Excerpts from Survival Tips, Tricks and Traps by Wanda & William Priday, Chapter 8 Navigation, Travel & Signaling

No phone, no compass, no problem. Learn how to navigate directions day or night without modern technology in Chapter 8 Navigation and Signaling.  If you’re traveling roads and interstates in the US, learn how the road numbering system conveys vital directional information.  Need to be rescued? Multiple ways to signal for help are relayed in this chapter.  


An East-West orientation can be obtained by using a stick, pebbles and the sun (Fig. 8-1) Push a 2’ stick into a flat patch of sunny ground at a 90o angle. Mark the tip of where the shadow falls with a pebble. Wait 15 minutes and place another pebble at the tip of where the shadow falls. Draw a line between the 2 pebbles. This line is oriented to the East and West. The longer you wait, the longer your space between markers will be and the more accurate your reading will be. You can also use a straight edge and hold it directly over the pebble markers to extend the line. The sun rises in the East and sets in the West.  Once you know your East-West orientation, you can then determine North/South.

A North-South orientation can be obtained by knowing what time it is. Point the hour hand of a watch or clock directly at the sun. If your watch or phone has a digital readout, draw a clock face with hour and minute hands set to the actual time. Halfway between where the hour hand is pointing and 12 on the watch face is the North-South Line. Once you have determined your North – South Line, consider the following image (Fig. 8-2) to determine which is North and which is South.

The North Star does not move, all other stars rotate in a circle around it. Even if you cannot find the North Star you can still orient yourself at night. Find a thin forked stick, and a thin straight stick of similar length. Push the straight stick into the ground. Line it up with a star near the horizon. The forked stick is placed about 2’(feet) to the rear (as in a rear gun sight aperture) of the straight stick. Line up the star, the top of the straight stick and the Y of the forked stick. Try and imagine you have a rifle and are lining up your sights to shoot a star. You want to use a star near the horizon with greater movement, because stars closer to due North are circumpolar and will move in smaller circles. Watch to see which way the star moves from its original position for about 10 to 15 minutes. As the star moves, use the following directional key to decipher the direction you are facing.


If the star moved Right you would be facing South, if it moved Left and Up you would be oriented to the North East, Up and Right would be South East, etc. Remember the KEY to this is:


To ensure accuracy, repeat this process facing the opposite direction.  Your findings should lead you to the same conclusion if you have determined your orientation correctly both times.  For example, if your original finding was that you were facing West, your second finding (now facing opposite) should show you are facing East. There is also the off chance you have oriented on Venus, Mars or another visible planet, which will not give an accurate reading. Repeat the process using several different stars in the sky to ensure an accurate reading.


So, you don’t wear a watch and your cell phone is dead, damaged or lost. To tell the time of day, or how much daylight you have left, hold your hand flat, palm facing you, with your fingers parallel to the horizon, stacking your hands one on top the other, between the horizon and setting sun, allowing 15 minutes for each finger will give you the approximate hours of daylight left.


In the United States, you can tell whether an interstate highway runs north–south or east–west by its one or two-digit number. Although, in some cases an interstate doesn’t run exactly north to south or east to west, the number was assigned based on the road’s general direction.

Odd-numbered interstates run north–south, and the numbers increase as you travel from the West Coast (I-5) to the East coast (1-95).

Even-numbered interstates run east–west, and the numbers increase as you go from south (I-10) to north (1-94).

Interstate highways with three digits are those that connect to other major highways and interstates.

If the first number is an even number, it means the highway connects to another interstate highway at both ends, such as a beltway or a loop around a city.

If the first digit is an odd number, the highway is usually a spur route, which means it connects with an interstate at one end only, for example, a road that goes into a city.


Contrast in color and large movements are the keys to being spotted by rescue personnel.

Learn to use a signal mirror. Most come with the instructions on the back. If you don’t have a signal mirror, any mirror will do. Put two fingers out in front of you in a “peace” or “victory” sign. Use your fingers to sight in on the target you want to flash. Now with the reflective surface of the mirror facing away from you bring the mirror up between your eyes and your sighted target. Angle the mirror until you get the suns reflection on your sight. Keep in mind your target’s location in reference to the sun, you may need to pivot the mirror in a side to side motion, as well as up and down.

Carry a whistle. Yelling for help is definitely an option, but you will lose your voice quickly.  If you are alone, not a big deal, but if you are with others, you need your voice to communicate vital information with them to survive.

Our faithful survival chemical, potassium permanganate can be added to water to create a purple dye for a contrasting signal on the snow or light-colored ground.

Create what is called a buzz saw signal by tying cordage to your flashlight and swinging it in a circle to create contrast and movement at nighttime.  This signal can be seen by ground or air rescuers. Make sure it is securely tied or you could end up slinging your light into the great beyond or your survival partner’s head.

A tire, a shoe, rubber floor mat or any rubber material is flammable and when caught on a fire will create thick, black smoke and creates aerial contrast and movement. This method is most effective on a calm, windless day and less effective in high winds. Always remember to deflate a tire before burning. As a side note, if you don’t burn all your floor mats signaling for help, they serve as a moisture barrier and keep your butt dry and off the ground.

Three fires arranged in a regularly spaced row is an international distress signal. During the day, you can also attract attention with smoke. Green wood and leaves produce smoke. Start a fire using dry wood and add smoke producing material once it gets going.

Flares are an obvious signaling tool, ignite and wave it over your head or move in a circle to attract attention.

Flare guns are more effective than a flare, firing it up into the air allows you to clear visual obstructions and attract attention over several miles. Don’t point it at your face or another person. They can definitely cause injury.

Flags can be easily improvised, a national flag flown upside down is considered a distress symbol. In more recent years, this can also indicate an abandoned ship, national dissidence or a sign of war, subsequently not all countries recognize the inverted flag as a distress symbol.  However, a knot tied in any flag, a white flag or a flag with a square and a circle on it are all considered international distress symbols. (Seafaring vessels usually carry a pre-made orange SOS flag containing a square and circle.)

The above-mentioned visual signals can work, but sometimes you’ll need to communicate a more significant message to an aircraft. We’ve all seen movies where the actors use huge “SOS” signs on a beach to signal aircraft.  These are only effective when there is contrast between the “SOS” and the background. Create them with clothing, rocks, plants, sticks or anything else that’s clearly visible.

You will know that an airplane has spotted you when it tips its wings back and forth.  This is internationally known as the pilot saying, “I see you.”

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