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How to Make a Signal Fire

Apr 17, 2008
When planning a trip into the wilderness most think that there will be little need for rescue, or knowledge of how to draw attention to a signal fire. The fact is that you must always plan for the worst case scenarios. In a wilderness trip there could be injuries of one or more from a group. This injury may require leaving the person behind. For those who remain, attempt to send up a signal fire. Another situation where a signal fire is required is when a member gets lost from the rest of the group.

A Place for the Signal Fire

The immediate issue is the location of the signal fire. The first consideration has to be given to any injured persons in the party. If it is unsafe to move them, the injured should stay, and other suggestions for movement may have to be compromised. If they can be moved a short distance, first locate the fire site then move everyone there. It is rare that a group would break apart in order to find help. If the group has wandered far from the appointed path or left with officials, friends and love ones, then a two-pronged rescue plan might include a party going for help while the rest stay at the signal site location.

The ideal site for a signal fire should be on a slope or area that most likely faces rescue plane arrivals. This usually means big city locations or the wilderness staff's management office. The site will need to be cleaned and made free of underbrush that might start a forest fire. It should be a place where a plane could easily see your group's tents and other items. This gives an indication that the fire was not the result of a natural event like a lightning strike.

Clear the area large enough for three fires in a triangular shape, which is the international position for a signal fire. If you are in a fuel rich area, where you can find the fuel necessary to keep them burning constantly, you should do so. If you do not have this luxury, prepare the fires with tender, kindling, and wood while waiting for signs of rescuers in the area. Then, and only then, set the fire. If you do not draw attention, let the fires go out and prepare them again for an instant restarting.

Alternates to Signal Fires

The first thing you should remember from any lesson on signal fires is the 3-fire triangular position of the international distress signal. If you were to be near water you could place boats in this pattern. If no boats exist, build rafts and place them in a triangular position by using rope to lash them together. Desert wilderness travelers can practice such simple ideas as placing their shelters in the triangle position. If there is a large rock outcropping, and no firewood stores, you can build solid circles of rocks in piles in a triangle pattern.
About the Author
Cory Doggett owns and operates several websites specializing in survival and wilderness skills. Visit the Untolerable.com survival forums.
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