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Lost? How to Signal for Help

It happens every year – people get stranded on a road trip or lost while hiking, camping or hunting and fishing. It could be anywhere, from a remote desert to a snowy mountain back. Knowing how to stay comfortable and signal for help are some of your biggest concerns when you’re stuck or lost. Here are a few basic rules for surviving and how to attract attention in order to get rescued.

The Basics

Unless you’re in danger, stay with your vehicle – be it an automobile, boat or plane. If you’re on foot, in most cases it’s typically best to stay right where you are as soon as you realize you’re lost. The reason is simple: Rescuers usually pick up a trail and follow it; if you continue to move and wander aimlessly, you’re only prolonging the fiasco. Cars, boats and plane wreckage are usually more visible from the air than a single human.

If imminent danger forces you to leave your vehicle, the most important things you’ll need to survive are water and protection from the elements. You can last weeks without food, but only days without water, so make sure you have a supply of with you at all times, when possible.

Shelter from the elements, be it freezing or scorching temps, moisture, wind or the sun, is your next concern. You need to stay comfortable – meaning within survivable means, not sit-on-the-couch comfortable – and protected from the effects of Mother Nature. Layer clothing if you’re in cold climates, and wear waterproof or water-resistant clothing on the outside if moisture is a threat, especially if combined with freezing temps, or light, protective clothing that will shelter you from sunburn in desert climates.

If it’s likely to be a multi-day trek, think about how you’ll protect yourself adequately while you sleep. You can build shelters and insulate yourself against the cold of the ground with natural vegetation, but if you have a spare plastic garbage bag on hand or anything comparable, stuff it in your pocket as you’ve got another tool to help keep yourself dry and insulated.

If you’re searching for civilization, stick to established roads and rivers as much as possible. Eventually, they lead somewhere – rivers flow into oceans or lakes, both of which usually have people nearby, and roads, if you’re headed in the right direction, usually lead to larger, more traveled roads, homes or cabins.

However, before you begin, you have to have a logical plan. Figure out where you’re heading and why. Do you have a map or know for certainty which direction safety is found? If not, stay where you are, hunker down and start finding food, water and shelter while making yourself as easy to find as possible.

How to Get Found

If your cell phone doesn’t work and you’re overdue for arrival or someone misses you, eventually they’re going to call authorities to report your absence. Unless you regularly disappear for long stretches of time, authorities will typically launch a search, and they’ll begin working your planned route and likely spots where something could have gone wrong – which is why you stay put. To aid in your discovery, you want to be as conspicuous as possible – and audible and visual signs are the most obvious signals you use:

  • Audible: Making noise can get you un-lost, and it can be as simple as yelling to alert other hikers if you’re turned around on a trail. For extended periods of sounding an alert, whistles work better than yelling, and the pitch usually carries further than a voice, too. On boats, an air horn can send an audible blast across a bay. Hunters can signal for help by firing three shots in rapid succession.
  • Visual: Setting yourself apart from the natural surroundings is the most important part of being seen from a distance. Using a mirror to reflect sunlight during the day or a flashlight at night can signal pilots, smoke from a fire will catch people’s attention and bright clothing waved or laid out in the open can alert rescuers to your presence.
  • Electronics: While not foolproof, devices such as GPS units can help give you a lay of the land if you zoom out and can define a direction of travel. Be sure to conserve batteries by turning it off and only checking it when necessary to verify your track. Two must-have technologies that can help save your life virtually anywhere are a satellite phone and personal locator beacon (PLB). Satellite phones give you the ability to call for help no matter where you are; but unless you’re planning a dangerous or remote trip, it’s unlikely that anyone would carry one. PLBs, on the other hand, are fairly inexpensive, can be packed in your car’s trunk or glove box or shoved in a coat pocket. Unless you’re underground, they can signal authorities (via satellite) to your exact location within about three minutes of activation.

Image: Courtesy of Ryan.Padilla on Flickr

Brian Lynn
As an editor and writer for such publications as ESPN.com and Outdoor Life, Brian has extensive experience in the outdoors realm. However, his knowledge comes with at the price of experience. You can learn a lot from him because he’s done most of it wrong the first time and can tell you all about what you should do instead.

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