Signaling: More Than Smoke and Mirrors
If you become lost or injured, you want (and need) to be found quickly. The best way to insure a speedy and successful rescue is to actively assist your searchers by signaling. Fortunately, signaling is not art, nor does it require extensive training. It's actually quite simple if you have the right items and some basic knowledge.
One of the most important aspects of signaling starts at home. Make sure that you have given an itinerary of your trip to someone who will alert authorities if you do not check in. Obviously, any signaling method is going to be more effective if there are people actually looking for you. And, knowing that you have someone who realizes that you're overdue and might need help will also improve your mental attitude and confidence.
Everyone should have a whistle, especially children. Successful rescues are most often the result of ground searches and whistles are a very effective way to signal ground searchers. The sound of a whistle is louder and carries much further than your voice and you'll be able to blow a whistle much longer than you could shout. If you are injured, blowing a whistle may be your only way to signal for help. Three short bursts at regular intervals works best. Be sure to listen for a response. Make sure to chose a whistle designed for outdoor use. This type uses a pealess design that is very reliable and has been designed to perform well in a wide range of conditions.
A signal mirror can be seen over many miles and is the best way to signal to aircraft. It's easy to envision how a pilot, flying over many square miles of remote country, could easily spot the bright flash of a lost hiker's mirror. Although any thing that reflects light could be used as a signal mirror in a pinch, it's best to have one that is designed to signal. The typical signal mirror is 2" x 3", has a sighting hole and a provision for a lanyard. The Starflash mirror floats and the Rescue Flash is extra thin to fit in compact survival kits. To use, first place the mirror to your eye. Next, hold your hand in front of your face at arm's length and, using the sighting hole, adjust the mirror until you have the hot spot of the reflection on your hand. This will allow you to "sight-in" the mirror and know where you're aiming. Then drop your hand so the reflection hits the target. You should scan the horizon with your mirror periodically even if there is no visible target. It may get the attention of unseen ground searchers.
Always carry a reliable firestarter and a backup. A fire creates a useful signal both day and night. During the day, the smoke can be a large, constant beacon and at night the bright flames will stand out in the dark. Of course, be careful. Build a safe fire and do not leave it unattended. Don't build a fire in dangerously dry, windy conditions. Despite what you might read in some manuals, you do not have to build three fires in a triangle to signal. Unless you're part of a large group, that would require too much human energy and firewood. Simply build your fire and add green vegetation to make white smoke or petroleum based materials (tires, plastics or oil) to make black smoke. It is true that the hotter the fire, the better the smoke will clear the trees. But you'll need to balance the size of the fire with the available supply of firewood, keeping the fire safe and your level of energy. Although there are many benefits associated with a fire, it can be a lot of work. In dense forest, you may want to build your fire along a stream where both the smoke and flame will be the most visible.
Flashlights can create an effective signal at night. The bright light from high quality flashlights can be seen over a long distance. Periodic series of three flashes works best. Cyalume lightsticks can be attached to a short rope or string and swung around in a circle to create a large O shaped signal. Although not the best long distance signal, it works well if searchers are moderately close and you need to stand out in the dark. Both of these signals are most effective at sea or on clear ground. Remember, most searches are not conducted at night so these techniques might best be employed around dawn and dusk. Don't stay up all night signaling unless you know search and rescue is looking for you.
The ultimate signaling device is a Personal Locator Beacon or PLB. These electronic devices will send a distress signal to a satellite that in turn relays your information to a control center. The control center notifies local rescue personnel that you are in distress and need help. Your location is tracked using GPS and radio transmissions. To use, just deploy the antenna, press the activation button and help is on the way. Of course, it's up to you to stay alive until help arrives, so make sure that you have the essentials of shelter, fire and water.
You must register your PLB with the appropriate agency in the country of use. In the US, the agency is NOAA and it's a straightforward process. They just need to know who you are, your emergency contact info and if you have a medical condition that might require special supplies, for instance, insulin or epinephrine. The ACR MicroFix PLB has a five-year battery life, is waterproof and has been tested to withstand very harsh environments.
A cell phone is a wonderful way to signal for help, if it works. The obvious problem is that they don't often work in the wilderness because they are out of range of a cell tower. But since almost everyone has one, it pays to have it with you, just in case you can make a connection. Be sure to keep it in a waterproof container and, of course, make sure it is fully charged. The best place to use the phone is on high, clear ground. If you are able to connect, make sure you quickly give your location and situation. A weak signal may be lost at any time. Cell phones can foster a false sense of security in a wilderness setting. Be sure that you don't have to rely on it solely if something unexpected happens.
Try to think of how to use the materials on hand to create a signal. Logs, rocks, snow, emergency blankets or extra clothing might work. For example, an AMK Heatsheet is bright orange on one side and silver on the other. The orange side makes a good ground signal that will contrast with vegetative terrain and the silver side makes a giant reflector on sunny days. It can also be attached to a stick and waved like a flag to attract attention. Long straight lines don't normally appear in nature and will also be readily noticed. Digging trenches in the sand on a beach, arranging logs or rocks or flattening tall grass in an open field can make straight lines. Even tramping lines in the snow will work. The key is to create contrast using either shadows or available materials. A large V is the symbol for "I require assistance."
Signaling will increase the odds of your successful rescue. And, you owe some help to all those folks who have given up their free time to look for you. Make yourself as big and bright and loud as possible. Blow your whistle, build a fire, set your ground signals, flash your mirror and always leave an itinerary with someone.