Monthly Archives: October 2012

How to Signal for Rescue with a Mirror

Most rescue techniques sound simple enough…until you try them yourself, right? Take signaling with a rescue mirror, for instance. Most people know that you can use a mirror or another bright object to signal distress and attract the attention of rescuers. But what if you don’t know how to aim your little rescue mirror? Well…here are two great videos that demonstrate the technique.

First–an excellent video how-to that explains why mirror signaling works and how to use a mirror as a rescue signal:

Besides using regular mirrors or shiny objects to attract rescue, you could spend about $10 and buy an actual rescue mirror that has built-in sighting and aiming aids. Even if you have one of these with you when you need to use it, you still should practice ahead of time to make sure that you actually know how to do it.

Click here to watch a video about the SOL Rescue Flash™ Signal Mirror that explains how.

Many other rescue aids besides mirrors exist. Both visual and auditory methods can help you attract attention if you need to be rescued in the backcountry. Knowing communications conventions, such as arranging visual signals in threes, can help you communicate more effectively.

Want to know more about signaling for rescue?
Read my article on the Survival Skills website:
“How to Signal for a Wilderness Rescue”
If you are stranded in a backcountry setting and you need to be rescued, effective communication can be one of your most important resources. Know the distress and rescue communications conventions, and plan quickly to communicate your distress signal so that you can attract the attention you need before it’s too late…click here to continue reading

Backcountry Shelters: Yurts, Tents, and Tarps

If I’m stuck outside overnight in an area that looks like this…

You can bet I’ll be hoping that I stumble upon some super-sweet backcountry yurt such as this one, especially if it’s a cold and snowy winter eve:

However, I’d be happy to have my little three-season tent with me, as it’s proven to be a trusty backcountry companion.

Obviously, if you’ve planned a backcountry camping trip, you will want to carry a shelter with you, but if you’re like me, you won’t like to carry much weight. In that case, a tarp and pole shelter might work just fine:

But if you find yourself in one of those unplanned camping moments, don’t forget what makes a good shelter: insulation that keeps you warm and protected from the elements, and a dry space where you can sleep. You can do a lot with a tarp or emergency blanket when you’re in a wooded and can add natural resources such as branches, leaves, and pine needles to your shelter.

And sometimes if you look around carefully, you might find a natural shelter such as this rock cave where I stayed a night with some friends in New Zealand:

If you need to make a shelter in a survival situation, look for natural shelters first, and then you can use what you already have with you and in your surroundings to create a shelter that fits your needs.

Want to know more about survival shelters?
Read my article on the Survival Skills website:
“Woodland Survival Shelters”
If you’re lost in a forest at night and it begins to snow, you might have to make the choice to bed down for the night, and you’ll need a shelter to help keep you warm. Survival shelters can protect you from the elements and help you retain vital heat in your body while you develop a plan for reaching safety…click here to continue reading

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.

Aspen Trees and Natural Sunscreen

This morning, I woke up to fresh snow on the ground here in Vail, Colorado. A few early-season snowstorms have already dusted the peaks white, but today was the first morning when it actually stuck on the ground. It was a wet snow, one that likely won’t last for long once the sun comes out, but the first snow marks the seasonal change for me: beginning of winter!!

In the last few weeks, aspen trees have marked another important seasonal change: the end of autumn. First, their leaves explode with color–fluorescent greens and eye-popping yellows. And then their leaves drop to the ground, leaving behind only naked, ashen branches.

Something about these bare aspens strikes me: their beauty. Long slender trunks, white, and the now-colorless branches look like they’re inviting white snowflakes to join them.

Besides simply being beautiful, aspens also have a function: natural sunscreen. Really? Yes. If you walk up to an aspen trunk and rub your palms along it, a powdery white substance will stick to your hands. If you then rub this powder on your face and arms, it will protect you from the sun’s harmful rays. So…it only has a SPF of about 5, but–hey–who can complain when nature give you a free gift?

