How to locate a person requiring rescue

survivor locatedWe have looked at a simple overview of the 5 basic survival priorities. I put a “bit more meat on the bones” on the Protection element of PLWF,  I am now going to address the Location part and how to locate a person lost in the wild.
Firstly, I want to re-emphasise the importance of following the PLWF flowchart and always addressing the Protection element first. There is no point having a location aid that can be seen from the moon and it’s lying next to your cold dead body! The only person (or thing) that helps is the hungry wildlife…

As great as it is having your amazing Swiss Family Robinson survival shelter, eventually you will want to be rescued (I hope?!) For this to happen you have 2 options, sit on your butt and hope someone isn’t as lazy as you and will actually try to look for you, or you can actively try to assist in your rescue. The more effort you can put into this priority then the quicker you are likely to be rescued.

Search and Rescue

So you have your amazing shelter built, you are dry and warm with your inferno of a campfire burning nearby. All you need to actually enjoy your predicament is some marshmallows and hot chocolate. Unfortunately, you have a family to get home to, so you have to think about being rescued.

The rescue part is easy, trust me on this one, I have used many a helicopter rescue hoist in my time and it never takes more than 15 – 20 mins to get someone out once you find them. The hard part of Search and Rescue is the search phase and how to locate a person who is lost. You have an unwritten deal with the guys that are looking for you. They will risk their neck to get you out, and you have to stay alive and help them find you. The easiest way to be found is use a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), more on this later.

rescue flareNow, depending where you are needing rescued from, this can be relatively easy i.e. nice wide plan open plain or really difficult; dense rain forest or in the sea. Regardless,  your actions need to be the same; you have to use whatever is at your disposal to attract the attention of someone, even if it is not rescue forces initialy.

PPPPPP or 6 P’s

Prior Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance! This is another catchphrase that my instructors shouted at me during basic training, normally after I got wet, lost some kit or generally did something pretty dumb. At the time I hated that phrase, I mean REALLY hated it. As time went on and my military skills developed I (very grudgingly) realised that it stands true. The more prep you can do before going out of the door, the easier and quicker your rescue is likely to be.

So what kind of prep?

The easiest thing you can do is leave your route and plans for that route with someone responsible. The pot-smoking guy across the street is probably not that person. It has to be someone who will actually listen to you and is responsible enough to alert the rescue services if you are overdue. Your plan should include the following –

Main route your will take
Alternative routes
Stop-off points, especially overnight
Bad weather routes
Kit you are carrying with you
And most important, timings of key events and checkpoints

Other prep you have to consider is training (like that at, this has to be done prior to heading into the wilderness. This training has to be practised in a benign environment until it is second nature and can be done when you are in a poor state of health should you be injured. Train hard, fight easy!

There are simple things that you can learn, such as –

  • Signal mirror useGround to Air codes
  • Using a Personal Locator Beacon
  • Using rescue flares
  • Using a whistle
  • Using a light
  • Using marker dye (sea survival)
  • Using a heliograph
  • How to build and light a smoke signal fire
  • What to expect on arrival of rescue assets

Rescue services know how to locate a person… However

You must do everything you can to assist in your rescue, you are an essential part in the chain and have an active part to play. When you know how to locate a person who is lost it will help you to assist your rescuers. Think about things from their point of view. They may have been looking for you for 12 hrs, they will most likely be tired, uncomfortable and are looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. With the best will in the world it is not easy to stay 100% focused for hours at a time. Anything you do to attract their attention will help you get home for tea and medals sooner.

The human eye is attracted to movement, therefore anything you can do to cause movement will immediately catch a rescuers eye. Unfortunately doing this in such a way that can be seen at a distance is difficult. To get around this problem you have to think a little outside the box.

So what can you do to help?

This is where knowing your kit – how to use it and being well practiced – will help you massively. In my experience something thats unusual and sticking out from the surrounding area will stand you in better stead. You are trying to use something with a colour that is different and/or contrasting with the surrounding area.

Something really simple like a heliograph can be seen from a LONG way off, I have seen one work from 25 miles away! For closer in searching there are other items that are really handy and useful such as strobe lights, smokey fires, flares and ground to air codes. I will look at these in future posts.
Click to enlarge image 1_fastfind_220.jpgThe one piece of kit I would highly recommend people invest in is a PLB. They are lightweight, relatively cheap, durable and actively gives your location whilst you are doing other things, like addressing the priorities of survival. In very simple terms, they transmit a radio signal on an international distress frequency that is monitored 24/7/365. There are several different versions and variations on a theme, which I will look at in detail in another post.

