Signaling and Navigating Using a Swiss Army Knife

Excerpted from Swiss Army Knife Camping & Outdoor Survival Guide by Bryan Lynch

Adventures in the wild don’t always go according to plan. At some point you may find yourself disoriented and lost. There are many ways in which you can help others find you. Movement, color, and sound are your three best friends in nature when trying to be noticed.

Always pay attention to your surroundings. While it is important to look down and watch where you are stepping in the wild, it is equally important to look around so you can navigate your surroundings. This will help you notice and remember landmarks, as well as keep your bearing. Speaking of landmarks, it is important to look back after passing them, because landmarks can look very different from different angles. Knowing what a landmark looks like from different angles will help if you find yourself backtracking..

Use Landmarks

There have been many instances of people who were very close to a road or civilization but couldn’t keep their bearing and ended up walking in circles. A good way to keep a bearing is to pick a prominent spot in front of you as well as behind you. Walk to the spot in front of you and stop. Look back to make sure you are still aligned in a straight line with the previous landmark. Now, pick a landmark that is in front of you and repeat this process as many times as necessary until you reach familiar ground.

Making a Compass

A compass will only help you if you know which direction you want to go or if you have a map. Having a map (a paper map won’t lose battery power!), or at least some knowledge of the region you’re in, is going to be needed, along with a compass. There are some Swiss Army Knife models and kits that come with a compass, so if you are fortunate enough to have one, you can skip this section. But what if you don’t have one of those models or the compass breaks? In my case, I carry the SwissChamp, which doesn’t have a compass. There is something else on the Champ that can help me though: a very small pin. I can turn that pin into a compass needle if I magnetize it. 

There are a couple ways to do this:

  • Rubbing the pin several times through a piece of silk material will magnetize it.
  • Rubbing the pin a few times in one direction along a magnet will also magnetize it.

Once the pin has been magnetized, place it on top of the smallest leaf you can find that will hold it and place that leaf in a puddle or a cup of water. If the pin is properly magnetized, it will begin to turn the leaf, much like the needle in a compass. When the pin stops, it will be displaying a north–south reading. I suggest doing this several times in order to make sure you are getting the best reading possible. 

Making a Drafting Compass

A drafting compass can help in determining distances on a map, as well as serving other functions. Since I love to write and doodle, I always have three writing utensils on me: a wooden pencil, a pen, and a marker. These items should be in everyone’s packs because they can be very useful. I suppose that is why Victorinox started including a ballpoint pen in some of their models.

For models with a retractable pen, extend one of the tools on the Swiss Army Knife at an angle. Use the point of that tool to center the compass. The pen can then be used to draw arcs and circles and to measure distance. 

If your model doesn’t come with a pen but you have a writing utensil in your supplies, you can still make a drafting compass. Extend one of the tools to use as the other point. Attach the writing utensil to the frame of the Swiss Army Knife with cordage or tape and use as described above.



A bright color is going to stand out against nature’s neutral color scheme. If you’re lost, you can hang your iconic red Swiss Army Knife from a tree limb or simply lay it out on a rock in an open area. Anyone who is glassing (using binoculars) the area is likely to notice this. Make sure that all of the tools of the knife are pulled out from the frame in order to produce more surface area that is reflective.

A reflective surface can be seen by a plane or other first responders from a very long distance. In the absence of a signaling mirror, the knife blade and other tools on the Swiss Army Knife can be used. Extend the knife blade and position it in the direction of the first responders and move the Swiss Army Knife up and down so that it catches and reflects the sunlight. If the metal surfaces are severely scratched or dirty, sand and other grit can be used to polish the surface beforehand.


Sometimes the best option may be to attempt self-rescue and walk out of a bad situation. If you do, mark the way in which you came and the direction in which you are going, just in case you become disoriented and backtrack, or if first responders come upon your path. Arrows or other marks can be cut into trees with the blade or any other appropriate tool contained in the Swiss Army Knife. Cutting pieces of fabric and hanging them from a tree will act as a marker flag. Breaking branches or thick vegetation is also a means of blazing a trail. Any kind of unnatural-looking marking will draw attention and increase your chances of being found.


Some of the Swiss Army Knife models come with a ballpoint pen. If writing material such as paper is available, then notes can be left along your path. Include information that pertains to the direction in which you are going and if you are in need of medical attention. Anchor the note by leaving it under a rock or piercing it with a branch. 

A makeshift writing utensil can be easily made using fire. Find a branch and taper one end with the blade. Stick the end of the branch into the fire until it is sufficiently burned on the outside. The blackened end can then be used just like the tip of a pencil to mark or write on hard surfaces much like a kid does with sidewalk chalk.


Signal fires should be placed in open areas and on high ground when possible, to ensure that the smoke and fire itself are highly visible. Tree canopies will thin out a smoke column quite a bit, so make sure there is an open area above the fire. Also have plenty of fuel piled up next to the fire. This is especially important for the tinder, so that the fire can be ignited as quickly as possible. Use the magnifying glass or a ferrocerium rod with the Swiss Army Knife to start the fire. When a good fire base has been created, burn green foliage to create a column of thick white smoke that will be highly visible.

For more outdoor survival tips, read Swiss Army Knife Camping & Outdoor Survival Guide by Bryan Lynch.


Bryan Lynch regularly publishes articles and gear reviews on, a popular survival information forum with millions of visitors. He also publishes his own survivalist blog, where he shares experiences, reviews, projects, and opinions related to emergency preparedness and self-reliance.

An avid hunter and fisherman, the first pocket knife Bryan ever owned was a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife. Ever since then he has appreciated the value and importance of having a good blade on hand.