an emergency.
I say, if you hear a whistle more than once, go investigate.
But then again, I'm also that fool that tried to follow the sound of an emergency whistle while hiking the PCT in Oregon...and discovered it was actually a bird call. I was in rescue mode >.<
Found a youtube video of sound (not mine):
Well, you thought it was someone who needed help. I don't think it matters if it turned out to be a bird or a gorilla, you were willing to help. You're a good person.
Well, did you rescue the bird???
That's the funny thing about those sternum strap buckle whistles, they sound like bird calls haha. One time I had just navigated down a really tricky steep descent. It was Spring and the usual goat path was still covered in snow. It was so steep that from above, all options looked like sheer drop offs. When I reached the bottom I looked up and saw a guy up there trying to find the path and he was heading down the wrong chute, going straight for a dead end with a 500ft drop off. I used my chest strap whistle and waved my arms to get his attention but he didn't notice me. Finally after 10min he looked up and saw me. I pointed toward the route and he nodded and backtracked over to it. When he finally caught up with me he said he could barely hear me and thought my whistle was a distant bird.
was it around Shelter Cove? I heard those birds too!
When I was on the GDT this year there were several sections that had birds who's call sounded eerily like someone blowing a whistle.
Not necessarily like a distress signal, but it was close enough that for the first few days I was constantly stopping to look around before clueing in that it was just a bird.
I spoke with a couple other hikers who also experienced this, but never did figure out what the bird was called.
Ran into this same issue but with marmots, kept wondering who kept blowing a whistle and if I needed to go check it out. Found out that marmots have a nickname: "whistle pig"
A lot of the marmots I've heard have sounded so much like emergency whistles.
A lot of the marmots I've heard have sounded so much like emergency whistles.
If it's in a wilderness area (remote area) then you go to check it out. You can't know if it's real or not. But if it is real, and you don't go, then the person can die. So you check it out.
Off topic but a funny story. Last year on my AT thru hike, I was up in the White Mountains and was caught in a storm. Visibility only 10-15 feet. Wind was blowing freezing rain sideways and was strong enough to move me around. Only about 4 miles from the Hut I started at until Lake of the Clouds but it took over 4 hours to get there. There was a couple that left before me in the morning that I usually passed while hiking, but I never passed them on the trail and started to get worried that they might have gotten turned around in the fog and gotten off trail. I turned around at one point and as I did, I heard a whistle. Kept turning to try to locate it and started to make my way back down the trail before I realized that it was the whistle on my sternum strap and it was the wind that was blowing it. It was a rather intense 5 minutes or so until I realized what was happening. Turns out they had ducked for cover a few feet off trail when it got bad and I walked right past them about an hour earlier without either of us noticing.
You got the true white mountains experience lol.
I've been thrown off by "emergency" sounds a few times. Pre-teen kids yelling and screaming in play can sound like they are in distress, and one time I was cavalier about it and didn't bother to investigate. Thankfully, one of the other kids came running screaming for help -- and it was a genuine emergency, requiring transport to a hospital.
Another time, I was in a dispersed camping area, with lots of tents. Later, I got up to pee, couldn't sleep, and wandered around for a bit, enjoying the moonlit night, and I faintly heard the sound of a woman sobbing. I walked over to investigate, and heard the sound again; the sound of a woman sobbing in grief. I stopped in front of the tent, a few feet away, trying to decide if I should offer assistance, when the sound came again, a bit more vigorous, and this time with a steady rhythm.
It was definitely a woman, and she was definitely NOT in distress.
I am SO glad that I stayed silent. Ain't nobody needs some doofus Dudley Do-right interrupting their wilderness lovemaking.
As long as we're all "talking about whistles" and how to handle distress calls, is there a reference somewhere of a list of things to do when in need of help?
I remember watching something on TV a while back where a guy had been lost while hiking or something and a bush pilot had spotted him. The bush pilot circled back to check on the guy and lost person was so excited that he had seen someone and would hopefully be rescued that he started waving his arms around. Apparently 2 arms waving means "I'm OK", one arm waving is "HELP!" so the bush pilot continued on and the guy ended up dying. They found in his journal that he figured out later that he had made a terrible mistake.
I just googled this and I can find the whistle signals just on a page that has to do with whistles. If I google the 2 arms waving vs. 1 arm waving I come across conflicting info in forums.
I believe I read this story in Into The Wild, about a man in Alaska who arranged a bush pilot to fly him and extensive gear to a remote area, then completely forgot to schedule a pickup. The way I heard it, he was so excited that he fist pumped - one arm - which means all is well. He later read his emergency signal guide which explained he should have used two arms - need help. The pilot made multiple passes because he was confused about the signal. The man didn't survive.
