Direction Finding, Signalling and Getting Rescued
By Benjamin Raven Pressley

    You are lost, the sun is going down, what do you do? Well the first thing you want to do is to just STOP, sit down, think about what you do have not what you don’t have. Calm yourself. Don’t let your mind go into panic mode. The number one killer statistically of people finding themselves in a survival situation is paranoia. The mind races, you panic, you walk in circles, you scream for help until you are worn out and collapse.  It is usually not wise to start hiking out when the sun is going down and you’re really not sure which way is out. Plan on spending the night. However, next day or if you have plenty of daylight and you decide to hike out make sure you know what direction you are heading. There is nothing worse than walking around in circles expending needed energy thinking you can hike out of your situation.

    If you are lost your goal is to find civilization and rescue. If you have camped, figure out some way to signal. Lay out a signal in an open area large enough to be seen by a plane flying overhead. It can be S.O.S. or HELP or just something that will stand out from the surroundings you are in. Three is the universal distress signal: three gunshots, three highly visible fires, etc. It has been proven in field tests that a signal mirror can be seen for miles and all things considered it is the best way to signal. To use it put up two fingers in a ‘V’ and use these two fingers in front of signal mirror to aim your signal. You may signal a plane going overhead or just signal across a wide area whether you see anyone or not. Sort of tilt the mirror in intervals of three flashes. If you know Morse code you can signal S.O.S.

    If you have made up your mind the time has come to try to hike out be sure to mark your back trail in some way in case you need to find your way back and leave a trail that searchers can follow. Use something that stands out that is not natural to the landscape if possible. If you don’t have something unnatural use stones or sticks and make an arrow pointing in the direction you are travelling. Don’t use breadcrumbs like Hansel and Gretel (just kidding!).

   Always travel in a straight line as much as is possible. Use a compass if you have one. If you don’t have a compass remember the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. If it is afternoon and you see the sun in front of you, you are travelling west. If you are casting a shadow to your right, you are walking north. You get the idea. Even on a cloudy day it is possible to get a reading from the sun. Usually one part of the sky will look lighter than another or try holding the point of your pocket knife on your thumb nail and see which way the shadow falls. What ever you do don’t believe the myths about moss growing on north side of the tree. Plant signs are generally unreliable, however, plants do seek the sun and a tree will generally be thicker on the southern exposure.

    Try this for direction finding: Drive a tall stick in the ground in a sunny area. Place a stone as a marker where the shadow falls. Wait about fifteen minutes to half an hour and place another stone where the shadow falls. Draw a straight line through the two points and you have an east-west line. Stand with your left shoulder toward the first mark and the right shoulder toward the second mark and you will be facing north. This is true everywhere on Earth.

    It is not wise to travel at night but sometimes in extreme heat you may have to travel at night to avoid the heat of the day. If you are in the northern hemisphere, at night most people recognize the Big Dipper constellation. The north star can be found by looking at the diagram below. Draw an imaginary line to the Earth from the north star and this is facing true north or the north pole. In the southern hemisphere look for the Southern Cross.
   If you are in upper elevations travel downhill. In the lower elevations is where there will usually be more resources for food and shelter. Water travels downhill. Following a river or stream is usually a good choice but beware that some streams can end by going down into a hole in the ground. But generally a river will lead you to civilization.

    There are many other ways to find direction these are just a couple of simple ones that should get you by. The more knowledgeable you are of direction finding and reading the terrain the better off you will be.

When using a compass keep in mind that it has to be adjusted for magnetic declination.



Learning to use a topographical map is an important skill to learn. For a great article on how to use topographical maps click here.



You can find direction at night by using a crescent moon as a reference. Click here for a great article on the subject.
Click here for a good article on finding distance using your thumb.


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