Want to know more about natural sunscreens and sunburn treatments?
Read my article on the Survival Skills site:
“Survival Sunscreen and Natural Sunburn Treatments”
While most sunburns aren’t life threatening, they can leave you itchy, mildly uncomfortable, or moaning in pain. Sunburns are caused by UV radiation, so it’s possible to get sunburn on cold days and hot days alike. Overexposure to the sun and lack of proper skin covering can lead to sunburn, so plan ahead to prevent sunburn…click here to continue reading

Photo © Traci J. Macnamara.


What’s camping without a fire? Of course, fun friends and outdoor adventures make good times, too, but the campfire is the place where people come together and where stories get shared. Desert campfires are among my favorite memories…the smell of juniper branches burning is a smell like no other. But I’ve also enjoyed some other good fires over the years.

I just wrote an article on the Survival Skills website about how to make your own tinder (“Improvised Emergency Tinder”), which reminded me that every fire…no matter how big it becomes…must start out with small, dry pieces of tinder. Even this massive bonfire in Vallorcine at the French-Swiss border started with some tiny burnable chunks:

I prefer a smaller, more manageable campfire…like this one, which is just cozy enough for après-activity conversation and quiet enough to hear the coyotes howling:

Even a good stove fire needs tinder and kindling before it gets going. I normally use shredded paper (if I have some), dry pine needles and twigs, and small wood chips as tinder to get this stove going. I pile tinder underneath a kindling pyramid and light the tinder at several locations with a match.

Then…after the tinder lights the kindling, it’s time to add some small pieces of wood as fuel and then continue adding larger pieces of fuel from there. If you’re in a survival situation and don’t have dry tinder, you’re in luck if you’ve made some emergency tinder at home and carried it with you in a watertight container, such as a film canister. You can make tinder from common household items or items you might normally throw away:

It’s also possible to make improvised tinder from petroleum-based lip balm, insect repellent, hand sanitizer…and a slew of other things. But no matter how you get your fire going, you’ll appreciate it when it’s radiating warmth–whether the fire’s heat keeps you from freezing to death or whether it creates a nice atmosphere on your next starry night out.

Want to know more about tinder?
Read my article on the Survival Skills website:
“Improvised Emergency Tinder”
If you need to build a fire in a survival situation, you’ll want to be able to get your fire lit quickly, and you can enhance your basic fire-building techniques by having emergency tinder available…click here to continue reading

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.

The Moon and Nighttime Navigation

I’ve always enjoyed the moon as a beautiful thing in the night sky, but it’s also been a big help when I’ve needed its light to help me travel in the dark. The moon’s reflected light makes full moon hikes and nighttime skiing adventures possible, and it can also be a helpful indicator of general direction. To understand how the moon can help you find north, south, east, and west, see my article on the Survival Skills site: “The Moon and Nighttime Navigation.”

I went through some photos of nighttime adventures and found several in which the moon’s light made either the nighttime more enjoyable or nighttime navigation more possible. Upper left and below, I took a photograph of the crescent moon at Penitente Canyon in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Penitente is a nice rock climbing area, and I spent the evening of this crescent moon camping out with a friend, cooking under the stars.

I probably like crescent moons more for their beauty than any other type of moon. Full moons are nice because they offer a lot of light, but crescent moons are just cool. I took the photo of the crescent moon below on the border of Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest, near Leadville. As I lived in a backcountry cabin in this area for four months, I often relied on the light of the moon to guide me home.

One more cool thing? A lunar compass. If, for some reason, you’re stuck out without a compass, and you need some more clues about how to navigate at night, check out this YouTube video, which explains how to use a stick and the moon’s shadows to determine general direction:

Want to read more about the moon and navigation?
Click here to read my article on the Survival Skills site:
“The Moon and Nighttime Navigation”
Sleeping outside under the moon and stars can be a beautiful thing, but if you’re lost at night, you’re probably less concerned about the night sky’s beauty. Instead, you want to know how to use it to guide you home…click here to continue reading

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.