See signal diagrams for "All OK" vs "Pick Us Up" in the FAA regulations:
I wanted to clarify for other readers that one arm is OK, two arms is HELP (in this context).
That seems overly complicated in a way that nobody would know that. How about if I don’t wave at all that means I’m fine. If I wave, regardless of number of arms, come help me.
Distress calls will usually follow either the general "three blasts of sound or flashes of light" deal, repeating (for Alps I think, although mountaineering distress in general follows this) six bursts of signals within one minute, waiting one minute, then repeating again, OR morse code 3 short, 3 long, 3 short. Your response to let them know their signal is received is another three flashes.
If someone's playing with it I doubt they'd be this consistent in their lengths and timing.
Though most of us who like the outdoors and look into things like this, many folks don’t. So if some random person does get injured and doesn’t know this, odds are they’ll just do random blows. Or what if they fell face first and severely I hired their mouth. Blowing might be hard.
I’d tell the person messing with the whistle it’s for emergencies, just like 911.
emergency distress is three short blasts
These whistles on backpacks are a joke. You will never hear it. I’ve tested this with some friends and they couldn’t hear the whistle on my frameless pack’s sternum strap if they were around the curve around a hill on the trail in a normal forest. People at the campsite a mile away didn’t hear it either of course.
Sternum strap whistles are better than nothing, but it's hard to beat a
It's a hard call in the sense that its impossible to know. If in doubt go and check it out? I guess clues to frequency, intensity etc could be significant. It also depends on where you are.
I would perhaps take it less serious in a state park / or similar type area a few km/miles from parking or a well used camp site. This compared to an area where there is much less people and further from "civilisation".
In my area whistles are likely so rare that id go check it out. If I don't go check if I hear something out of order how can I expect some other stranger coming to my aid if I'm the one making noise?
This is good to keep in mind. We are about to start training our kids with whistles or some other loud command options because my wife has severe vocal cord damage. She can barely talk above a normal voice and that is a huge strain.
We may have to figure out another method for urgent communication.
A duck call would work perfectly; loud, distinctive, piercing, easily heard, and utterly unlikely to be mistaken for a distress call. It would also give the kids something to talk about for the rest of their lives.
The idiot child who was blowing that emergency whistle should have been stopped by the idiot adults he was with. And frankly you were somewhat obligated to say something. I mean be nice about it, but how hard is it to say, "You may not know it, but blowing an emergency whistle in the outdoors like that means there's an emergency and might bring some kind of emergency response. Maybe not a good idea." As a teacher, I did this just about 10x a day yet I find adults don't seem to be able to actually speak when they see something going on that's wrong.
Alternately, "You know, that whistle you've got is an emergency whistle. It's so if you're lost, you blow it three times repeatedly to let people know you're in trouble. Not a good idea to play with it like that. What do you think?" Most kids will agree and stop blowing it.
It's three blasts on the whistle for an emergency -- repeated regularly. But even one blast could alarm people, and it's certainly not acceptable. What next, gun shots?
Sidenote: marmots and some birds can mimic whistle sounds. Happened to me near Lake Louise a few years ago. Literally a call and respond situation. I searched the whole valley, which we could see pretty well but could find nobody. Then the respond whistles just stopped. When we reported it to the Rangers they said it was almost certainly the marmots.
How about we start using those wooden whistles that sound like trains?
This summer I had a situation where i heard repeated whistles. I was worried, to say the least. It was on a fairly steep trail with loads of inexperienced hikers.
When i finally got to them, it was a group of about 20 teens, blowing the whistle to prevent walking into a bear.
I tried to explain to them that in a group of 20 chatty people there's no reason at all to think you might walk into a bear. Later i heard them whistle again.
Needless to say, i didnt go back to check it out. Afaik they came home safely and never encountered a bear.
Still, the right thing to do is to allways check it out. Hopefully its just some bullshit but missing a person in distress could end fatally for them.
Six blows is a distress call.
I thought it was three blasts? I mean hell 3 blasts, followed by another 3 should get attention.
I would blow my whistle back if I heard a whistle out on the trail. It would become very obvious if the whistler heard my whistle. You know, A Close Encounter ....
I asked the same thing when I got my first backpacking pack, and the hikers I was with said you can "just tell" by the urgency of the whistle blowing if there's an issue.
