Most survivalists and preppers take pride in being self-sufficient. However, even the most skilled and prepared among us could easily find ourselves stranded and in need of rescue.
For example, debilitating injuries or illnesses can occur in the blink of an eye. You may be hiking on your favorite trail and then suddenly sprawled out on the ground with a freshly broken ankle. Perhaps you fail to treat your drinking water properly and wind up with a belly full of dangerous microorganisms. They render you dangerously dehydrated and unable to make it back to civilization.
In either of these cases or any of the countless other situations that may occur when traveling through wilderness areas, you’ll likely need help extricating yourself from the situation. While help may occasionally arrive via land or water, most rescuers will search from the air. Searching from the air is especially likely if you’re in an especially remote area.
The Challenges Air Rescuers Face
While helicopters and airplanes provide a number of advantages to rescuers, they also present a few challenges. Increase the chances of being rescued by taking into consideration the challenges such rescuers face. Air travel gives rescuers a bird’s eye view and allows them to cover vast areas quickly. It creates the challenge of trying to spot a stranded hiker amid thousands of forested acres. Make yourself as visible as possible to make it easier for the rescuers to notice you.
It’s also difficult to communicate with these types of distant rescuers. They’ll never be able to hear you shouting instructions. They won’t be able to read your lips or interpret complicated hand signals given the heights and distances involved.
Accordingly, you’ll want to communicate with the rescuers by using universal ground signals. These signals are easy to learn, implement, and understand. Plus, they don’t change based on your location. They’ll work in the backwoods of Alabama, the southern shores of Australia, or the Siberian tundra. As the name implies, they’re designed to be universally understood. They also stand out in the natural world and make you easier to spot.
What are the Universal Ground Signals and How Do They Work?
Universal ground signals help those stuck on the ground to communicate with rescuers or others traveling through the air. It’s also worth mentioning that universal ground signals may also provide value when trying to communicate with those on higher ground, such as a mountainside or lookout tower. For example, hidden hazards may be present that the rescuers will need to avoid. You could also be situated some distance from those who are in need of help.
In either case, or countless others, universal ground signals will make these messages easier to convey. Universal ground signals are easy to deliver and interpret. They work for communication when you don’t have radios, phones, or other tools. They’re designed to stand out amid natural backdrops. Things like right angles and straight lines are rare to non-existent in nature.
Important Universal Ground Signals to Know
We’ve listed the five basic universal ground signals below. Either dedicate them to memory or print out a cheat sheet and stash it in your wallet, backpack, or bug-out bag.
V – Need Assistance
X – Require Medical Assistance
N – No / Negative
Y – Yes / Affirmative
→ – This Direction (orient arrow in the appropriate direction)
Some organizations such as various branches of the U.S. Military and rescue groups also use more complex signaling alphabets. They’ll still understand the simplified version presented above.
If you can’t remember the five signals listed above or fear that they’re not conveying your message properly, simply make an SOS signal. It doesn’t matter how you do it as long as the signal includes three short signals followed by three long signals followed by three short signals. For example, you could blow three short blasts on your whistle, three long blasts, and then three short blasts in a continuous sequence. Visually, you could also arrange sticks to spell out SOS.
Size and Style
Be sure the signals are the correct size, simple to interpret, and that they’re easy to read. This essentially means following the three guidelines listed below:
- Always make the signals as large as is reasonably possible. Being larger makes them more likely to be noticed by rescuers. Generally speaking, you’ll want to strive to make the symbols at least 20 feet long.
- Utilize a 2:3 ratio when making the signals. For example, if you make the symbols 20 feet wide then they’ll need to be 30 feet long. This type of ratio will help ensure that the symbols stand out and are easy to see.
- Try to make the lines as straight as possible. Straight lines are very rare in nature and they’ll stand out better against natural backdrops.
Effective Use of Universal Ground Signals
Begin by deciding how you’re going to create your message. You can create the universal ground signals in a number of different ways:
- Arrange rocks or branches on the ground into the shapes.
- Dig a trench in soft soil or sand.
- Cut fabric and stretch it out.
- Use your body.
- Write with snow on a dark surface.
Use whichever method makes the most sense for your circumstances and the supplies available to you. As with almost every other aspect of survival, your brain and critical thinking skills offer the best chances of making it home alive.
Note that you’ll want to place the signals in a place that is easy to see from the air. For example, you may be able to find an exposed rocky outcrop in an otherwise forested area. Beaches, forest clearings, and exposed mountain tops may also work well.
Draw as Much Attention to the Symbols as Possible
Once you’ve made the signals on the ground, do everything possible to attract the attention of rescuers. Make a large fire so that smoke rises to help make you more visible. Throw green vegetation on top of the fire to create a thick stream of dark smoke which is more likely to be noticed than the light gray smoke rising above most campfires.
You could also use a signaling mirror to help attract the attention of passing planes or helicopters. Try to use just about any shiny surface if you don’t have a signal mirror. Use a bit of grit and water or toothpaste to polish the bottom of an aluminum can. If you make it shiny enough, it’ll serve as a very effective signaling device.
If you have a large amount of fabric, make flags to help catch the attention of planes or helicopters flying overhead. Flags will billow in the wind, which will help make them more conspicuous. Make the flags from red, orange, or blue fabric if possible as they’ll stand out against the foliage. Try to arrange the flags in a geometric pattern or even have them resemble the universal ground signals.
Hopefully, you’ll never find yourself stranded and in need of rescue. Because it’s wise to prepare for all eventualities. Familiarize yourself with the universal ground signals detailed above. Just remember to make the symbols as large as you can, keep the lines straight, and try to set up in an area that’ll make them easy to see.
With a bit of luck, you’ll be found by rescuers and find it easy to communicate with them to help facilitate your rescue.
This article was originally published in Survival Dispatch Insider Volume 2 Issue 6.