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Signal and survive

First suggested by Bushscout
Practise different ways to send messages and stay safe in a survival situation.

You will need

  • Torch or phone
  • Pens or pencils
  • Scrap paper
  • Small mirrors
Ground to air symbols
PDF – 226.1KB
Morse code
PDF – 143.3KB
Tracking signs
PDF – 533.3KB

Join the practical skills alliance

Bushscout are a national community of Scout Leaders who have a passion for teaching traditional and practical Scouting skills to other Scout Leaders. Subjects covered on training days include:
  • knife, axe and saw safety and skills
  • backwoods cooking
  • tarpology and tents
  • fire
  • kelly kettles and water purification
  • pioneering
  • crafts
  • game preparation
Learn more about Bushscout

Safety checklist

Use the Safety checklist to help you plan and risk assess your activity.  Additional coronavirus-related controls to think about may include: 

  • Carry out the activity outside if possible – perhaps use a dining shelter or large tarpaulin if needed.
  • Make sure appropriate social distancing is maintained between individuals throughout the activity.
  • Ensure hands are cleaned before using any equipment and again straight afterward
  • Clean equipment between different users where possible.
  • Set up a hand cleaning station that you can use throughout the session.
  • Consider how you manage activities requiring close supervision – e.g. increased instruction, face coverings and extra cleaning?

Before you begin

  • This activity’s split into four bases – ‘Ground to air’, ‘Morse code’ and ‘Tracking signals’ – it’s best to set them up before everyone arrives.

Get organised

  1. The person leading the activity should explain that preparing for an emergency situation before you set off on an expedition will help if there’s a crisis such as becoming lost, injured, or stranded. These situations can quickly become life-threatening, especially in extreme weather conditions. Being able to signal for help in your group, and being able to ask for outside assistance, are vital skills as they make a rescue much more likely.
  2. Everyone should split into four groups.
  1. Each group should go to a different base. They should get stuck into the activity there.
  2. After 10 to 15 minutes, the person leading the activity should make a signal. Everyone should move to the next base and give it a go.
  3. Everyone should change bases every 10 to 15 minutes (when the person leading the activity makes a signal) until everyone’s completed all four bases.
  4. Everyone should come back together and reflect.

Ground to air

  1. The person leading the base should explain that the ground to air symbols and body signals are internationally recognised symbols for communicating with emergency air crews, so they’re useful to know if you’ll be walking or climbing in remote areas.
  2. The person leading the base should show everyone the symbols and signals. They should explain that the symbols should be marked out on the ground as big as possible, so they can be seen from the air. The recommended size is three metres wide by ten metres long (with about three metres between symbols).
  3. Everyone should think about the different things they could use to make the symbols. In a survival situation, they could use rocks, logs, backpacks, or groundsheets – or even dig grooves in the ground. Anything that stands out from the ground works.
  1. Everyone should split into two groups. Both groups should choose a message they’d like to send to the other group.
  2. One group should make their message using the ground to air symbols. They should use whatever’s available to make the symbol, whether they’re outdoors with access to sticks, leaves, and rocks, or indoors with access to jumpers, bags, or paper.
  3. At the same time, the other group should practise the body signals they’ll use.
  1. The groups should take it in turns to show each other their signals. Does the other group know what they mean?
  2. The groups should swap methods and repeat steps four to seven so everyone gets to practise their ground to air symbols and body signals.

Morse code

  1. The person leading the game should explain that on a sunny day, reflective surfaces can be used to attract attention. They can be used to reflect the sunlight towards rescue aircraft.
  1. The person leading the game should explain that at night, a torch can be used to signal. It’s important that people make sure they have fully charged batteries before they head out on an expedition. Some people have wind-up torches so they don’t have to worry about the batteries running out.
  2. Everyone should split into two groups. Each group should have a copy of the ‘Morse code information’ sheet. One group should have a torch or mirror, and the other should have a pen or pencil and a piece of paper.
  3. The group with the mirror or torch should choose a short message to send to the other group. They should send it using light and Morse code.
  1. The other group should write down the message and use their sheet to help them decode it.
  2. Once the group’s successfully received the message, the groups should swap roles so everyone has a turn at sending and decoding a message.

Tracking signals

  1. The person leading the base should explain that tracking signals are useful if people need to move location or head out to get help.
  2. Everyone should split into two groups.
  3. One group should plot a short route in the meeting space. They should wait out of sight at the end of their route.
  1. Once they’ve finished, the second group should follow the marked route to find the first group.

Rule of three

  1. The person leading the base should explain that the rule of three is a really helpful thing to remember in a survival situation, especially if people are likely to be in the situation for a while before they’re rescued.
  2. The person leading the base should read the rule of three. A person can survive: three minutes without oxygen, three hours without shelter from extreme weather, three days without water, and three weeks without food.
  1. Everyone should work together to choose a pretend survival situation. They should think about how many people there are, where they are, how far they are from rescue, any illnesses or injuries in the group, and what supplies the group has with them.
  2. Everyone should come up with a plan to keep themselves safe in the survival situation. They should use the rule of three to help them decide what to prioritise and think about who might be best at different tasks.


Some of the bases in this activity needed people to try, try again. Did any of the bases make people feel frustrated? Perhaps people didn’t recognise their ground to air symbols, or they found it hard to understand the other group’s Morse code. Did people feel like giving up, or was it easy to stick at it? People are used to sophisticated, modern ways of communicating, so going back to something simple and different can feel difficult. In a survival situation, refusing to let setbacks get in the way could be the difference between life and death. When might people need to get back up and try again in a survival situation? What might help them to do this? 


All activities must be safely managed. Use the safety checklist to help you plan and risk assess your activity. Do a risk assessment and take appropriate steps to reduce risk. Always get approval for the activity and have suitable supervision and an InTouch process.