Dozens of outdoor enthusiasts go missing every year, and while many of them will find rescue or trek their own way out, there are always the handfuls per year that are not fortunate enough for either. While a majority of us may never experience a true 'lost in the wilderness' moment, knowing what to do, and how to prevent the situation in the first place is the best thing any of us can do. Rescue teams do an exemplary job of finding lost explorers. They work tirelessly day in and day out, scanning and searching the landscapes for another enthusiast who has missed their check in. These rescue crews are vital to many who have survived in the wilderness, and today I wanted to talk about some methods of prevention, as well as tried and true methods to help rescue crews properly locate you. It's important to note that these are land-based rescue scenarios before we continue.
Preventing the situation where a rescue crew is needed is the first and most important step. As rescue crews have very limited resources for the extremely wide areas of land they cover, it's important to reserve rescue crew operations for those in dire need. Mainly, if you know how to get out, a rescue crew is most likely not needed unless you have a dire medical emergency that requires immediate assistance. Especially if you have pre-existing or other conditions which require medication, be sure to plan accordingly and bring what you'll need to stay healthy and some extra as well. However, if you are certain of where to go and physically capable of doing so, save the rescue crew for another less fortunate traveler.
First and foremost is the planning for your trip. Understand how dangerous some of the paths may be, as many established hiking destinations will have a grading system. The same as on the slopes, don't push yourself past your means, as putting yourself in a situation you are not equipped to handle could lead to a scenario where rescue is required. Be sure to inform at least two others who are not on your trip where you will be going. If it's a multi-day backpacking trip, it's important to establish check in times with the various outposts or friends/family. This helps the Rangers establish an itinerary of when you should be arriving at your next stop, helping to quickly identify if you may be lost somewhere along the trail. Communicating these timelines to other friends or family members is important as well, essentially having as many checks as you can, so that others will be aware that you may need rescue before you enter a dire situation. The earlier a rescue crew can determine that you are truly lost, the sooner they can be deployed, shortening the overall survival timeline.
Next, carrying some basic survival items is always the best practice for any trips, especially multi-day hikes. As I stated in the beginning, many enthusiasts who become lost can end up finding their own way out. This comes with having the proper tools, as well as some knowledge of your environment. Basic comforts like a thermal blanket can help you get through a cold night if fire isn't an option. Other items, like water purification systems allow you to maintain a consistent water intake. Fire Starting tools will be some of the most important, and I always recommend having at least two ways to start a fire available to you. The best thing you can have in these settings is a knowledge of the environment - things like which cardinal direction has the closest chance of civilization, or other points of interest that people may frequent that are close by. If you're in completely unfamiliar territory, waiting for rescue is a much better option than trying to find something you don't know is there. If you need to wait for rescue, you must do everything you can do make yourself identifiable to rescue crews.
Okay, so let's say you're all the way down Schitt's Creek and you're entirely lost with no idea how to get out. This happens to many travelers each year, and again, knowledge is going to be the most important factor. If you are in a situation that you truly require rescue, you need to be sure rescue crews can locate you. There are satellite phone options and other communication devices that will make this whole situation easier, but assuming you don't have any of those at your disposal, the tips below have helped other survivors be located by real rescue crews. Granted, we all carry a cell phone these days, that is going to be the first choice for many. Service is likely not available or easy to find, and in those situations you would want to turn your phone on Airplane mode to conserve the battery life, checking it every so often, especially on higher vantage points. If you're able to get a call out with a satellite phone or otherwise, this will be the fastest way to be located, especially if you have a GPS device that can provide coordinates for the rescue crews. However, without any of those tools, you'll be left to your ingenuity, and what's available in your environment to help rescue teams find your location.
