Monthly Archives: September 2013

Get Creative: The CD-Improvised Signal Mirror

Yes, it’s always nice to have the perfect tool for the job, but improvisation is an essential survival skill. If you can get creative with your gear, you’ll work yourself out of seemingly impossible situations. As I was researching improvised signal mirror devices, I came across this man’s video about how to use a CD as a signal mirror:

I like this guy’s go-for-it approach, and I also like how he also uses a traditional signal mirror for comparison. Sometimes an improvised tool isn’t the perfect tool, but as long as it works…I’d give it a try!

Want to know about signal mirrors and improvised signal mirrors?
Read my article on the survival skills website:

“How to Use a Signal Mirror for Wilderness Rescue”

Text Messaging and 911

emergency text messageYou know that you can call 911 from your cell phone (if you have service) or satellite phone (if you have one) when you’re in a wilderness emergency, but can you send a text message to 911?

The simple answer is that the ability to contact 911 using text is currently only available on a limited basis in a few markets.

Not really so simple, eh? And for this reason, you should not rely on text to reach 911. But someday in the future, this service may be more reliable. As reported on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) text-to-911 website, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon have voluntarily committed to provide text-to-911 services by May 15, 2014 in all areas where a call center is prepared to receive text messages.

And an important rule will go into effect next week, on September 30, 2013, to help protect people who may try to text 911 during this transition time. Also reported on the FCC text-to-911 website is the news that the FCC is requiring that by this date “all wireless telephone companies and certain other text messaging providers…send an automatic ‘bounce-back’ message to any consumer who tries to send a text message to 911 where this service is not yet available.”

Want to learn more about mobile devices and emergency response?
Read my article on the Survival Skills website:

“How to Call for Emergency Wilderness Rescue”

Photo © Flickr® user k4dordy.

Helicopters and Signaling for Emergency Rescue

In the recent flooding in Boulder, Colorado, emergency rescue helicopters flew stranded residents to safety. The Blackhawk was one type of helicopter used in the rescues:


The CH-47 Chinook was another type of helicopter used to rescue people:


Both of these types of helicopters were dispatched to Boulder from the 2nd Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment out of Fort Carson, Colorado. Colorado National Guard displayed incredible skill and courage in rescuing people, stranded in their homes or in other remote locations. People were even pulled to safety from submerged cars.

This YouTube video shows a rescue helicopter in action in Boulder:

News reporters in Boulder sent out broadcasts letting people know that helicopters would be scanning the area and looking for people who needed to be rescued. They suggested that those who needed rescue have a white sheet or a white flag to wave and that they use a signal mirror to attract the attention of aircraft.

If you’re in need of rescue in a wilderness emergency situation, and you believe that an aircraft may be looking for you, you can use a number of signaling techniques including smoke fires, signal mirrors, and ground-to-air symbols.

To review the five-symbol ground-to-air emergency code symbols and their meanings, see my article on the Survival Skills website:

“Rescue Signaling: Know the Ground-to-Air Emergency Code”

Blackhawk Photo © Flickr® user USASOC News Service.
Chinook Photo © Flickr® user California National Guard.

Solo Adventures

To date, some of my most memorable moments in the outdoors have been spent on solo journeys, so I wanted to dedicate this post to the memory of past solo journeys…and to the thought of more good ones to come. First of all…the Utah desert has been an area of deep inspiration:

traci macnamara desert shadow

I first passed through Moab-area in 2003 on a solo road trip in the 1970 VW van that I had at the time, and once I discovered the beauty in its red canyons, I returned over and over again to hike, run, bike, and camp by myself. I also camped and climbed with others, almost always staying at least one night near Bridger Jack Mesa:

bridger jack sunset

Another place that has greatly contributed to my sense of peace in the outdoors is Antarctica:

traci macnamara antarctic shadow

As I hiked and skied by myself over the twenty-five months that I’ve lived and worked at McMurdo Station, I couldn’t help but feel comfort in such wide-open space:

antarctica landscape

And, of course, the French Alps–in particular, the mountains surrounding Chamonix, France–have been a special place. A three-day solo journey that I went on in this area is one of my most memorable experiences.

traci macnamara alps

I encountered horrible weather on my first night out, but then the following days were charmed as I hiked up the Bérard Valley, climbed to the top of Mont Buet in the snow, and then crossed over glaciers and snowfields into the Aiguilles Rouges.

alps landscape

I’ve also shared many beautiful moments with friends and family in the outdoors, but these solo adventures will always be close to my heart. I enjoy the challenge of relying on my experience and judgment when I’m out alone, and I also feel recharged by solitude and vast open spaces. And–funny how it happens–I’m usually more talkative when I return home!

