Wilderness Survival Rescue Procedures


Learn Rescue Procedures


Understand Rescue and Recovery

© copyright 2004, by Gary Benton

Some of us who hunt in remote areas may one day be forced to survive in the woods for a period of time, due to becoming lost or perhaps an injury. Keep in mind, that once we are missing and it has been reported, a rescue operation will start very quickly. Most people who are forced to survive in the United States are rescued within forty-eight hours. This quick action is due to the excellent capabilities and training of our rescue teams. They fully understand their capabilities and responsibilities. But, it is not just the rescue teams who have responsibilities. We as survivors, also have responsibilities prior and during a rescue and recovery. We must prepare for a rescue attempt.


One aspect of survival that I always found hard to understand was the number of rescues that developed severe problems during the actual point of pickup, or recovery. It seemed most of them were routine, then when they were in the process of actually saving a person, something would go wrong. You, like me, are most likely asking, what could happen that would foul up an actual rescue?


The most common problem with the rescue and recovery of survivors is with the survivor, not the rescue team. Often, due to the deep psychological relief of being rescued, the survivor would make a serious mistake and the rescue would either have to be aborted or it would fail. The most common problem with a rescue, in my opinion, lies with the survivor not following instructions, survivor panic, or getting impatient during the recovery. Keep in mind, unlike the movies, a helicopter does not always land and just pick you up. There are many different kinds of equipment used in rescues, from a Horse Collar (a teardrop shaped device with a metal seat and safety straps) to a Stokes litter (resembles a long basket), and depending on the terrain, any device could be used. In some cases, the device may be as simple as a rope.


First, let’s consider some way you can signal for rescue. It is generally understood in the survival world that three of anything may indicate an emergency. This can be three individual fires burning in the shape of a triangle (a fire at each corner), three gun shots fired one after the other, or even three loud blasts from a whistle. Keep in mind the number three. Additionally, you can make more elaborate signals by piling rocks, brush or snow, so it creates a shadow. Most of the rescue people I had talked with suggest the shadow signal be about 12 feet long and at least 3 feet wide. This size seems to cast the best shadow. However, there may be times that is not possible, so do the best you can. The idea here is to draw the human eye to your signal.


Well, if you decide to pile brush to make a signal, what should your signal look like? There is a simple code, found in most military survival books or manuals, with usually five or more signal designs. I always stress the big three, require assistance (V), need medical assistance (X, for unable to proceed), and going in this direction (a large arrow indicating direction of travel). Of these three, the second one, need medical assistance is the most commonly used signal. Why? When most of us are forced in a survival situation, much of the time injuries have been sustained from aircraft or vehicle crashes, falls, cuts, or other injuries. And, depending on the weather (severe heat or cold), terrain, and other factors (water and food supplies), you may have a medical situation on your hands. I usually instruct students to simply use the large X, because most survival situations will have medical concerns.


If possible, as soon as practical after you have organized your survival site, prepare or evaluate the area around you for landing zones, or drop zones, for a rescue team. If there is a large field near you, place your fire signals near it. Look for obstacles (loose brush, limbs, etc.,) at the recovery sight and clear them from the area. If the surrounding area is too dense for use, you may, if it is physically possible, be forced to move to a better spot. Do not, go too far from where your vehicle stalled, the aircraft crashed, or the mishap occurred. Rescue teams will start the search from your last known position and then gradually work out from there.


Once sighted by a rescue team they will notify you that you have been seen. If you have a survival radio, they will do that on an emergency frequency, say 243.0. Not many of us in the woods carry a survival radio and the rescue team knows this. If it is a fixed wing aircraft (a plane) that spots you, they will raise and lower the wings in a rocking motion (up and down) at day or night. Do not panic if the aircraft rocks its wings and then leaves the area. They may be low of fuel, or may even be leaving so a helicopter can come in to do the actual pick up. In all cases, your position will be quickly fixed and radioed back to the rescue base camp.


Now, as you prepare for the actual rescue attempt, secure anything that could be sucked up by helicopter rotors on in an aircraft engine. This means all, ropes, tarps, blankets, clothing, and so on, should be stored. If a chopper comes to rescue you, do not approach the aircraft unless instructed to do so. This instruction will be by a crewmember on the rescue aircraft. And, always approach a helicopter from the front if possible. Approaching from the sides and especially the rear can be very dangerous. Try to go to the aircraft from a 9 to 3 o’clock position, from the pilot’s viewpoint. This is safer and also allows the pilot to keep you in sight.


Usually, in most rescues, a crewmember will leave the aircraft and come to your assistance. In severe cases, where the aircraft cannot land, they may lower a rescue technician by a hoist cable to the ground. If a crewmember is lowered, follow the instruction given by them to the letter. These people are the experts and getting excited and doing things on your own could result in severe injury or even death.


In remote areas the rescue helicopter may just lower a rescue device to you. It may be a complex looking affair, or as I said earlier, something as simple as a rope. There are some simple rules to follow that the US Army and Air Force recommend:


Stand clear as the device is lowered.


  • Wait for the device to touch the ground, to ground out static electricity.
  • Sit or kneel, facing the device while getting into position and donning it.
  • Always, if they are available, put the safety straps on first.
  • Place any straps under the armpits, as you face the device
  • Always keep the hoist cable on any device in front of you.
  • Make sure your hands, legs, and feet are kept clear of excess cable.
  • If you do not have a radio for communications with the pilot, give a one handed thumbs up, or shake the cable vigorously from side to side to indicate you are ready to be lifted.
  • Do not do anything from that point on, except to hold on to the device firmly and follow any orders from rescue personnel. Do not attempt to climb into the chopper, because you may fall.


Many survivors have been lost just as they reached the door of the rescue aircraft due to failure to follow orders, or panic. It is common, so remember this, for you to be lifted and turned as you are pulled into the aircraft. That step may give you the sensation you will fall, but as long as you are holding the device securely, you are safe. Do not let go of the device until you are well in the chopper and instructed by a crewmember to do so. In the military we were instructed to hold onto the device until the rescue tech pulled our hands off of it.


Survival is always difficult and often very dangerous. While rescue is the least dangerous aspect of survival, or so survivors often think, it does take some thought to do safely. At times survivors will survive for long periods of time, only to be lost during the rescue and recover stage. This almost always happens because the survivor fails to follow orders or panics. By using good common sense, understanding how a rescue takes place, and following orders, you too can survive the most critical aspect of survival, rescue and recovery.




Gary Benton has over 45 years of outdoor experience in camping, hiking, fishing, and other activities. He's no armchair survival man, he's walked the walk from the arctic to the desert and all the area in between. Gary has an associates degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a B.S. in Industrial Occupational safety, and all but his thesis completed for a M.S. in Counseling Psychology.
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