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Simple Survival Signals

Simple Survival Signals by Gary Benton
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The day dawns with temperatures in the teens and a fresh blanket of virgin snow covering the ground. Your whole body shivers as you stroke the almost dead campfire back to life. You stop working with the fire when you faintly start to hear an aircraft approaching. Your excitement builds, and you start to yell and scream for help. Then, disappoint settles deep in your mind as you hear the plane pass overhead and then fly off away from your position. It only takes a few minutes for you to realize, your site was not spotted. You suddenly realize you will not be rescued today.

Let us look at how we attract attention in survival situations. We can stand on our heads, while we clap our hands, but I am not sure that would work. There are, however, other means of making sure we are rescued in a timely manner. Most, but not all, of these means of signaling are best done by using the senses of smell, sight, or hearing. Most effective primitive signals are made using the sense of sight.

One method that is not visual is the use of electronic devices. If you have an emergency locator beacon (ELT) or a cell phone, you are in good shape. Well, things are great and easy as long as the batteries last. Try to prolong battery life by using the radio or phone at certain times (When I was in the military we briefed our folks to transmit and receive at 15 minutes before and after each hour). Batteries will eventually die and then we’ll have to revert to more primitive methods of attracting attention.

Your vehicle lights can be used to signal with as well. By flashing your lights on and off you will draw attention to your site. Lights work well when stranded in a car or truck and waiting rescue at night. You can flash an SOS (Save Our Souls), international emergency code, by flashing three dots, three dashes, and then three dots. Dots are quick signals whereas dashes are longer (It would look like this, . . . —. . .).

Signal mirrors, or shinny metal (Heliographs), are about as basic as a person can get The best part of using something that shines, is the lack of a battery that will eventually die. The drawback is you must have sunlight for the device to work. Nonetheless, most of the time the United States has sunshine, with the exception of short periods of time when we experience adverse weather conditions.

You should practice using a signal mirror until you can pretty much aim the flash to strike any area you choose. You will be surprised how well you will do with just a little practice. A word of advice here, once you get a person’s attention with the flash, do not continue flashing in their eyes, it makes rescue more difficult when your rescuers cannot see. Instead, aim the flash at the rear of an aircraft, truck, or group of people. That way, if your rescuers veer off course a bit, you can easily flash them in the face once more, then you should move the flash to the rear again. A piece of smooth metal will work almost as well as a signal mirror (I carry a small mirror in my survival kit).

Another way to attract attention is by using fires. At night, the light from your campfire will draw attention. In the daytime, your fire is a good signal as well. By adding oil, cedar boughs or other things to a burning fire you will change the color of its smoke. Remember, three fires spaced in a triangle shape, is the international signal for help. It means you cannot move on, or, in other words, you need assistance Do not let your fire get out of control. A forest fire is dangerous and greatly reduces your chances to survive.

Placing a large “I” means you have a very serious injury in your group, while “X” means you are not able to proceed any longer. There is a whole group of ground codes and I will not get into what all of them mean, but the two above are the most important to remember (If you are interested in the other symbols, you can find them in most good survival books or manuals at your local library). You can pile wood or rocks to cast shadows, trample the snow, or else clear (or add) brush or grass to make the signal. Use a rough ratio of about six to one. I would suggest your width be 3 feet, minimum, while the length would be 18 feet. Have you ever driven by a handmade sign and discovered you could not read the print? Well, pilot’s looking for you could have the same problem with your signals! They have to be able to see it! The important thing to remember when making a ground to air signal is to disturb the surroundings enough to draw attention to your area. I like to think of it as contrast and the human eye.

Three gunshots in quick order are also considered signals. The three shots indicate you need help and cannot proceed alone. The key here, if you have not guessed it by now, is the use of three of anything. It is just understood by rescuers as a signal of distress.

If you are lucky enough to be a survivor and have a vehicle nearby, you have just hit to mother lode. While most cars, trucks, and aircraft make very poor shelters, they are a gold mine of resources for the survivor. In this article I am mainly interest in signals, so I will not address the various ways vehicles can be put to various survival usage. But, you can burn the fuel and oil to make signals (use extreme caution with the fuel), the insulation and tires generate smoke, and the mirrors, glass, and chrome make good reflectors. Even a headlight can be removed, rewired, and using the vehicles electrical system used to signal passing aircraft. The list is limited only by your imagination.

By day you should use smoke, and by night use light, to attract attention to your survival site. Remember you want to make a contrast against the background. If the day is dark and gloomy, you want light colored smoke. If the day is bright, use dark smoke. At night, of course, light is best.

You may not believe this, but one piece of valuable equipment is a whistle. Get a good quality one and keep it in your survival kit. A loud whistle can be heard for a long distance (at longer distances than a human voice) and it can be useful when you know rescuers are nearby. Additionally, you can use it to signal between members in your group if one of them strays off the beaten path for some reason, It is a good idea to blow the whistle in three long blasts (once again, a series of three).

If you have a vehicle, keep the snow off the top and sides as much as you can. Depending on the color of the vehicle, it can aid in your rescue. Do not use the vehicle as a permanent shelter because it will either be too hot or too cold, but as a signaling device. Additionally, have one fire burning all the time, and two others (numbers two and three of your fire signal triangle) ready to light. I would have the numbers two and three piled high with pine or cedar bought. Be very aware of fire safety at these fires. The last thing you need is to start a forest fire. Also, remember if you trampled down snow for a signal and it continues to snow, you will eventually have to redo the signal. The falling snow will fill your tracks quickly.

The key to signals is to draw attention. Look around you and think how you can make the area stand out more. It is helpful if you keep in mind, at least three of our five senses, sight, hearing, smelling, can be used to signal with. Disturb the natural surroundings; draw attention to your survival site, and you too will be a survivor!

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