As soon as you find yourself in a survival situation, you can activate it (which takes about 3 seconds) and then start your PLWF Flowchart. This is one of the very few times I would deviate from Protection being the very first priority you address. I have used and been involved on the edge of some trials for the McMurdo FastFind PLB. Is is a great bit of kit – it has a 6 year battery life, its floats, waterproof to 33 feet and transmits on 121.5 mhz and 406 mhz (a very good thing). It even has an addition of a strobe on top. Suffice it to say I always have one with me when I am away from civilisation. Buy one today!

How to locate a person lost in the wild… Or not!

One word of warning on using high tech solutions, they don’t always work! What?! Surely they must do, they are cutting edge technology and cost me money? Well the unfortunate reality is that technology, by its very nature of being cutting edge, is built to a budget that has tight profit margins in a highly competitive industry. No matter what advertising spin a manufacturer will tell you, the components are always made by the cheapest bidder.

By the nature of what they are you cannot test a PLB as it would cause every Search and Rescue asset within 500 miles to get ready to launch and land you with a hefty fine! The first time you will use it will be in anger. If you have fallen and damaged the PLB or it is too cold for the battery or you have been separated from your PLB then you are screwed!… Well, thankfully not quite.

I always teach the military way of surviving; with is with the absolute minimum of kit i.e. None! Anyone can survive if they have a rucksack filled with warm kit, a tent, PLB and 20 litres of water. What do you do when you have none of that; well things just got interesting! This is where the 6 P’s come in.

Learn to make your location known without having any of your kit and when you are possibly injured. Have you ever tried to build a shelter or light a fire with 1 hand or with a broken leg? Try it, it will bring home the importance of 6 P’s.

So that is all I have for this post. I will be looking at Location in greater depth in future posts which will break down each of the components in a lot more detail.

how to locate a personThe key points to take away

• The 5 most important survival skills must be learnt, understood and utilised.
• The 6 P’s will ensure you are located as fast as possible.
• Have several location aids on your person i.e. in the clothing you are wearing.
Invest in a PLB today
• Practice making Location signals and whilst simulating injuries

Thanks for reading but dont leave yet as I have lots of other great info on my site, check it out now and please leave some comments below.

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  • Stanley

    I like this article you wrote as I learnt something about survival and get someone to rescue me when I get stuck. Getting a heliograph is important. Definitely I need to buy one when I go on a few days outdoor activity. It is definitely educational to read your article. Thanks for sharing.

    • Dave

      Thanks Stanley,

      Kind words always accepted 🙂

      I can honestly say that for money spent you will struggle to find a more worthwhile piece of survival equipment than a heliograph. I have so many of them and I even keep one in the car.

      If you are looking for one then I have lots available at the following link

  • Dave

    This is a very good resource for survival. I, also, have had similar training. Though, I can say I have never heard of the 6 P’s. The way you describe it, well, in the end it makes sense. Survival is the key when lost and injured. The people that risk their lives to save us in these situations do also need a bit of determination on the “rescue’ee”. Thank you for the great article.

    • Dave

      Dave, thanks for the kind words.

      I have heard of so many people who have died despite being in a (relatively) good situation and those that you would 100% expect to die that live to tell the tale. I often use the adage of “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”

  • Katharina Zeelenberg

    Hi Dave
    This is all great information; I shudder to think how I have put myself and others at risk in the past, by not giving it enough thought when venturing off the beaten track 🙂 I guess I have been extremely lucky and wont rely on “lady luck” any more.

    I will be sure to revisit so I’m prepared in future.

    • Katherine, thanks for your comments.

      Unfortunately there are a lot of people that do exactly what you are talking about and just disappear into the wilderness without much thought. I have had colleagues rescue people off of the tallest mountain in the UK in short and T-shirt!!! It was okay though as the couple “thought the weather might turn so we brought a waterproof jacket!”

      As I have said thousands of times to my students, “you will never be embarrassed by being too dry or too prepared” 🙂

  • Wing

    This article came in at just the right time for me! In about a month I’ll be driving to Vermont for a Spartan Race and it’ll be about a 6 hr drive. I plan to stay overnight before and after the race and will need to make sure I have everything to be safe on the road. Even though I plan to stay under a roof, it’s still important to be prepared for emergencies.

    Thank you.

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