You might know exactly where you are, but does anyone else?
Susan was worried. Bob said he would be home by 6 p.m., and it was now almost 7. She hesitated to call the State Police, as Bob instructed if he was overdue, but the weather was getting nasty. She picked up the phone and looked at the map Bob left her with the area he was hunting circled in red. She hoped he wouldn't be upset that she caused such a fuss€¦
Little did she know that Bob was huddled next to a fire on a hillside, sheltered from the storm by a rock ledge and tending to a sprained knee. As soon as the State Police dispatcher got off the phone with Susan, he called the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) in Virginia, the lead agency for all domestic rescue operations. Minutes after, the AFRCC contacted the New Mexico Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and requested search aircraft to fly over the area Susan described from Bob's map. Within one hour of the request, CAP planes flying overhead spotted Bob's fire and contacted the State Police Incident Commander to relay the coordinates. By first light, ground parties located Bob and splinted his leg. He was evacuated by litter and checked out at a hospital that afternoon. When Bob saw Susan, he hugged her and told her how glad he was that she had called for help.
Scenarios like this play out every hunting season. Some are longer in duration and, unfortunately, some end in tragedy. But the search-and-rescue process for all will be nearly the same, and hunters play the most important part to increase odds for success.
Plan Your Own Rescue
Think in reverse. If you were stranded in the wilderness, what would you want rescuers to know? The answer is anything that will get them to your location quickly. With that in mind, consider how many folks walk out the door on a hunt and say: "Bye, I'm heading up to Meadow Lake with Jim, and I'll be back Sunday night." Providing so little detail of your whereabouts could prove a major hindrance if you don't make it back on Sunday night.
"You need to tell someone exactly where you're going to be," said Lieutenant Colonel Bob Ross of the New Mexico Civil Air Patrol's (CAP) Thunderbird Squadron. "We need a place to start. Otherwise, it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack."
Try this the next time you head out to the woods: Make a photocopy of a map showing your hunting area. With a highlighter, mark where you will camp or park, and where you will be spending the majority of your hunting time. At the bottom of the paper write a description of your vehicle with license plate number, names of anyone in your party, the phone number to the State Police or county Sheriff, and a "no later than" time for your return. Leave this with someone you trust, and tell them to honor your return time -- if you haven't contacted them by then, call for help.
Carry Emergency Equipment
For many reasons, people get stranded in the wilderness and require rescue. It's critical that hunters are prepared for such situations by carrying the proper equipment. "A lot of folks we go looking for are not prepared for the weather and the terrain," Ross said.
"They don't understand the speed at which things can change in the high country, and they can get hit with a storm." This is where proper clothing, a survival kit, first-aid supplies, and extra water and food are invaluable.
Maybe even more important is to avoid making your situation worse. Ross said that ego was one of the biggest causes of mistakes. "People say, 'I've been hunting up here for 35 years, I can't get lost,' and they keep walking." This puts search teams at a distinct disadvantage because they now have to track the survivor and try to catch up to them, or head them off. The solution: admit you are stuck, don't panic, and deal with the situation.
Stay where you are, and remember, help is on the way.
Make Yourself Big
In New Mexico, CAP aircraft can be on the scene in as little as one hour from the time a lost hunter is reported. If the hunter has left a detailed plan, the planes can start searching a specific area in systematic patterns. The planes will have a pilot, a scanner, and an observer. That's three sets of eyes, but they will be looking down from 2,000-3,000 feet.
At that distance, everything looks small. If the air personnel think they see a signal, they can fly lower to confirm it. But ground-to-air signals, such as large colored panels or improvised designs (an X made out of logs, for example), need to be as large and as contrasting as possible to be visible from higher altitudes. A better option is a signal mirror during the day and strobe light at night. "Flashes of light are much more visible and stand out to the aircrew," Lieutenant Norm Reame, CAP Public Affairs Officer, said.
"You need to make yourself as big as possible." Campfires also stand out at night, but a strobe has a more immediate message of distress and attention.
Once CAP aircraft spot you, they will circle overhead and keep a fix on your position. Ground teams will be dispatched to your location, or, in some instances, a helicopter might land to pick you up.
NOTE: This article is dedicated to New Mexico State Police Sergeant Andy Tingwall who, while this article was being written, lost his life while attempting to rescue a stranded hiker in bad weather.