10 tips for getting rescued, Signaling and Communication in the wilderness

Calling for help or getting rescued in the wilderness is not something most of us want to do, but spend enough time outdoors and chances are you’ll experience some type of emergency. When it comes to using your cell phone and getting rescued, here are10 tips you can follow that will help rescuers find you quickly, assist them, and get you out safely. A quick rescue increases the odds of survival and can reduce exposure to rescue parties. Communication and signaling play an important role in efficient wilderness rescues. Here are some things to consider:

1. Notifying someone of your plan is important. Before you leave for your trip let someone reliable know your expected return time, trail or route, destination, car type and plate number, basic gear you’ll have, your cell phone number & carrier, and other partners names and information. In some cases you can also describe your tent and jacket color, and list supplies.

2. Although some places might not have cell coverage in the wilderness, coverage is increasing and in many wilderness emergencies cell phones are the most common way of initiating rescue for climbers and hikers. You should turn off your cell phone or radio (if you have one) to conserve batteries till your ready to use it. In cold environments try and keep your communication device close to your body to keep it warm and conserve battery life (between layers of clothing). Most new phones automatically fix your location when you make an emergency call, this isn’t always guaranteed and you can take a few steps to help.

a. Before your trip activate your phones automatic location setting which enables E911 to calculate your position.

b. Turn on your phone once a day before an emergency for about 5 min, when powered up phones check in with the nearest tower(s), even if there’s not enough signal to make a call, it can be enough to leave an electronic trail.

Radios and most cell phones work off line of site meaning land features such as hills, mountains, or heavy tree cover can block the signal. Satellite phones need an unobstructed view of the sky. To make an emergency call, higher open locations will provide the best signal, hold your phone at arms length and rotate around to find the best reception. Once you find the best spot, return to that spot for future calls.

3. Think of what information you’ll need to convey to the emergency operator. Dial emergency personal before your emergency contact. Stay calm, in the following order, state your name, your location (double checked) with as many details as possible (Lat/Long or UTM coordinates, elevation, and major land features nearby), if you don’t know your location describing surrounding land features and last known prominent points will also help. Tell them your emergency and people involved, type of equipment (how much food & fuel) you have and color of tent, backpack, clothes, etc…, including your emergency contacts information. Mention your plan of action (stay put, try and walk out, pitch tent, build a fire, etc…). Before hanging up let them know you’ll turn off your cell phone and turn it back on 5 min before and after the top of every hour or two, unless told otherwise by the 911 operator. Follow any other instructions given.

4. If you don’t have enough reception but a spotty signal it’s possible to get a text message out even if you can’t get a call through. Most emergency services aren’t set up to receive text messages so use your emergency contact. If you did a good job of pre-trip communication you’ll be able to keep your text short, they’ll know who it’s coming from and already have basic information. Example of a text could be. “SOS 49deg 47 min 50 sec N 123deg 30 min 30 sec W. fall w brkn leg, Jon injrd call 911”

5. To signal others material to use can be natural (sticks, rocks, dirt, shadows), man made (clothing, packs, tents, space blankets), or both. The important thing to remember is to follow the “CLASS” principle for ground to Air signals. ‘C’ stands for Contrast; you accomplish this with color that contrasts the surroundings. This can be a black shadow against white snow (done by digging a trench) or Orange tent against green vegetation. The ‘L’ stands for location, you want an open area that can be viewed from different directions and is close to your shelter area. ‘A’ stands for Angularity, the straighter your lines and sharper your corners the better, there are very few natural 90 degree corners in nature so having them in a signal will help catch a rescuers eye. ‘S’ stands for Size, the bigger your signal the better. S stands for shape, there aren’t too many straight corners or 90 degree bends in nature so having a signal with straight lines and sharp corners will stand out more. The shape of your signal can also communicate information to an air crew. A large V (3 feet wide and 18 feet long on each side) means you need help or assistance, X tells the crew your injured, you can use large arrows to communicate the direction of travel if you’re leaving a signal area.

6. Movement also catches the eye, you can accomplish this with vigorous arm waves or a t-shirt at the end of a pole, the t-shirt will also have the benefit of notifying the helicopter crew of the direction of the wind (they need to face into the wind to create lift for landing and taking off). A properly used signal mirror has been spotted almost 100 miles away. Space blankets, aluminum foil, watches, silver parts on credit cards, and anything shiny can also be used. At night flares, headlamp (torch), and chem sticks work best. Three signal items I carry in my pack because they’re light and easy to pack are a signal mirror, whistle, and chemical stick AKA Chem or glow stick. Other items can also function as signal materials. Here's a picture of a signal mirror flash one my friends took from a cockpit at 10-15 miles away:

7. Fire signals are one of the best methods for signaling rescue. The two main issues are causing forest fires and the time window between getting the fire to produce enough smoke to be seen and aircraft passing. Care must be taken to clear surrounding vegetation and prepare the ground for a fire. Another issue can be people not identifying the fire as a signal. To build a signal fire, you must first prepare the site. Find an open location close to your camp or where you’ll spend most of your time. Clear the fire area, scraping the ground to bare earth (dirt), and extend it out at least 15 feet. Prep the fire wood with each stage of wood placed in a log cabin pattern with small pieces at bottom and larger wood toward the top. Near the top you should have 1-3 feet of fuel, green material (pine boughs, branches, grass, leaves) is live and produces more smoke than dead dry material. The fire starting material and fuel should be dry and dead. Having the green stuff on top will help keep the fire wood at bottom dry. Have a tinder (starting material) nearby and keep dry. When you first hear an aircraft or know that rescue is in the general area or imminent start the fire, once you have waist high flames add green material as needed to continue producing smoke.

8. Noise can also be a signal, carrying a whistle is a good signaling tool that can be heard for several miles, the universal distress signal is 3 bursts, think consecutive signals of 3 (4-5 second blows), 3 shots, or 3 bangs with a stick on a tree. Occasionally yelling out “help” especially in areas that carry sound also works. If sunny you can use reflection to signal rescue.

9. If you’re on the move it’s a good idea to leave signals at prominent features and clearings, in most cases your best option is to use natural materials. Leave notes or arrows at each site indicating your direction of travel and intentions.

10. In the event of a helicopter rescue most pilots will try and land as a first option, if a large enough clearing is available (sufficient size will depend on the environment, elevation, wind conditions, and skill of the pilot), a clearing of at least 80 feet is what most need. Try and position yourself with your back to the wind facing the clearing so you’re at the choppers 12 to 3 clock position. After it lands wait for rescue personnel to come to you, do not run out to the helicopter, when power is decreased, the rotors can end up lowered to a point where they could decapitate an average height person especially if you are up hill of the helicopter. Because weight affects fuel capacity which in turn affects range and time of flight, don’t expect to take your pack or gear with you. In the event the crew decides to lower a hoist or basket, in most cases a rescuer will ride it down. Do not try and assist, especially avoid trying to grab the basket or cable before it has a chance to touch the ground at least once. The rotors can build static electricity over long distances and touching a cable or basket before it grounds can give you a shock.

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Comment by Ali Alami on November 1, 2010 at 5:18am
With cell reception around the world increasing, price of satellite phones going down, and more outdoor apps on smartphones rescue dynamics and procedures will change. In fact we now have 3G coverage at the top of Mt. Everest.

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