An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and that saying goes double when you’re planning a trip into the great outdoors. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to leave word with someone before you leave about where you will be going and at what time you plan to return.
Should you find yourself stranded in the outdoors, the key to your rescue is your ability to create good signals for potential rescuers to see. The first thing you should do is light a fire. A large fire creates a signal in the daylight and darkness of night. At night, choose kindling for a fire that does not create a lot of smoke.
Create three fires in the outline of a triangle, because if these are seen from the air they will be recognized as the symbol for distress, and will be less likely to be mistaken for a simple campfire. When choosing the location for your fire, make sure it is an open location without a lot of foliage blocking the view. Also, have water on hand should the fire spread beyond your control. A raging forest fire would endanger your life and make rescue impossible.
If there is an isolated tree nearby, you can create a tree torch by setting it on fire. If it is a pitch-bearing tree, you simply have to ignite the tree. If it is not pitch bearing, pile dry kindling around the tree and ignite it. The kindling fire will spread to the foliage of the tree. Keep your tree torch burning by adding to it as it consumes the tree.
Keep the home fires burning; you’ll need fire night and day. At night, it’s obvious that the light will attract rescuers. During the day, when the firelight is less visible, you can still attract attention using smoke. Add green kindling or grass to your fire, or if they’re available, try using evergreen boughs, which will produce a thick, dark smoke sure to catch someone’s attention.
Another way to signal for help is to signal to low-flying aircraft. Using a mirror reflecting the sunlight, you can flash the S-O-S symbol at low-flying aircraft. Avoid flashing the mirror directly at the cockpit, as that will cause the pilot to have difficulty seeing. At night or in times when there is not a lot of sunlight, the same affect can be accomplished using a strong flashlight. Always carry a flashlight and extra batteries when venturing outdoors.
If none of these techniques work, use brightly-colored clothing to attract attention. Hang a bright scarf or coat from the top of a high tree, or arrange clothing in a pattern on the ground to draw attention from the air. Do not leave yourself too vulnerable to the elements by removing too much clothing though.
You can even create signals using natural materials, such as tree branches or rocks, that can be viewed from the air. Try spelling out S-O-S or HELP with rocks or branches. Remember to use a material that will stand in contrast to your surroundings. If there is snow on the ground, walk in the snow to form the letters, and fill in the path with dark material, like rocks or tree branches.
Creativity is the key. Use whatever resources you have available to create something that is out of the ordinary in the surrounding landscape. The idea is to get any observers to stop and take a closer look. Safety is still the ultimate goal, though. You don’t want to create a signal that will threaten the safety of you or anyone else. Do your best to find something to drink, food, and shelter from the elements, and create a good signal to attract help so that you can soon be on your way.