Wednesday, November 20, 2019

How to be seen

A helicopter is my office.  I sit in one for many hours every summer, looking for fires, landing spots, and occasionally, people.

People get lost a lot.  There are those who would like to believe that it is some vast conspiracy involving the land management agencies when someone goes missing in the wilderness.  As a veteran of many searches, I can tell you that is impossible.  With all the people involved in search, such a conspiracy would never happen.  Someone would talk.  Also these agencies don't have the time, the motive, or the budget to "disappear" people.  Lastly,  search and rescue personnel want to find you.  They put their lives on hold and at risk to look for people they don't even know.  But they have to be able to see you first.

A lot of lost people, when found, say something like "I saw the helicopters, but they didn't see me."  Most people don't realize how hard it is to see a person on the ground, especially when they are wearing earth tones and standing in a forest.  There have been times when the pilot and I knew exactly where the firefighters were supposed to be, but just couldn't see them (and they were wearing yellow shirts and were out in the open). 

When we search by air, we aren't necessarily looking for a person or a body.  Those can be pretty hard to see.  What we are looking for is something that looks out of the ordinary: something man made, movement, or a color that doesn't fit with its surroundings.  Some things that work:

-Get out in the open.  It sounds obvious, but some lost hikers don't do this.  Even a small meadow in a sea of trees will catch the eye of the helicopter crew.

- Have something shiny.  A space blanket, silver colored tarp, signal mirror, or strobe light works really well.  Yes, it's something extra to carry, but it may make a difference.  On my crew we carry Fenix strobe flashlights.  They can be seen for miles.

-Wave a bright color.  You can tie a shirt or jacket to a stick or a trekking pole.

- Build something that looks unnatural.  A lost hiker was recently rescued when the SOS she made out of rocks was seen.  Just make sure it is in an open spot.

-Tie something white to a tree.  This helped us find a fallen climber once.  The white against the dark green was very obvious.

-Fire.  You ARE carrying matches, right? I hesitate to mention this, because lost people have started fires that ended up having devastating consequences.  If a fire is your last resort, remember that smoke can be seen much easier than flames.  Once your fire (in a cleared area) is going, pile on punky, damp wood; this will create thick smoke.  Here, we have commercial airliners calling in fires to us as they fly above the wilderness.  Chances are someone will see it.

-Lastly, try to stay put.  Search aircraft will start at the point last seen and move out from there.  Many people, and bodies, are found well outside the search area, where nobody thought they would ever be. 

It's devastating to search vast sections of wilderness and never find a missing person.  It's worse than finding their remains, because then at least you know what happened.  When someone vanishes and can't be located at all, you always wonder:  did I look hard enough? what if they were below me and I just didn't see them?

If you get lost in my area, we will look for you.  We will look even if you didn't carry a beacon, didn't tell anyone where you were going, didn't want to be found, or made foolish choices.  We want to find you.  Please help us.

This was a tiny fire, started by lightning a long way from the nearest road or trail.  It was really just one log burning on the ground.  But very visible.


  1. I am surprised you mention fires with all the havoc they are causing right now. A mirror or strobe light sounds easy to carry! People just don't think anymore.

    1. Yes, as a firefighter I wrestle with that one, but in a life or death situation it may be an option. If Chris McCandless had started one he most likely would have been found. That being said, using some of the tactics above: clearing an area around it (much like when you build a campfire), being out in the open, and using damp wood if possible, will keep danger to a minimum. One log on the ground in an open area can put up a lot of smoke. Even a campfire well contained in a rock circle can be seen well from the air.

  2. Really like this needs a wider audience. I think it would make a good---and needed---- article in an outdoor magazine....

    1. I don't want the trolls that would come out. People are awful these days responding to articles, at least online.


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