Learning How to Navigate and Signal for Wilderness Safety

Navigation refers to your ability to get from one point to another. If you are at a lake in the middle of a wilderness, you need to be able to navigate your way to your next destination. You have probably heard this saying before, but it sums it up simply. Navigation is getting from point B.

While you are in the wilderness, you will use a compass and maps to navigate. These are the most basic navigational tools that you need - and that you will find helpful to use.

About Maps

There are several different types of maps that you can use. There are large-scale topical maps that you might use if traveling by land. If traveling by air or sea, you may use aeronautic or nautical charts. These types of maps are smaller than topical maps. The size of the map does not refer to how big the map is when you unfold it. Instead, the size refers to the area it represents.

The size of a map is determined by its representation fraction presented as a ratio. A map with a scale of 1:25,000 uses one unit to represent 25,000 units of the actual terrain. The larger the actual unit, the smaller the map because there is less detail of a large area provided. You can remember it like this: large-scale maps cover less actual terrain, but provide more detail. Smaller scale maps cover more actual terrain, but provide less detail.

Below you will find some of those types, as well as how each is used.

Small-Scale Topographic Maps

These maps use a scale of 1:100,000. One inch equals 1.578 statute miles. A statute mile is the formal name for a mile. This type of map is useful for on-foot or vehicle travel.

Medium-Scale Topographic Maps

These maps use a scale of 1:62,500. One inch equals .9864 statute miles. This type of map is ideal for long, backpacking trips. They are also useful in planning longer trips.

Large-Scale Topographic Maps


Contour Lines on a Map

Contour lines on a map join parts that have equal elevation above a given level. The given level might be sea level. The contour lines on a topographic map will show valleys, hills, as well as the steepness of slopes.

Contour lines are typically brown, with every fifth line appearing as bold. This line is an index contour. Index contour lines are the only ones which have the elevation marked. You can determine the elevation by noticing the space between the contour lines.

Contour lines that are closer together represent a steep slope. Contour lines with wide spaces between them - or no lines at all - mean that the terrain is mostly flat.

The shape of contour lines also help you to know the land features that exist in an area.
 1.       Peaks.  Peaks are shown using contour lines that form a circle.

2.      Low areas between peaks.  These areas are shown using contour lines that form a "U" or "V" between peaks. 

3.      Valley.  A valley is shown using the same contour lines as with a saddle.  The difference is a valley is larger than a saddle.

4.      Drainage.  Drainage is shown by contour lines that form a "V".  The "V" points up toward a higher elevation.

5.      Ridgeline.  A ridgeline is shown by contour lines that form a "V" and point to a lower elevation. 

Symbols are also used on a topographic map to keep the map less cluttered.  In addition to contour lines, topographic maps also use symbols for the following features:

1.      Boundaries

2.      Buildings

3.      Coastal features

4.      Control data and monuments

5.      Glaciers and permanent snowfields

6.      Land surveys

7.      Marine shorelines

8.      Mines and caves

9.      Projection and grids

10.    Railroads

11.    Rivers, lakes, and canals

12.    Roads

13.    Submerged areas and bogs

14.    Surface features

15.    Transmission lines and pipelines

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Basic Wilderness Safety course?

16.    Vegetation

Coordinate Systems

Coordinate systems allow you to determine your location - or navigate to another location - using interesting lines. There are two different types of coordinate systems. One system uses the angular coordinates latitude and longitude. The other system type uses rectangular coordinates, such as the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM).

Using Latitude and Longitude

Lines of latitude and longitude are used to determine your position on earth. Each line represents a different degree of latitude or longitude. The point where a line of latitude and a line of longitude intersect will be your exact coordinates.

Lines of latitude run north to south between the north pole and south pole, with the equator being zero degrees latitude. They measure your north-south position. The South Pole is 90 degrees south. The North Pole is 90 degrees north. One degree of latitude is 69 statute miles - or 60 nautical miles.

Lines of longitude - or meridians - measure your east-west position. The prime meridian is 0 degrees. It runs through Greenwich, England. The meridians to the west of the prime meridian are degrees west. Meridians to the east of the prime meridian are degrees east.

The lines of latitude and longitude are measured in degrees, minutes, and seconds.

  1. The symbol for degrees is °. The symbol for minutes is '. The symbol for seconds is ".

The three formats for the measurements are:

  1. Degrees: DDD°. Minutes: MM' Seconds: SS.S"

There are sixty seconds in a minute, and there are sixty minutes in a degree.

On a map, this would look like: 32° 18' 23.1" N 122° 36' 52.5" W.

Latitude is always read first. In addition, a line of longitude never goes above 180 degrees east or west.