One of the most common solutions we see is someone creating a signal fire, or writing 'Help' with rocks or sticks, big enough for a passing aircraft to see. While a signal fire will work, writing 'Help' is not going to work in most situations. Aircraft fly hundreds of feet in the air, and unless you have a football field size clearing that you are filling entirely with the one phrase, it's very unlikely to get seen. The number one thing here to consider is contrast - if you're in a forest, greens and browns blend in with the environment. Many of our popular survival items are colored in bright orange for direct contrast and easy identification. A proper smoke signal, one with black smoke, contrasts clearly against the blue sky, and is the most effective way to be seen by land or by air. Using fresh branches with moist leaves will generate the big plumes of smoke to help you be seen, and if you have any plastics or rubber materials, add those in to get a black plume that will contrast perfectly on clear skies. The rule of thumb with rescue fires is to build 3 fires, either in a straight line or a 'V' pattern, to signal the traditional SOS request. This is a very important step, as you don't want to be mistaken for a casual camper just making their morning meal. Other options here include a signal mirror, which is useful if there is a visible aircraft or other vehicle in the distance. This requires the intended observer to be paying attention, so these are more situational than a signal fire. However, if you've ever had someone redirect light into your eyes, you know that this can be very noticeable if done correctly. Another easy option is to pack a bright colored article of clothing, such as a blaze orange t-shirt or even a red bandana. Waving this high up contrasts well, allowing you to be seen by potential rescuers.
Other options for night time, such as a strobe flashlight are ideal in those settings. A powerful light can travel for miles, but this will only be useful at night, as a strobing flashlight will not travel nearly as far in full daylight - when most rescue operations are being conducted. However, this can be extremely handy if you hear or see an aircraft in the night sky. If there is a built in SOS strobe, that will be easily identifiable to most pilots.
Perhaps you're deep in the brush, unable to find a clearing for a signal fire to extend upwards as far as is needed. In these cases, ensuring your potential rescuers can hear you is one of the better ways for them to find you. If they're on foot, using search dogs is a common practice. Dogs have a much better sense of smell and hearing than us humans do, and it's those types of situations where a whistle might help. Several of our items feature integrated whistles for this exact purpose. Screaming for help for long periods of time is a great way to tire yourself out and blow out your voice box, whereas a whistle uses minimal energy but generates a superior sound in a frequency that travels farther than your voice. Rescue dogs are also trained to listen to the higher frequencies that whistles generate, so it's much more likely a dog will hear it than a person, but they will lead them to you all the same. Remember to signal in threes - similar to an SOS, you want to blow your whistle 3 times to signal distress.
While it doesn't necessarily have to be something like a whistle, it could be something as simple as hitting a metal spoon against a glass jar. The idea here is to use non-common sounds when rescuers are nearby. This is likely a situation where the survivor may be too weak to do anything else, but the generation of unnatural sounds means only one thing - humans. Rattle some change in a tin can, bang rocks together in a non-consistent rhythm, anything you can think of that would generate an irregular sound.
A survival situation is one of the more stressful things you can endure in your life, and it's in these types of life or death situations that maintaining a sound mind becomes even more important. Upon realizing they're lost, many inexperienced explorers will venture deeper, unknowingly making it harder for rescue crews to locate them. If you are truly lost or receive an injury that requires rescue, staying in place is the best thing you can do. That doesn't necessarily mean the exact spot you're standing in, but rather close by to when you realized it, as that's going to be likely closest to the trail you should have found yourself on. This isn't a tried and true rule, as the location of where you decide to wait for rescue plays a huge role in how easy it will be to locate you. If there are better vantage points nearby, such as the top of a hill with an open clearing, those will be better than being deep in the woodline. If you do have to move for any reason, it's important to leave some sort of note or breadcrumb trail for rescuers to follow. If you have charcoal from a camp or signal fire, scratching directions or notes into rocks is a very common method of leaving signs of where you may have gone. Other ways may include leaving pieces of clothing or non-vital equipment, something that may be recognizable by a friend or family member, letting the crews know they're hot on your trail.
Rescue can take only a few hours in some cases, but will commonly persist for several days, if not longer, depending on where you are, and how difficult it will be to find you. Keeping yourself busy is the most important thing to do, as downtime can lead to negative thoughts which will effect your overall survival capability. Crafting a shelter, gathering firewood or signal fire materials, or foraging for food are all activities that are productive, but more importantly, keep your mind focused on a task at hand.
If any of us find ourselves lost, remember that hope is not lost, as people have gone missing and been found plenty of times, sometimes persisting for even years. As stated in the beginning, the best thing any of us can do is be properly prepared and plan accordingly, lowering the overall chance that rescue may be necessary.