Lost & Alone

How to survive when everything goes wrong.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

June 8, 2004, was very nearly the last day on earth for Bob Williams. On day four of a planned three-month solo canoe trip down the Yukon River, after 16 hours of paddling, he was overcome by exhaustion. He nodded off for a moment and his canoe capsized. When the stabbing cold water jolted him awake, he grabbed onto the partially submerged canoe. Swift current swept him and the canoe downriver, where steep bluffs bordered both banks. After half an hour he found water shallow enough for him to bail out the canoe and climb back aboard. By then, Williams's hands were numb; he was exhausted and spitting up blood. He drifted on the current until he found a sandbar, where he landed the canoe.

Williams realized that his life was in serious peril. Reaching inside his coat, he pulled out his ACR personal locator beacon (PLB) and activated it. Then he collapsed. Within minutes, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center processed the distress alert, and in four and a half hours, Bob Williams was found-alive but in need of serious medical treatment. His PLB had saved his life.

Sportsmen At Risk
Outdoorsmen are among the most likely people to be involved in a search-and-rescue (SAR) event. It's because we're out there doing things, not just sitting home watching television. We go where the mountains are high and rugged; where elk bugle through misty forests so deep you get the feeling nobody has been there before; where the current runs strong and big fish fight hard; where sudden storms can catch us unprepared; and where the smallest accident can swallow us up and never reveal its secret. So it's entirely possible for any of us to become caught up in a search-and-rescue mission.

If you become lost in the wild, you have a responsibility to help the rescue team find you. I spoke with Larry Nickey, the Fire, Aviation and Emergency Services director for Olympic National Park, to hear recommendations from someone who coordinates SAR operations on a professional level. He's involved in 15 to 20 major searches each year and up to 70 minor ones, requiring people on the ground, search dogs and helicopters.

"One of the best things people can do to assist search-and-rescue teams is to go into the backcountry prepared," Nickey told me. "Take responsibility for yourself. If you get into trouble, stop and think for a few minutes, take a few deep breaths and figure your way out of the problem."

If you end up being the subject of a search, there are things you can do to help the process toward a successful conclusion. Your highest priority is to take all the steps necessary to ensure that you will still be alive when the search team arrives. In other words, medical situations must be stabilized, shelter must be erected and fire must be established. Those survival issues must be taken care of, or the rescue effort will turn into a recovery mission.

[pagebreak] The First 24 Hours
If you've filed your version of a "flight plan" back home, your family or friends can alert search and rescue in the event you're overdue. According to Nickey, a search might not be initiated for another 24 hours, because so many people simply end up falling behind schedule and aren't really in the kind of trouble that justifies helicopters, dogs and search teams. That means you need to be able to handle things on your own, at least long enough for the search to get underway.

But when you're truly in serious trouble and being saved is a matter of being rescued by outside help, you need to do everything possible to make sure the SAR team finds you in a hurry. After securing your immediate safety, your highest priority is to make your position obvious to the world. No matter how many well-trained searchers are scouring the hills or flying grid patterns, if they can't see you or hear you, they can't rescue you. Whether or not they find you in time to save your life wl depend a lot on your own actions. We're talking signaling, both visible and audible.

Make Them See You
First try to figure out the most likely spot for searchers to look, then go there and make yourself visible. If possible, establish your camp out in the open in a hillside clearing, on a bare ridge, away from overgrowths of foliage-in short, where you'll be the most obvious thing around. Then make every effort to disturb the surroundings, so an observer will have no trouble seeing that things don't look natural.

* Clear the brush and pile it up to spell "SOS" in huge letters.
* Dig a trench spelling "SOS"; pile the dirt alongside.
* Pile rocks to make a big SOS.
* Drag deadfall into the clearing and shape it into an SOS.

You might not think a big SOS on the ground will do much good, but what you're creating is a pattern of raised objects that will cast a shadow against the ground. In snow country, the contrast can be exceptionally easy to spot, especially if you can remove the snow right down to the soil in the area of the SOS. Observed from a plane or a distant ridge, an unnatural pattern of contrast such as this will immediately catch the eye of a rescuer.

Color and Motion
Along with creating recognizable patterns, put color to work for you. If you have a brightly colored backpack, sleeping bag, tent fly or some article of clothing, spread these things around in the clearing or hoist them on a pole so they can flap in the wind.

A reflective Space Blanket can be especially effective. Camouflage isn't going to help get you spotted, but your hunter orange vest or cap might.

Plan ahead and carry some brightly colored panels of lightweight nylon material with the rest of your survival gear. Install a grommet in each corner and tie a couple of feet of parachute cord to each grommet. When you need them, these rescue flags just might save the day. Even if you hunker down in the trees at night to stay dry or get out of the wind, get these colorful items out in the open at the break of day, when the search is likely to resume.

"The easiest thing for us to see from a helicopter is movement," Larry Nickey explains. "One time, we actually flew low and slow right over someone who needed to be rescued, and he stood there, very still, watching us fly past. We never saw the guy. Later, after we had successfully rescued him, he told us that we had passed right overhead but hadn't spotted him. We asked why he wasn't waving a colorful piece of clothing or something. His answer was, 'Well, I thought you'd see me.'"

The lesson? Don't hide in the trees or down in a tight canyon where you'll be almost impossible to spot. Don't sit there like a bump on a log. Get out in the open and wave something when the aircraft flies over.