Take a look at the latitude and longitude for the major cities in the United States. Find each city on a topographic map to become familiar with locating a point by using latitude and longitude.

Determining Direction Using a Watch

In addition to using a compass to determine in which direction you are heading, you can also use a watch. To use the watch, the watch should be level. Next, point the hour hand toward the sun. Draw an imaginary line between the hour hand and 12:00. If it's daylight savings time, draw it between the hour hand and 1:00. The line is the southern heading. If you draw another imaginary line that is perpendicular to the first line, you will be able to establish the direction. If you are using a watch in the southern hemisphere, the first imaginary line represents the northern heading.

Using a GPS

A GPS - or Global Positioning System can be used to help you navigate. A GPS relies on satellite signal to work. As satellite signals become easier to find in more and more areas, GPS tools are becoming more reliable. That said, you should still learn how to navigate using (at least) latitude and longitude. The reliability of GPS tools can also be affected by cold, heat, moisture, dirt, and sand.

Having the knowledge and tools to be able to signal for help is critical if you are ever in a survival situation. If you left a predeparture plan with a friend or loved one, you can rest assured that there are search and rescue crews looking for you.However, the wilderness is a vast place. Even if the search and rescue teams know your general location, spotting you from the air might be comparable to finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. What is more, you could be lost and not in an area listed in your predeparture plan. It is important to be able to signal your location so you can be found.

The best kind of signals you can use are parachute flares, aerial flares, and your cell phone. If you are on a plane or boat, a VHF radio or an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) should be part of your gear. They will be the most effective tools you can use to signal your location to rescuers.

About Aerial Flares

Aerial flares are one-time-use tools. You should only use an aerial flare if you spot rescuers in the air or on a boat. To use an aerial flare, hold the launcher to that the firing end is pointed over your head and to the sky. While the flare is pointed toward the sky, use your other hand to grasp and pull the chain down. An average aerial flare will launch 500 feet and burn for six seconds. It can be seen up to 30 miles away. Since they are flammable, always be careful when handling them.

About Parachute Flares

A parachute flare is an aerial flare with a parachute attached to it. With a parachute attached, it burns longer while it floats back down to the ground. Just as with aerial flares, you should only use a parachute flare if you can see your rescuers. Since they are flammable, always be careful when handling them.

About Cell Phones

Cell phones do not always get signal in remote areas of the wilderness; therefore, they are not a reliable tool for signaling. That does not mean you should not have yours with you, though. However, you should always have other signaling tools available.

When in the wilderness, keep your cell phone turned off to conserve the battery life in case you would need it for an emergency. If you are in a cold climate, keep your phone close to your body to keep it warm. This will also help conserve the battery life.

Before you venture out into the wilderness, it is a good idea to activate your phone's automatic location setting. This will enable E911 to calculate your position. While in the wilderness, turn on your phone once a day for at least five minutes so that it checks in with the nearest tower. Even if you do not think you have signal, the phone might still be leaving a trail when it pings a tower.

About VHF Radios

VHF radios are some of the more reliable signaling tools because they do not need satellite signal to work. That said, because they do not use satellite signals, they are also limited in the distance they can reach. VHF radios reach between an estimated 20 and 60 miles. If using a VHF radio, channel 16 is the emergency channel.

About Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs)

Althought this type of signaling tool is more expensive, it is also worth the expense, especially for watercraft. If you are on a boat, you want to make sure you have one. When you activate an EPIRB, it transmits a signal on two distress frequencies. These frequencies are picked up by both civilian and military aircraft.The devices also float. To avoid getting separated from your device, make sure to use a lanyard. In addtion, register your EPIRB in accordance with the instructions.

Other Signaling Tools

While the signaling tools listed above are among some of the most effective, they are not the only signaling tools available by any means. Below are some other types of signaling tools, along with basic instructions on how to use them to attract the attention of a search and rescue team.

Signaling Mirrors

Signaling mirrors are good to use on clear and sunny days. They can be seen from as far as 70 to 100 miles, which make them effective as well. You just have to practice to learn how to use one effectively.

To use a signaling mirror, hold it between your index finger and thumb on one hand. Reflect the light from the mirror onto your other hand. Next, bring the mirror to eye level. Look through the sighting hole on the mirror. There should be a white or orange spot of light in the sighting hole. This is known as the aim indicator. While you hold the mirror close to your eye, put the aim indicator on your target.

You can use a signaling mirror when you see your rescuers. However, since it is seen from such great distances, you can also use it periodically during the day in hopes that rescue crews will see it and find you.

