Signal, Noise, or Silence?
What is the difference between signal and noise? Well, an audible signal carries a distinguishable message whereas noise is merely a disturbing sound. For the most part, we tend to drown out most of the noise in the world. Of course, there is a greater importance to the difference between the two. A signal can mean rescue and assistance and a noise can become silence. Make no mistake, by silence I mean death. Part of any good emergency kit includes the means to convey signal effectively. Think about it, even walking out of your house you likely carry your phone on you to 'signal'' when you are close to home or when you need to reach out and touch someone. It's a much better option than screeching incoherently at the top of lungs into the great expanse of the atmosphere. In reality, we can't literally reach out and touch someone when we need a helping hand unless they happen to walk right over us but we do have very inexpensive options that can attract others'' eyes and ears to our location and our message. Our ability to signal goes beyond the audible. Signaling is an important concept above the basic preparedness of carrying a whistle.
The most common signaling equipment carried in my kits are the whistle and the mirror. To this, I'll add on more elaborate and effective means of communication depending on where I am headed. If I'm headed deeper into the woods, it is not uncommon for me to carry a larger signal mirror, electronic strobe light, surveyor's tape, military marker panel, two-way radios and or flares. What I carry depends on the amount of access and traffic where I'' going. It's also important to consider how you will signal at night or you are, consciously or subconsciously, assuming you will only need to signal when it light out. At night, a good flashlight will cast a beam a considerable distance and the humble LED light can be seen up to a mile as well. Cell phones are reliable in town but will lose service beyond the reach of towers. They shouldn't be discarded out of frustration though, the light from the display can be a visual signal in a pinch. For an upcoming trip to Alaska, I'll be purchasing a lightweight emergency personal locator beacon (EPLB) that will send a very important message if needed. What value do you place on your ability to signal? All of these tools carried fall within the realm of signaling.
Beyond what is carried is what can be improvised. Signal fires work well at night and smoke generators will contrast either white smoke against a green background or black smoke against a white background depending on season. Large letters can be constructed out of birch bark laid out on a green field and direction of travel arrows ( one rectangle and one triangle together) can be made from folded sections of tarps. A Cyalume light stick on the end of a piece of paracord can be swung in a circle overhead at night and the ferro rod you're likely carrying will create an intense flash of light momentarily.Even the inside of a potato chip bag (reflective aluminum) can be used if no other reflective surface is available. Gunshots in the woods should not be used as a signal since three shots in a row can be mistaken for a lousy hunter. Gunshots in a city however will likely bring help your way. Signaling can be as simple as leaving directions in a permanent marker where they can be found. Do you carry one in your first aid kit? If you ever have to leave someone behind to go for help, mark their forehead.
When is the right time to signal for help? Too soon and you may find yourself unnecessarily using resources you don't need. In the White Mountains for example, if you call in a rescue operation you will be responsible for the expenses of the rescue. If you try to signal too late, you may not be effective in reaching someone or be physically unable to signal at all. My best advice for knowing when it is the right time to use your signaling skills is when you feel incapable of helping yourself. There are many examples of this, when you can't get your vehicle running again, when you witness an accident and know advanced care beyond your ability is needed (always call or have someone call 911 before acting first!), when you are physically injured and cannot move unassisted...the list goes on and on. Trust your intuition and your instincts and you should be fine. Of equal importance is knowing who to signal for help. If you're able to contact someone reliable or professional, you'll be more likely to be assisted.
Whatever you choose to use for a signal and however you end up using it, make sure it stands out. What starts out as noise will be, if irritating, persistent and regular enough, eventually understood as a signal. I know I said there is a difference between signal and noise at the onset of this article and I also stated we drown out the majority of the noise we hear. I don't want to discredit the value of noise when it can be useful. Sometimes our signals aren't tracked and noise is the solution. Whispering “I need help” may be lost when a loud blast of a whistle may not be. With any luck, this article should convey an important “signal” about what you carry and make you reevaluate your kit. Are you going to make signal, noise or be found silent?