If you are stranded in a backcountry setting and you need to be rescued, effective communication can be one of your most important resources. Know the distress and rescue communications conventions, and plan quickly to communicate your distress signal so that you can attract the attention you need before it’s too late.
Radio or Phone for Help - If you have a cell phone, communicate your need for rescue by calling 911, even if you don’t think you have cell phone coverage. If you are able to connect with emergency responders, give them the details they need, and don’t hang up until they let you go. Sometimes an emergency call can be detected when you don’t think the call will go through, and emergency response agencies may be able to determine your location when receiving the call. If you have a radio, plan ahead by writing down local and national search and rescue frequencies. Call out, “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY,” in groups of three to signal your distress. Also say your name, location, nature of the emergency, and number of people in distress. Continue repeating the information.
Plan Your Signal Location - Whether or not you have alerted an emergency agency to your distress, build signals to mark your location. Choose a wide, open area for your signals, and choose the highest area in your surroundings.
Signal in Threes - Once you have found the best location for a visual signal, repeat the signal three times in the shape of a triangle. Communicating a signal three times in the shape of a triangle is an internationally understood distress signal. Build three fires in the shape of a triangle, or build three gigantic X marks with stones in the shape of a triangle, or build three rock and debris piles in the shape of a triangle to signal your presence.
Signal Fires and Smoke - Fire is the best visual signal to use at night, as the bright flame will attract search parties. Similarly, the smoke from fires can attract rescuers during the day. Build a signal fire as you would build a campfire, with fire rings to enclose any fire you start in a wilderness area to prevent endangering yourself or starting a fire that burns out of control. Create three smoke fires during the day by first building a strong fire; add live vegetation, green moss, grasses, or even water to the fire to create smoke.
Signal to Aircraft - Rescue aircraft will be looking for your signals if you’ve arranged them in an open area. On a sunny day, you can further attract attention with objects that reflect the sun’s light, such as a rescue mirror--or even other bright objects that you might have with you such as a shiny water bottle, a reflective particle of clothing such as a belt buckle, or a foil emergency blanket. Hold the mirror or other reflective object at its edges to increase its reflective surface. Aiming a signal mirror requires practice, as you need to capture the sun’s rays and then use the mirror to reflect them in the direction of rescue aircraft. Several different types of survival rescue mirrors exist with built-in sight and aiming aids. Once you have attracted the attention of rescue aircraft, stand upright with your arms overhead in the shape of a Y to indicate--yes--you need to be rescued. If you are unable to stand up, signal with your arms overhead in a Y position while you lie on the ground. You may wave your arms back and forth in a crosswise position overhead, but begin and end your waving from the Y position, which is the clear rescue signal.
Other Rescue Signals - Use auditory signals, such as whistles, in addition to the visual signals you construct. Personal Locator Beacons, or PLBs, may also be used to signal distress if you have one with you. Additionally, satellite phones can help you communicate distress in areas where cell phones won’t work. Advance planning and preparation can lead to greater success with these and other signal devices.