In a survival scenario where rescue is expected, one of the best tips I can give is that you stay in one spot. This lethargic approach may seem wrong, but it makes you a fixed target – which is the easiest target to find. But if the terrain is tricky enough to get you lost and you’re short on gear, it may be a real challenge for search and rescue to find their way to you. For this situation, you can assist in your own rescue by staying in an area and using these primitive signals to become an active participant in your own salvation.
1. Rock cairns
A cairn is a stack or tower of rocks that is clearly man-made. These simple structures are often used in rocky treeless terrain to mark trails and provide landmarks. The same rock stack can be a signpost to search and rescue crews, especially if you incorporate an arrow to lead them in the right direction. Cairns can be easy to make if flat rocks are available, but even with chunky rocks you can still build this pathfinding pillar.
2. Charcoal arrows
If you happen to get a fire going in a woodland environment, you can use partially burned sticks as “charcoal pencils” to write messages and draw arrows on trees, rocks and other materials. These messages can be simple words like “help” or “SOS”, or you can leave more detailed messages. Arrows can also be drawn that point toward your camp. These can be done in a circle around your survival camp and even set up in concentric rings around your campsite. These arrows can be just the ticket to lead search and rescue personnel right to your door. This trick is also handy for navigation in low light conditions and in bad weather. These marks are long lasting, but do not harm the trees or leave a permanent scar on the landscape.
3. Signal fire
Fire is your best friend in the wild, when it is doing what it is supposed to do, and fire can be used as a very effective signal for help, with many documented successes over the past centuries. Remember that there is a fine line of control when lighting and maintaining big fires. This line is often imaginary, and is actually controlled by the wind and the amount of dry vegetation downwind of the blaze.
Consider these important things about signal fires:
—The fire should be in a very visible place, so that both the smoke and light are visible.
—The fire should be in a place where it won’t get away from you. The middle of the dried grasslands on a breezy day is a very bad place to burn a big fire.
—Don’t let the fire get so big that you cannot put it out with the means you have at hand.
—Think about contrast. Unless you have a ton of birch bark, everything else you would burn in the wild will likely produce a white smoke. If it is a cloudy day or foggy, no one will notice your white smoke. Throw a few ounces of motor oil, brake fluid, cooking oil, or any other oily substance into the fire to produce black smoke, which is much more noticeable.
And a final thought about signal fires, put them out cold when they have done their job. Before the chopper lifts you out, or the search party escorts you away—put the fire out with water and make sure it is dead.
Tell us how you’d signal for help without any modern equipment.