500 feet above a survivor in the water with an orange PFD.
500 feet above a survivor in the water with a Rescue Streamer.
Most of the search and rescue missions I participated in began after dark because that is usually when the call for help came in about an overdue party. Having spent a great deal of time looking from both the air and the ground for people in trouble, I can tell you night time searches are much easier and the chances of finding someone much greater. Fires, flashlights, and emergency strobe lights all show up fairly well at night. If we are using night vision goggles then they stick out like a sore thumb and are hard to miss. In fact, I have found people by the flash from our anti collision strobe lights bouncing back off the reflective trim on their shoes or packs using night vision goggles. Gen 3 NVGs are that good. However, at some point, the sun always comes up and that can be a problem if we have not yet found you.
Daytime signaling is an entirely different story. It is a big problem because there is so much out in front of or under me that it is very difficult to create enough contrast between the target and background so that I can see it unless I am looking directly at it. Even then I could miss it if a tree, rock, or wave gets between us at just the wrong time. Then there is the human factor that a lot of SAR guys don’t talk much about. We could be too high or going to fast. I could be tired, not feeling well or just not that into it today. Worst of all, maybe I have already decided in my head that this is a lost cause and that there is no way we are ever going to find you (the needle) in this stuff (the haystack). That was never a problem for me because I am just too anal retentive obsessive compulsive but it has happen to guys, good guys, that I know. The point is your daytime distress signal has to be both distinctive and persistent to be seen. And being seen is what SAR is all about. Being seen or getting seen as an old pilot once described it makes all the difference in the world.
Fire works well during the day if you can get the smoke to be thick enough and the right color but it requires a great deal of attention and energy and they can dangerous if they get out of hand.
Canned smoke is great (usually a thick dark orange plume of smoke) but it is heavy, the cantainers get hot, there is a limited amount of volume, and I have had them malfunction where they actually started small brush fires (not one of my finer moments).
Signal mirrors are very effective but they require precision aiming, things have to be in the right position, and somebody on the other end has to be looking in your direction. To be candid with you, I carry one but I am not a big fan of mirrors. I prefer something more omni-directional, passive and on all the time. Something more like a high visibility flag.
Secure one end using the attached cable loop and a trekking pole and weight the other with your pack or a big rock to keep the Rescue Streamer deployed properly on land. Small plastic rods spaced throughout its length keep the Streamer from flipping over. They also keep it afloat.
That is where the Rescue Streamer comes in. They make a number of different models including ones that use lights but for our purposes I prefer the most basic model because it is the lightest and smallest yet still very effective in water (it floats), snow, open terrain, on a rock face or strung between trees.
At 6 inches long, 1.5 inches in diameter and 3.7 ounces the Rescue Streamer is light and handy. Unrolled it is about 25 feet long which helps it stick out and be more distinctive against almost any background.
I have always taught that it is unnecessarily risky to rely on just one thing to help you out of a jam in the backcountry. Some argue that I am over prepared but they have not seen profound fear, pain and desperation in as many faces as I have so they don’t understand. When the shit hits the fan and you really need help out there it is best to have a number of sound strategies working for you. An effective daytime visual signaling device that fits well with your system is one of those strategies. This is the one that military pilots all over the world use and it is the one I like and use.
Consider what you do, how you do it, and where you do it to determine if a Rescue Streamer makes sense for you.
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