Attracting attention, what to do when lost

Much debate is held by the attendees on our H.E.A.T. courses with regards to rescue.  A common request is how to attract attention and what to do when lost.   A survivor is anyone who is rescued from a hostile environment, whether such an environment exists on land, sea or in an urban setting.  You can get lost at any time, and for many reasons, so you must know how to signal and attract the attention of a search party.

The most basic form of signalling is a whistle, but you must know how to use a whistle. Whatever whistle you have, the International Whistle Code is as follows:

  • One blast of the whistle means – Where are you?
  • Two blasts of the whistle means – Come to me
  • Three blasts of the whistle means – I need help

Apart from a whistle, you can also use other signalling devices such as smoke and fire.  Three fires or three columns of smoke are internationally recognised distress signals.

Fire is very effective for signalling at night and a burning tree can become a blazing beacon to attract attention. To make such a beacon, select a tree that is standing away from other trees, collect and place dry wood in the lower branches before setting it alight.  The fire will spread up the tree by igniting the lower branches; whilst in turn will ignite the branches above. Likewise, you can burn a tree or a bush along your direction of travel, whilst you will help to orientate when lost.

In daylight, signal fires can be built with smoke that should contrast with the surrounding ground.  For white smoke, put green leaves, moss or damp wood on the fire.  For black smoke, add rubber tyres, or oil-soaked material.

If the sun is out, you can use mirrors, belt buckles, vehicle hub cabs or other shiny material to reflect the sun’s rays.  Mirror signals can be seen for over 100 kilometres under normal circumstances and can be seen from much further away in a desert environment.  There are also a range of commercially manufactured signalling devices including hand-held flares, paulin signals and radios.  If you happen to have access to tracer ammunition, use it.  When fired, the tracer round appears as an orange/red flash and the noise will carry for a couple of miles.

You can also use Morse code to transmit messages by switching flashing lights on and off.  You can also wave a flag by tying a shirt to a stick –for a “dash”, swing the flag to the left and make a figure of eight, and for a “dot”, swing to the right and make a figure of eight.

Body signals and ground-to-air signals can also be used to ensure that you attract aircraft to your position.

These signals are taught to attendees during our H.E.A.T. course and provide more information to know what to do when lost.