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Mastering Survival Part 6: Lost-Proofing Phase #3

Mastering Survival Series - Part 6

Welcome back to the Woodsrunner School's "Mastering Survival" series, where we're on an adventure to equip you with the skills needed to not only survive but thrive in the wilderness. In this installment, we dive deep into the critical aspects of signaling and communication when you find yourself in an emergency situation. Remember, knowledge is your best ally in the wild.

The Importance of Signaling for Help

Picture this: you're out in the wilderness, enjoying the serene beauty of nature when an unexpected situation arises. You're now in need of rescue or assistance. In such scenarios, effective signaling can be your lifeline. In fact, nine out of ten wilderness emergencies are resolved within 72 hours, primarily because someone was able to call for help.

But here's the catch: when you need assistance, you must provide rescuers with essential information to aid them in finding you and understanding the severity of your situation. This information includes:

  • The nature of the problem you're facing.

  • The number of people in your group.

  • Your precise location or the last known location.

  • The physical and mental state of your group.

  • The supplies you have on hand.

All of this information is incredibly useful, as it helps rescuers assess the situation and respond appropriately. However, to make this communication effective, you must first grab their attention.

The Signaling Code: "Signals of 3"

To communicate effectively in the wild, you need to learn and practice specific signaling methods. A simple code that works wonders is "Signals of 3." This means that you should perform three identical signals in succession to get the attention you need. This code applies to various forms of signaling, including:

  • Whistle blasts

  • Horn sounds

  • Gunshots

  • Banging on metal

  • Even two-way radio calls (think "May Day, May Day, May Day")

  • By using this uniform code, you create a break in the tranquility of the wilderness, drawing the attention of potential rescuers.

Visual Signals: Catching Their Eye

Visual signals are meant to attract attention through light reflection, casting light, or contrasting against a backdrop. Here are some common types of visual signals:

  • Signal Mirrors: Use sunlight to reflect a beam towards potential rescuers.

  • Marker Panels: Brightly colored panels that stand out against the environment.

  • Surveyor's Tape: Highly visible and can be tied to trees or branches.

  • Aerial Flares: Ignited flares that emit a bright, visible light.

  • Strobes: Electronic devices that emit a pulsating light.

  • Smoke Signals/Fires: Create smoke or fires during the day for visibility.

For instance, fires at night or road flares should be placed in a specific pattern, like three separate fires or flares spaced 18 feet apart in a straight line. Ground-to-air signals could include three X's spaced 18 feet apart and flags. The message is clear: "Look over here, please."

Auditory Signals: Making Noise That Matters

Auditory signals are designed to create noticeable noises for both human and canine ears to hear. These can be vital in attracting attention. Common types of auditory signals include:

  • Whistles: High-pitched and piercing, they can travel far in the wilderness.

  • Air-Horns: Emit loud, attention-grabbing sounds.

  • Screaming: While not as effective, shouting for help is still an option.

  • Remember, the code for auditory signals remains the same: "Signals of 3." Three blasts on a whistle or horn can signify distress and get the attention you need.

Electronic Signals: High-Tech Help

In today's world, electronic signaling devices are advanced and highly effective. However, they can also be prone to issues like breakage, weak broadcast signals, or dead batteries. When they're functioning correctly, these devices are invaluable for sending detailed messages and location information. Common electronic signaling devices include:

  • Emergency Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs): These send a distress signal to emergency services with your precise location.

  • GPS Units With Text Message Capability (e.g., SPOT): Allows you to send pre-programmed messages with your GPS coordinates.

  • Cell Phones With Tracking Devices: Many modern phones have built-in GPS tracking capabilities.

  • Once again, remember the code: "Signals of 3." It's a simple yet effective way to communicate urgency.

Day/Night Signals: Seeing & Being Seen

Signals can vary based on lighting conditions. Day signals are most effective when visibility is clear, while night signals require a source of artificial illumination. Night signals can be created through:

  • Sparks or flames

  • Flashlights

  • Chemical lights (glow sticks)

  • Signal fires

  • Emergency strobes

  • Adapting to both day and night signaling techniques enhances your chances of being spotted and rescued.

Active/Passive Signals: Drawing Attention

Active signals require attention and action from both the signaler and potential rescuers. Some examples of active signals include signal mirrors, whistles, signal fires, and emergency strobes.

