How do you send a smoke signal?

By: Charles W. Bryant
Native Americans used smoke signals to communicate.
Frederic Remington/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

In westerns, filmmakers portrayed Native Americans as master communicators with smoke signals. They would send complex messages in an unknown code like a shape-shifting alphabet seen from above. While this made for interesting movies, the reality of how smoke signals were used isn't as complex. They were simple messaging systems used to send basic transmissions over long distances.



The one drawback of using smoke signals is that the enemy could also see them. For this reason, there wasn't a set code for transmissions, and each tribe had its own system. The meaning of the message was predetermined and only known to the sender and receiver of the signal. A tribe might send a message that the enemy was near or that sickness had fallen over the camp. They would also commonly use the signals to announce the outcome of battle or to call for reinforcements. In order to send signals over greater distances, tribes would set up a chain of fires to relay the message from one to the next.­

­N­ative Americ­ans weren't the only people who used smoke signals to communicate. Chinese soldiers stationed along the Great Wall of China used smoke signals to convey messages of impending attack from one watchtower to the next. They used a mixture of wolf dung, saltpeter and sulfur to create dense smoke that's easily seen from a distance. By passing the message from tower to tower, they were able to relay a communiqué as far as 300 miles in only a few hours.

Even though two-way radios and emergency beacons have rendered smoke signals a thing of the past, The Boy Scouts of America still teaches smoke signaling. They tell their scouts to send an emergency signal of three puffs of smoke to indicate that they're in trouble in the wilderness. The reason for this is best stated in the Boy Scout motto -- "Be Prepared." You never know when something might happen to leave you lost and stranded in the woods. No one ever plans on it. Being prepared and knowing how to send a signal for safety is a good idea for any outdoor enthusiast, not just Boy Scouts.

In this article, we'll look at what kinds of messages were sent using smoke signals, as well as how to do it yourself.



How to Send a Smoke Signal

The Boy Scouts of America still use smoke signals as an emergency beacon.
Archive Holdings Inc./Getty Images

The first thing you'll need to create a smoke signal is a fire. Build your fire in an open area as high up as you can. Your goal is to have the signal seen from many miles away, so a clearing at the top of a mountain is a good location. After you have a good fire going, add grass and green sticks and branches to your fire. This will smother the flames and create a dense, white smoke.

To send your message, wet a blanket to keep it from burning and throw it over your smoking fire. Once the trail of upward smoke has ceased, pull the blanket off to send a white puff skyward, and then put the blanket back on. This will send a one puff message. What message it conveys is up to you and your recipient. You can repeat this action to create a two puff and three puff message.


While this sounds like an extremely basic form of communication, you need to remember that it's what the puffs of smoke represent that counts. The messages that Native American tribes sent were simple, but very important. Here are a few of the common signals used by the Apache Indian tribe:

  • One puff -- Sending a single plume of smoke would commonly be an attention signal. This meant that something unusual was going on, but there's no cause for alarm or imminent danger. It was commonly a sign to watch for further signals.
  • Two puffs -- A two puff signal meant that all was well and that camp was established and safe. It indicated that they would stay at their current location until further notice. If the camp was more permanent, a continual two puff message was sent to let neighboring bands know that permanent camp was near and safe. It was an important message, as Native American tribes often moved camp according to the seasons, the availability of resources and for safety.
  • Three puffs -- This was an alarm signal, just as it is with Boy Scouts today. Indians warned of approaching enemies or marked the beginning of a battle with this signal. Continuous single columns of smoke indicated greater danger and a call for help.

If you want to learn more about smoke signals and other survival techniques, try the links on the next page.



Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "Smoke Signals of the Apaches.", 2008.
  • "Cardinals Struggle to Perfect Smoke Signals." The Associated Press, April 14, 2005. Pope -
  • Zimmerman, Damien. "The Great Wall of China.", December, 1997.­/ice/wall.htm
  • Tompkins, William. "Smoke Signals." The Inquiry Net, 2008.
  • "Smoke Signals.", 2008.
  • "Smoke Signals.", 2008.