[pagebreak] Smoke and Mirrors
Smoke and mirrors aren't just for magicians; they're valuable signaling techniques during daylight hours. A big column of smoke can be seen from miles away. Three columns of smoke will be recognized as a distress signal. Create billowy white smoke by gradually feeding green leafy material or grasses into a fire, or black smoke by burning anything made of a petroleum product. If the wind dissipates the smoke before it can form columns, maybe the scent will drift into adjacent areas and catch someone's attention. The nice thing about smoke is that it's an omnidirectional signal.

"Be careful with fire," Nickey warns, "The last thing you want to do is set a forest fire." If you let a fire get out of control, it might be the very thing that kills you- and perhaps others as well. With signal fires, follow standard safety practices for where you build and how you manage the blaze. A signal mirror can be seen for many miles, but it is directional, flashing a narrow beam that can be spotted only when it is aimed directly at the viewer. To make a signal mirror more effective, sweep the horizon, back and forth, so someone on the receiving end will see repetitive flashes of light and be able to zero in on its point of origin. If you hear a plane overhead, sweep the sky in the direction of the sound. When the plane is in view, don't hold the beam on it and blind the pilot. Sweep past it several times until the plane makes a pass overhead and has a fix on your position. If you don't have a signal mirror, use whatever reflective surfaces you have, even the shiny lid from a pot, a CD or a tent pole.

At night, your meticulously laid out SOS patterns won't be visible, nor will your colorful panels or your smoke and mirrors. At night, the only visual signal that works is light.

Fire Up!
An arrangement of three fires is recognized as a distress signal. Form them in a triangle or in a straight line, spread far enough apart that they will not appear as one visual image from a distance.

Search-and-rescue teams carry foolproof fire starters, not just inexpensive little lighters, which are easy to fumble with numb, frozen fingers. You want a substantial lighter that fits in your fist and breathes fire like a dragon. Among the best are the Brunton Helios Stormproof and the Windmill Delta Shockproof. Both are refillable butane lighters that won't be blown out. They might seem expensive (around $60), but they'll work when nothing else will.

Some SAR specialists carry lightweight marine flares or road flares in their packs because they're easy to ignite and will set even damp material on fire. They are also effective signals if someone is near enough to see them.

So far, we've concentrated on visible signals, but in order for them to work, somebody has to be looking in your direction.

Audible signals are the other half of the equation; you can call attention to yourself even if nobody happens to be looking your way. When you need to attract searchers, live loud. Carry a police whistle and use it if you think people are in your vicinity. Blowing a whistle three times (a universally recognized distress signal) uses far less energy than screaming until your throat is raw. You'll stay calmer, too. Bang pots, sing to the trees and talk to yourself (stick to positive stuff, though). Just keep the noise level up, so if someone wanders by, they will know that you're there.

One piece of audible equipment I have is called an Ecohorn. It's an empty plastic bottle attached to a very loud horn device, and it comes with a small pump so you can refill the bottle with compressed air. It produces more than 50 blasts at 115 decibels before you need to refill. You can find it for $30 at West Marine. (westmarine.com)

[pagebreak] Call for Help
With a phone or a radio, you can contact som aimed directly at the viewer. To make a signal mirror more effective, sweep the horizon, back and forth, so someone on the receiving end will see repetitive flashes of light and be able to zero in on its point of origin. If you hear a plane overhead, sweep the sky in the direction of the sound. When the plane is in view, don't hold the beam on it and blind the pilot. Sweep past it several times until the plane makes a pass overhead and has a fix on your position. If you don't have a signal mirror, use whatever reflective surfaces you have, even the shiny lid from a pot, a CD or a tent pole.

At night, your meticulously laid out SOS patterns won't be visible, nor will your colorful panels or your smoke and mirrors. At night, the only visual signal that works is light.

Fire Up!
An arrangement of three fires is recognized as a distress signal. Form them in a triangle or in a straight line, spread far enough apart that they will not appear as one visual image from a distance.

Search-and-rescue teams carry foolproof fire starters, not just inexpensive little lighters, which are easy to fumble with numb, frozen fingers. You want a substantial lighter that fits in your fist and breathes fire like a dragon. Among the best are the Brunton Helios Stormproof and the Windmill Delta Shockproof. Both are refillable butane lighters that won't be blown out. They might seem expensive (around $60), but they'll work when nothing else will.

Some SAR specialists carry lightweight marine flares or road flares in their packs because they're easy to ignite and will set even damp material on fire. They are also effective signals if someone is near enough to see them.

So far, we've concentrated on visible signals, but in order for them to work, somebody has to be looking in your direction.

Audible signals are the other half of the equation; you can call attention to yourself even if nobody happens to be looking your way. When you need to attract searchers, live loud. Carry a police whistle and use it if you think people are in your vicinity. Blowing a whistle three times (a universally recognized distress signal) uses far less energy than screaming until your throat is raw. You'll stay calmer, too. Bang pots, sing to the trees and talk to yourself (stick to positive stuff, though). Just keep the noise level up, so if someone wanders by, they will know that you're there.

One piece of audible equipment I have is called an Ecohorn. It's an empty plastic bottle attached to a very loud horn device, and it comes with a small pump so you can refill the bottle with compressed air. It produces more than 50 blasts at 115 decibels before you need to refill. You can find it for $30 at West Marine. (westmarine.com)

[pagebreak] Call for Help
With a phone or a radio, you can contact som