Somewhat related question, I’d like to know if I did the right thing here: I was hiking on a section of the Arizona trail near the Verde river. I was up on the top of the canyon and suddenly I started hearing gunshots that sounded like they were whizzing by me (it was probably just the sound traveling through the canyon, but I couldn’t be sure). The day before I had run into a couple of guys on a Polaris razor who had no idea there was hiking trail in the area, much less what the Arizona trail was, so I went ahead and assumed whoever was target shooting down by the river had no idea I was there, and I wouldn’t put it past the local yokels to take pot shots at the saguaros. When they stopped shooting, I blew the whistle on the chest strap on my pack. I didn’t want them to think I was in distress, I just wanted them to know I was there, so I blew one long blast. They immediately resumed shooting and when they stopped again I did the same thing. I had no idea where they were but they never did respond or seem to change anything about what they were doing. After about 15 minutes of sitting behind a large rock I decided I’d be better off if I just stayed low and got the hell out of there and off of that exposed canyon side.
One thing I learned is about finding when the whistle is coming from. You cup your hands behind your ears to make even bigger ears and then rotate your body until you maximize the whistle sounds. It works surprisingly well.
There is a universal distress call, but I doubt most people know it. I wouldn't rely on the emergency whistle using it. I agree with others is that you blow your whistle in with three short blasts, and if they return it, then go investigate. You have to be sure that you can find your way back and are not placing yourself in danger too.
When I was a river guide we had these signals
1 blast - "Look" (I'm trying to communicate and I need your attention) 2 blasts - "Help" (I have a problem, but it's not an emergency) 3 blasts - "Emergency!"
Practically speaking I don't expect the average Joe to know to use this code, so I think it's good policy to always investigate a whistle, through it's pretty obvious that a quick toot is usually a minor concern, but a prolonged blast or multiples are usually going to be serious.
My group usually uses one blast for "stop" (used once when a friend twisted his knee and needed five minutes to figure out if he was okay to go on or needed a longer rest, two for "come to me/I need help" and three for "emergency".
However other commenters here are making some pretty good points as to why they should not be used in this way. Personally while hiking I prefer not to stay further away from the group that a raised voice won't work so out whistles only get used rarely. Canoeing may be a different matter, though.
Usually people don’t just casually blast the fuck out of a whistle. If it seems urgent check it out
Whistle back.
I can't directly answer this question, but I have a related story.
My friend is one of the classic mountain men of this age, and most of my other friends know him just as that, "The Mountain Man." He's been to Glacier so many times that he's sick of it, but not for the repeated scenery, it's because of the people. He's had to rescue and help so many other people that he says it's overwhelming and he can't enjoy the nature when he's constantly on edge. The last trip he was there, he heard a repeating, sustained whistle coming from up the trail, in an area where he knew there was bear activity. He dropped his pack, got his bear spray and hatchet, and sprinted up the trail, following the whistle. Not 4 min up the trail, he runs into a chatty group of hikers, one of which was blowing their emergency whistle casually and repeatedly. To have this mountain man with a hatchet burst out of the brush of the trail with eyes wild for an attacking bear scared them more then an actual bear probably would and he asked where the danger was. "Oh, no danger," they said, "We heard you're supposed to make noise to scare away the bears, so I was blowing this whistle!"
He said that was the trip that crushed his spirit for populated areas, and now won't go backpacking with me unless it's remote and low-trafficked. Which is fine by me.
A whistle IS a known distress call in the woods and should be treated accordingly. This happened to us once. We went over and asked if everything was ok and if they needed help. We then very nicely explained that blowing the whistle is the same as calling for help and they shouldn't do it unless they really needed help. Adults were present and if they're letting kids blow whistles in the woods then they also need to be educated. We were very nice and a matter of fact about it just trying to educate them and they understood.
They can explain to search and rescue/a ranger how they were "just playing around" because I don't play around with a whistle. While I know the trio of blasts, not everyone who goes into the back country does, so I play it better safe than sorry and presume all whistles are distress calls. If they aren't, they can endure a lecture from people with more authority than myself about how you don't blow unless you are in trouble.
Unless, of course, they are nearby me enough that I can see that they aren't in distress. Then I give them the lecture about how someone might think they are ignorant of whistle etiquette plus in trouble and maybe that isn't what they want to tell the world right now.
I think you should just go to the whistle sound. I realize that a whistle isn't a universal signal of distress. There's often applications like games, goofing around, stopping play in sports, etc. But in the back country, it's such a useful tool that we shouldn't desensitize to it. I'd go and if it's a kid playing, I might let them know very nicely that I came because I thought it might be a distress call end tell them that that's generally the culture of whistles in the back country. That you don't blow them unless there's trouble.