On the other hand, passive signals are stationary and don't require immediate attention or action. An example is a brightly colored marker panel. Both types of signals have their place in wilderness communication.

The Definitive Do's & Don'ts

As you embark on your wilderness adventures, remember these do's and don'ts to enhance your chances of survival:


  • Carry a map and compass and know how to use them.

  • Let others know your plans before heading out.

  • Stay put until you S.T.O.P. (Stop, Think, Observe, Plan) if you're lost or in trouble.

  • Learn the limitations of your equipment and yourself before venturing into the wild.


  • Deviate from your planned route without notifying someone.

  • Don't become fixated on reaching a specific goal at the expense of safety.

The Compass: Your Navigation Lifesaver

While signaling for help is crucial, navigating your way through the wilderness is equally important. This is where carrying a compass becomes invaluable.

You might wonder why you need a compass when you can use the sun for direction-finding. While that's true, a compass serves a vital purpose: maintaining a straight course over long distances. When walking, people naturally experience lateral drift, veering gradually left or right. A compass helps you maintain a straight path, even when your line of sight to your destination is obstructed.

Let's explore the essential components of a compass:

  • Sight: Used for aiming a bearing (azimuth) to record the direction of travel.

  • Sighting Mirror: Helpful for aiming precisely at distant landmarks, especially in open terrain.

  • Orienting Arrow: An arrow on the base of the compass that rotates along with the dial, ensuring you're following the correct bearing.

  • Magnetic Needle: The black and red needle that points towards the magnetic north.

It's essential to hold your compass level and away from metal objects for accurate readings.

Finding North: The Basics

To find north with your compass:

  1. Turn the bezel (azimuth ring) until it's aligned with north or 0 degrees.

  2. Line up the directional arrow with your chosen landmark.

  3. Rotate the bezel until the red end of the magnetic needle is inside the shed (the doghouse).

  4. Read the bearing on the bezel.

Even a basic compass can provide general direction when you're lost.

Woodsman Navigation Methods

In the wilderness, navigating by compass alone might not always be necessary. You can use various natural or man-made features to guide your way. Here are some navigation methods:

  • Handrails: These are linear features in the terrain that serve as guidelines for your intended direction of travel. Examples include creek beds, ridgelines, rivers, roadbeds, powerlines, and waterlines.

  • Back Stops: These are points you should never go beyond, usually linear land features that run perpendicular to your intended destination. Examples include rivers, streams, roadbeds, railways, and utility lines.

  • Baselines: These are the opposite of backstops and are used for returning to your starting point. Baselines should run perpendicular to your campsite or base camp. When you reach the baseline, you should understand which way to go to return to camp without needing precise compass bearings.

  • Aiming Off: This technique is used in conjunction with a baseline. You intentionally take a bearing a few degrees left or right of your intended destination. When you reach your chosen landmark, you'll know which way to turn to reach your destination accurately.

  • Panic Azimuths: These are pre-determined bearings you can immediately set on your compass if you get lost. For example, if you're near a river that's not part of your intended route, you might know that a direct west azimuth from the river will lead you back toward your course.

Practicals: Hands-On Learning

At Woodsrunner School, we believe in practical learning. Here are some hands-on activities to reinforce your signaling and navigation skills:

  • Shooting an Azimuth: Practice taking compass bearings on landmarks.

  • Whistle Blast: Test your ability to get someone's attention with three uniform whistle blasts.

  • Signal Mirror: Reflect sunlight across a field to simulate signaling for help.

  • Dragon Tail Demo: Learn about signal flags and their uses.

  • Layout with Paint or X's: Arrange items in a field to simulate signal fires or other signaling methods.

The Woodsrunner School Approach

Lost-proofing is about more than just survival; it's about thriving in the wilderness. These principles empower you to take control of your wilderness experience, making exploration not only enjoyable but also safe. As you embrace lost-proofing phase #3, whether you're pursuing survival skills or simply seeking to enrich your outdoor adventures, mastering these techniques will transform you into a true woodsrunner.

Stay tuned for the next installment in our "Mastering Survival" series. Remember that every step you take with knowledge and skill brings you closer to mastering survival. Stay safe, enjoy the wilderness, and together, we'll RUN THE WOODS!

If you find our information helpful, show your support by sharing our content. Your actions could help someone in need someday.

Joshua Barnes

Founder & Director of Operations

Woodsrunner School, LLC

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