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Signaling Techniques

(Adapted from the U.S. Army Survival Manual)

As a survivor, you must get your rescuer’s attention first, and second, send a message your rescuer understands. Some attention-getters are man-made geometric patterns such as straight lines, circles, triangles, or X’s displayed in uninhabited areas; a large fire or flash of light; a large, bright object moving slowly; or contrast, whether from color or shadows.

Find the largest available clear and flat area on the highest possible terrain. Use as obvious a signal as you can create. Whatever signaling technique or device you plan to use, know how to use it and be ready to put it into operation on short notice. If possible, avoid using signals or signaling techniques that can physically endanger you.

MEANS FOR SIGNALING

There are two main ways to get attention or to communicate - visual and audio. The means you use will depend on your situation and the material you have available. Whatever the means, always have visual and audio signals ready for use.

Visual Signals

Fire

During darkness, fire is the most effective visual means for signaling. Build three fires in a triangle (the international distress signal) or in a straight line with about 25 meters between the fires. Build them as soon as time and the situation permit and protect them until you need them. If you are alone, maintaining three fires may be difficult. If so, maintain one signal fire.

When constructing signal fires, consider your geographic location. If in a snow-covered area, you may have to clear the ground of snow or make a platform on which to build the fire so that melting snow will not extinguish it.

A burning tree (tree torch) is another way to attract attention. You can set pitch-bearing trees afire, even when green. You can get other types of trees to burn by placing dry wood in the lower branches and igniting it so that the flames flare up and ignite the foliage. Before the primary tree is consumed, cut and add more small green trees to the fire to produce more smoke. Always select an isolated tree so that you do not start a forest fire and endanger yourself.

Smoke

During daylight, build a smoky fires to gain attention. The international distress signal is three columns of smoke. Try to create a color of smoke that contrasts with the background; dark smoke against a light background and vice versa. If you practically smother a large fire with green leaves, moss, or a little water, the fire will produce white smoke. If you add rubber or oil-soaked rags to a fire, you will get black smoke.

In a desert environment, smoke hangs close to the ground, but a pilot can spot it in open desert terrain.

 Steve's Notes: People lost in the desert have been found and saved by burning tires. They create a large volume of black smoke that can be seen for miles.

Smoke signals are effective only on comparatively calm, clear days. High winds, rain, or snow disperse smoke, lessening its chances of being seen.

Mirrors or Shiny Objects

On a sunny day, a mirror is your best signaling device. If you don't have a mirror, polish your canteen cup, your belt buckle, or a similar object that will reflect the sun’s rays. Practice using a mirror or shiny object for signaling now; do not wait until you need it.

Haze, ground fog, and mirages may make it hard for a pilot to spot signals from a flashing object. So, if possible, get to the highest point in your area when signaling. If you can't determine the aircraft’s location, flash your signal in the direction of the aircraft noise.

Note: Pilots have reported seeing mirror flashes up to 160 kilometers away under ideal conditions.

Signaling Techniques - Using A Signal Mirror

Figures 19-4 shows one method of aiming a signal mirror for signaling.

Flashlight or Strobe Light

At night you can use a flashlight or a strobe light to send an SOS to an aircraft. When using a strobe light, take care to prevent the pilot from mistaking it for incoming ground fire. The strobe light flashes 60 times per minute. Some strobe lights have infrared covers and lenses. Blue flash collimators are also available for strobe lights.

Continue with Signaling Techniques - Part Two.

Back to the main page of the: Wilderness Survival Guide.



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The Ultralight Backpacking Site | Signaling Techniques