Handheld Red Signal Flare

Handheld red signal flares are only good for one use. They are most effective when used at night. That said, you should only use them if you spot an aircraft, boat, or rescue team. Since they are flammable, always be careful when handling them. To use the flare, remove the cap, then strike the ignition button with the abrasive side of the cap. You should always use these types of flares with your back to the wind. For safety's sake, keep the flare pointed away from your face as you light it, as well as after it is lit. Do not hold this kind of flare over your head.

Most handheld red signal flares will burn for two minutes. If you want a flare that burns longer, you can get a handheld marine red signal flare.

Orange Smoke Signals

An orange smoke signal is also a one-time use signaling tool. You should only use it if you can see our rescuers, either on land, water, or in the aire. Since it is flammable, always be careful when handling it.

To use an orange smoke signal, stand with your back to the wind and light it. Make sure to keep it pointed away from your face and body.

This type of signal is best used in warm and dry weather. Smoke is kept close to the ground in cold weather. Rain will cause the smoke to dissipate.

Ground to Air Signals

A ground to air signal is a signal that can be seen from the air. You can buy signal panels that will alert rescuers in planes or choppers of your need for help, as well as your location. However, you can also create your own signal panels by using a 3 x 18 foot long piece of nylon. Use orange for winter, and use white for summer.Below you will find the basic signal designs.

1. V = Need Assistance

2. X = Need Medical Assistance

3. Upward arrow symbol = Proceed This Way


It may not be something you would think about, but a kite is an excellent signaling tool. Not only can rescuers easily spot it, it also makes it easy for them to pinpoint your exact location. There are kites for sale that are designed specifically for resue sitautions. You can even use the kite to put other signaling devices, such as flares or strobes, higher into the air.

Strobe Lights

A strobe light is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, but provides a bright flash at one-second intervals. Strobe lights typically require batteries, but can run up to eight hours on one set. It is visible for up to one nautical mile if the skies are clear.


A whistle can not only help to signal your rescuers. It can also signal members of your group if you get lost or separated. A whistle should be part of your gear each time you venture into the wilderness. Blow your whistle multiple times in short bursts. Repeat this every three to five minutes. Do not keep blowing into your whistle if you don't see or hear rescue teams or your group. Instead, busy yourself with other tasks necessary to survival. Blow on the whistle periodically.

Improvised Signaling Tools

If you do not have any signaling tools with your gear, or you have already used the signaling tools you packed, you can also improvise using other things you have with you - or items found in nature. Below is a list of improvised signaling tools that you can use to help rescue teams pinpoint your location.


At night, fire is one of the best signaling tools you can use. You can ignite one large fire to attract attention. You do not need to build the three fires in a triangle.Your energy and firewood are best saved for future use.


In addition to fire, you can also use smoke to signal for help. That said, smoke is not effective at night. You should use it on relatively clear days when there is not a lot of wind. In addition to creating smoke, you also want to be sure that the smoke stands out from the surroundings. You can do this by using different types of material to create the smoke.

1. To create smoke when there is snow on the ground or the surroundings are very light in color, use oil, fuel, or tires. This will create black smoke.

2. To create smoke when your surroundings are darker, use green leaves, moss, ferns, grass, and even a little water. This will create white smoke.

To create smoke, build a tepee fire. You will want to use a lot of tinder and kindling for it. That said, do not light it after you build it. Before you light it, you want to build a log cabin firelay around the teepee.

To create a log cabin firelay, use large pieces of fuel wood. Place them on opposite sides of the teepee. Next, find smaller pieces of fuel wood. Lay those across the large sets of fuel wood. These smaller pieces should be parallel, but on the other sides of the teepee. Pretend like you are building a structure using Lincoln Logs.Keep repeating until you form a cabin. Leave an opening at the top so you can reach the tinder when you are ready to light it.

Place a bough over the top. When you are ready to light it, remove the bough and light.

Creating a Signal Mirror

A signaling mirror can be created from anything you have that is shiny. Metal containers, credit cards, watches, jewelry, coins, and belt buckles can all be used.However, it will take practice to be able to use these things as signaling mirrors.

To use an improvised signaling mirror, take your shiny object in your hand. Hold it between your index finger and thumb. Reflect the sunlight from the object onto the palm of your other hand. Create a "V" between your thumb and index finger on the hand that has the reflection. Next, move the reflection and your hand until you have the rescuers in the "V", then move the reflected light into the "V" and onto the rescuers.

While you should use an improvised signaling mirror when you can see rescue crews, you should also use it at various times during the day. You may not be able to see your rescuers, but that does not mean they will not see you. A signaling mirror can be seen from far away. That said, stop signaling aircraft once you are sure they have spotted you. You do not want to interfere with the pilot's vision.

If you do not have a signaling mirror, you can use bark, grass, brush, logs, or any material that provides a contrast to the ground color.