Backwoods Emergency Signals

Make yourself visible to rescuers in the wild with these versatile emergency signal tips!
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Being able to employ a variety of emergency signals during a survival situation can mean the difference between life and death. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department recently shared the successful rescue story of two hikers in the White Mountains. According to the department, a young Massachusetts man who was camping with a friend on Franconia Ridge was rescued after incurring an accidental, self-inflicted knife wound. According to rescue personnel, despite spotty cell-phone coverage, the two hikers were able to get in contact with their families, who then alerted authorities to the situation. Authorities then sent a text message informing the hikers to use 911, which the authorities used to pinpoint their location and conduct a successful rescue.

But what if that cell-phone signal never got through? Or the responding text? Or the call to 911? Accidents, no matter how well prepared you are, can and do happen. The Boy Scouts really do have the best advice when they say to “always be prepared.” So, when you are lost or immobilized like these two hikers in New Hampshire, what are some ways to get help and be found?

Make Yourself Seen!
According to Dr. Keith Conover, head of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group (AMRG), there are quite a few things you can do before or after you’re lost or immobilized to help your recovery odds.

Dr. Conover said having paper and pencil to leave a note on your dashboard as to where you’re going and when you expect to be back is the first step to being rescued. He also suggests using a phone. It doesn’t have to be a cell phone, however, because prior to leaving he suggests calling someone with the same information you left on the note.

Dr. Conover also advises to make yourself big, and by that he means using signals. Some of the types of signals people might use in the wilderness to alert rescuers to their location include fire, smoke, mirrors and body signals.

The use of a fire to signal your location works best at night. If you have the means and the ability to make a fire, try to get to the highest and clearest area so that your fire is seen. Three fires in a triangle is also the international signal for distress. Likewise, during the day, when a fire may not be quite as visible, smoke from a fire can be an excellent location beacon for rescuers. When you have a fire built, the use of green or wet burn material will help give you thick, heavy smoke, which carries well and works best for signaling.

While smoke and fire work well, another way to alert rescuers is with a signaling mirror or anything reflective enough to stand out to rescuers who are on the hunt for any signs of your location. While mirrors work best, other reflective devices include belt buckles, aluminum foil and reflective tape. Another way to signal your location is the use of flares, either ground or aerial.

You can also alert rescuers with a radio signal, even if its simply the use of Morse code’s “SOS.” The “SOS” is a series of three dots, three dashes, then three more dots and works for any language. If you don’t have a radio, then you can be more literal by spelling out “SOS” with trees, branches, clothes you don’t need or whatever you have handy. The good thing about a static distress sign like this is that it doesn’t need you to work once it’s built, which can free you up for other things like rendering aid, building a fire or building a shelter.
Lastly, when and if you see a search party, signal them yourself with arm waving or any type of body signals to communicate you’re alive and where you are. If the rescue party needs to land, one of the ways you might help is to point out a good landing area or clearing one if you have the ability.

One of the keys to getting rescued and surviving isolation in the wilderness is not only knowing what might work, but also knowing what doesn’t.

The bottom line is getting hurt, lost or disoriented can happen to the most experienced and prepared people in the world. The only way to overcome bad luck, bad decisions or accidents is to expect them and have a plan, the right tools and a network of people who know where you went and when to wonder why you aren’t back. To learn more about safe hiking, visit hikesafe.com.

Save Yourself!
Dr. Conover said some of the things people can do to help avoid a wilderness rescue situation are:
• Don’t expect your GPS or your phone to save you.
• Wear or carry the “Three Ws”: warm-when-wet clothing (wool or polyester fleece), as well as windproof and waterproof clothing.
• When caving, carry three independent sources of light that you can use with your hands free. (Also good advice for getting lost aboveground at night.)
• Carry leaf bags for impromptu insulation.

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