Should you become lost while camping or stranded due to an accident or auto failure, someone will be looking for you and you need to know how to help them discover your location. There are so many ways to signal rescuers, most are very simple, but now is the time to plan, just in case.
The sun is your best friend. You can use the sun and any shiny object to send a signal to anyone searching by air. A flash of light can be seen easily up to 10 miles away and under the best conditions, up to 100 miles. Definitely enough to be seen by an airplane or helicopter.
Mirrors can be used as an easy signaling device. Any size mirror will work but obviously the larger the mirror the easier it will be for you to aim the light. Cosmetic mirrors, the side mirror from the car, a mirror on a compass all work well. Anything that has a shiny surface that you can see your reflection in, makes a great mirror to signal. Pop the CD out of the player, if your car still has one, and it will work just as well as any mirror.
It is important to aim your signal correctly or a plane flying can easily miss that small beam of light. You want to “hit” the window in the plane. The best method for achieving this is an aiming stake.
- Select an object, such as a stick or ski pole, even an umbrella, that is ideally about chest or head high. Plant it securely in the ground.
- Stand so that the object you want to signal is in line with the the top of the stick. Line up your mirror with the top of the stick.
- Move your mirror, or shiny object, so that the reflected light from the sun hits the top of the stick and lines up with the airplane or helicopter.
Once you know you have been seen, signal for another minute or so, while rescuers calculate your location. After that you do not need continue to signal. A flash from your signal mirror can be so bright that it can actually be blinding even that far away.
Now it’s time to practice! Go out and try to signal the top of a tree. Please don’t practice on actual aircraft. This is an important skill to teach children as they can really panic when lost. If they have been taught and practiced how to signal they will be much more likely to remain in place and not wander further into a dangerous situation.
Another way to use the sun to signal is the use of a mylar blanket. Attach one end to a tree or poles and when you hear a rescue plane move the blanket so it catches the rays and reflects them skyward. If you should have to seek shelter attach both ends securely and leave in place while you shelter somewhere safe. During darker hours the search lights from a plane will reflect off the blanket and attract the attention of the rescue team.
Another way to signal, especially when you are stranded during bad weather is a signal fire. Review Meridian article Build a Fire Now. Once you have a fire built you need to create lots and lots of smoke which can be seen for miles. During bad weather black smoke is the best. How do you make black smoke? Burn rubber. A tire will burn for hours and hours. It may also produce toxic smoke so you want to build the fire and then move away from it and let it smolder. Watch it from afar. If you have extra rubber soled shoes they will burn well. Never, never use the shoes you are wearing.
If you do not have rubber to burn get a very hot fire going and add wet branches, weeds, or bushes, but be careful to add them gradually so you don’t put out the fire. Unseasoned wood will also produce lots of smoke, but again don’t add so much that you put out the fire.
Ground to Air Rescue Signals
Using more than one method of signaling is always your best chance of being found quickly. There are ground to air rescue signals used by the military that are universally known by rescuers.
Find a clearing and create the following signals using rocks, limbs and branches, mylar blankets, clothing or any other item which provides a contrast with the ground or snow. The following will be recognized by rescue teams.
SOS: Need help
K : Tell me which direction to go
I : Serious injuries, need a doctor
II : Need medical supplies
X : Unable to proceed
F : Need food and water
<— : Traveling in this direction (in the direction the arrow is pointed)
L : need fuel
LL : all is well
N : no
Y : yes
?? : not understood
Once your message has been seen and understood a pilot will rock the plane’s wings from side to side or flash a green light.
If a pilot makes a right-hand circle or flashes a red light your message has been seen but not understood. The most important thing is that it has been seen.
Don’t forget to whistle, you should always hike with one and have one in your car. A whistle is a great way to signal ground rescuers. Three blasts of your whistle is considered a distress call. Blow three times, wait 30 seconds and signal three more times, wait another 30 seconds and blow three times again. Now wait ten minutes and repeat the process.
No matter which method of signaling you use be sure to do it in an open area or the largest clearing you can find and don’t give up. The rescuers may not see or hear your signal the first time but keep signaling.
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