For the sake of this post, let’s make a few assumptions to create a possible and likely scenario. Let’s pretend that you are lost in the wilderness. You don’t have a map or compass, and your cellphone is dead. Also, you didn’t tell anyone where you were going or when to expect you back. We are going to assume for the sake of this post that you have plenty of food and water for a few days in your pack. You also have a tent, so shelter is not a problem. Somehow you got off the trail and have not been able to find it again. Your main problem right now is you have no idea where you are. You made it to the top of a hill, but you don’t recognize any landmarks. At night, you don’t see any lights in the distance either. You realize that you need to figure out a way to let someone know where you are so you can be found. In most survival situations, you will need to use several different kinds of signals to attract attention. In this post, we will discuss using fire and smoke to signal for help.
Ground Fire: The first thing you need to do is find a clearing in the forest canopy, if possible. There are a couple of ways to build a fire for signaling. We will discuss a ground fire first. For a ground fire, you want to start off by clearing a spot on the ground of leaves and debris. Also, you are going to want to gather up some small, dry twigs and limbs and some larger dry wood as well. Then cut or break some limbs with green leaves or pine straw off of a live tree. Go ahead and pile up as much of the green stuff as you think you will need, based on how long your fire will be burning. In the spot that you cleared, start off by placing a little bit of pine straw, moss, bark, or dry leaves on the bottom. Then, place a few small twigs and limbs in a tepee formation. Light the straw, moss, or other material you have on the bottom. After your fire has started, then place the bigger dry limbs to get the fire hot. Let it burn for a few minutes so that you build up a few coals. Keep feeding the fire with dry material until you are confident that you have a healthy fire. Let it burn for a little while to build up plenty of coals. Once it has burnt down a little (not out), then add the green leaves or straw. You will notice that the smoke will become thicker and dense white. The object is to get the smoke to rise far above the trees so that it can be seen from a distance on the ground or from the sky. If possible, set three fires, separated by about fifty feet. This will hopefully be seen as a distress fire.
Check Out these Emergency Fire Starters and Tinder Options:
Elevated Fire: An elevated fire serves the same purpose as the ground fire, but the material that is going to burn is off the ground on a makeshift tripod or similar. This emergency distress signal can be lit and kept burning for a long period of time. An elevated signal fire is only lit when you have spotted or heard a plane or helicopter. The elevated signal fire, like the ground fire, will produce plenty of smoke, but will burn out quicker. To build a simple tripod, find three poles (live trees or branches) about 6-8 feet long and about 2 inches in diameter. The poles need to have a “Y” or fork on one end and a limb coming off at an upward angle somewhere around the middle. Now, lean the top of the three poles against each other, interconnecting the forks for stability. Take three more shorter live branches and lay them horizontal in the middle upward angled branches on your main poles, connecting each pole of the tripod. Now, find several shorter live branches to lay across the three horizontal poles to make a platform to burn your fire material. Now that the tripod is built, gather some dry tinder to put on the platform at the bottom. Put larger dry sticks on top of the tinder. After you have piled the material that you will be burning, gather up some green branches with live leaves or needles. Go ahead and place the live branches all around the tripod. Figure out where you will light your fire and make sure that the branches on that side can easily be removed and replaced. If possible, set three fires, separated by about fifty feet. If you have any string, twine, rope, or vines, you can use it to reinforce your tripod, if needed.
Note: While in the wild, we should always strive to use “Leave No Trace Principles”. However, in a survival situation, by all means, do what you have to do to survive. Your life is more important than the minor ecological detriment caused by cutting a few trees.