Want to know more about how you can be prepared to undertake a solo adventure in the outdoors?
Read my article on the Survival Skills website:

“Solo Survival: Safely Venture Out Alone”

Injury, Gear, Weather: Three Survival Challenges

Issues related to weather, injury, and gear can cause some of the biggest outdoor survival challenges. Often, I think of these three things as deal-breakers…when something’s not right here, then it’s often time to bail, or re-group, or go home for good.

In the summer of 2010, I encountered challenges in each of these three areas as I walked and biked through France on a forty-day journey. Eight days into the journey, I got tendonitis in my ankle. It swelled up, and I couldn’t walk…so I had to decide what to do next.


In response to this challenge, I basically had to quit walking, and I thought I might have to quit altogether. But I rested for about 10 days with bags of ice on my ankle, and I made a plan to continue the journey on a bike to relieve stress on my ankle while it continued to heal. This solution required me to get creative with my gear.


I borrowed a bike, and I used zip ties and bungee cords to strap my backpack onto a rack that I attached to the bike’s rear pannier. It worked, as I rode hundreds of miles through France and camped along the way until I reached the foot of the Alps.

Throughout the journey, and especially in the Alps, I had to make difficult decisions based on the weather.


In some areas, such as the one above, low clouds obscured the trail, which often got faint as it passed through high alpine pasture. If I knew that I had to cross such an area, I watched the weather carefully, and in this instance, I had to wait an extra day for the weather to improve before it was safe to continue.

When you have a goal in the outdoors, it’s often hard to give up that goal when confronted with challenges. But sometimes, surviving means giving up goals–or returning to go after them again when the time is right.

Want to know more about survival scenarios involving injury, gear, and weather?
Read my article on the Survival Skills website:

“Survival Scenarios: Turn Back Now”

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.

Bliss or Bliss-less in a Bivouac Sack?

Sleeping in a bivouac sack in bad weather is never quite as comfy as sleeping in a tent, but I like to carry a light backpack, so despite camping in skies that looked like this…

1-chamonix skies

…I once chose only to carry a very lightweight bivouac sack for a few nights out above Chamonix in the French Alps. My backpacking companions, however, chose more wisely:

2-alpine tents

My sister carried the one-person tent pictured on the above left, and her two friends chose to carry the burly two-person mountain tent on the right. I plopped down my bivouac sac between them, hoping that their tents would provide extra shelter from the elements, but I woke up–flooded out–in the middle of the night when rain streamed off of their shelters and straight on top of me! This is how I felt the next morning:

3-alpine blahs

But, I wasn’t deterred. And I planned for a better shelter the next night. First, I set up my bivouac further away from their tents, and I also stretched a tarp across my trekking poles to deflect rain.

4-traci macnamara alpine bivy

However, I knew the comforts of that two-person tent (even with three people!), and as soon as the rain started falling, I jumped inside:

5-two or three person tent

On this trip, I had two bliss-less nights in a bivouac sack, but these lightweight shelters truly are amazing–in an emergency situation, on a rainless summer night, or anytime you don’t want to slog around with a heavy tent. But despite the benefits of going ultra-lightweight, I’d recommend a model with a pole or a moldable wire support to keep the material away from your face and to create a way for rain to slide off of the sack’s exterior while you sleep (more) soundly inside.

Want to know more about bivouac sacks and different bivy sack designs?
Read my article on the Survival Skills website:

“Survival Shelter Overview: Bivouac Sacks”

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.

Tokai Forest Tepee Remains

I was hiking in Tokai Forest, Cape Town-area, South Africa, when I came across a cluster of several unfinished tepee-style shelters that were using tree trunks as their central support:

tepee 2

I found this one to be a pretty nice job at a makeshift shelter, or at least at the beginnings of one. There’s a lot of logging going on in the area, and I wondered if workers might have been trying to make a camp for the night so that they wouldn’t have to travel each day to and from work. It looks like this structure has a planned door where the large poles extend and open outwards. It would be nice to create a tunnel-like entrance here and cover it with foliage.

tepee entrance

When I noticed that the grass bed here was still green, I wondered how long this one had been abandoned…or if it were simply a work in progress. Here’s a (bit of a blurry) close-up of the ground insulation, which is a good idea for warmth and comfort:

tepee bed

An emergency blanket, a tent fly, or any other outer insulating material would help finish off these tepee-style shelters and make them a workable short-term shelter. But a troop of baboons also live in Tokai Forest, so leaving food inside wouldn’t be a good idea…

Want to know more about how to make your own survival shelter like this one?
Read my article on the Survival Skills website:

“How to Build a Tepee-Style Survival Shelter”

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.