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Tue, Dec. 10

Wilderness Common Sense: Surveyor flagging tape – a survival tool?

Luis Vega, Wilderness Columnist

Luis Vega, Wilderness Columnist

Have you ever heard of anyone using flagging tape as a survival tool? I mean the fluorescent pink type used by surveyors to mark a location? I haven’t but I always carry a roll in my pack. You can buy it at any hardware store for about $2.50 a roll. This cheap, biodegradable, highly visible flagging tape can be used for many tasks that can make a big difference in a survival situation.

First and foremost, it’s used to mark a location, making it visible and easy to find even in thick brush. This works great for surveyors but if someone is lost and needs to mark a location such as a campsite, water source or a trail, flagging does the trick.

When I was in Search and Rescue, I used flagging to mark the location of a lost person’s footprint. If I lost the track, which sometimes happened, I could go back to the start where the flagging was and begin again. I’d use several long lengths of flagging wrapped around an easily visible tree branch or bush. I’d write important information on the flagging with a marker so that if another searcher found the site, he/she would immediately have the pertinent information – time the track was found, direction of travel, who found the track, etc. This made searching more efficient and I could move fast without losing a location.

Using flagging to mark locations in the field worked great in geologic applications but I learned a new use for it while working in the jungles of Central America. Conducting a grid-sampling program, we used long strips of flagging to mark the grid boundaries of an area we were sampling for gold. The vegetation was thick so we had to make the locations highly visible. After a long day of field work, we returned to camp with plans to resume the sampling in the morning. When we got back to the area, we couldn’t find the sites. Where was our flagging? Now, playing detectives instead of geologists, we tracked footprints to a nearby village. Looking for the culprit, we found every young girl in the village had florescent pink flagging braided into their pigtails. Our hearts melted. They assumed we didn’t need the flagging any more since we’d left it in the jungle. We left several rolls of flagging with the village mayor for the girls to wear. We thought it looked better on them than on the trees.

In a survival situation, use flagging to mark the spot when you first realize you’re lost. Now sit down, think and observe. Is there a nearby ridge where you can get a better view or cell service? If you hike up there, mark your way with flagging so you can return to the same spot. Place flagging so that if you look back you can see at least two flags. In this way you’ll know if you’re walking in a straight line or going in circles. Marking your travel also makes it easier to return to the place where you first determined you were lost. Like my boss used to tell me, always go from the known to the unknown, don’t just walk in circles.

A highly visible flag can be made with a long stick and several strands of flagging. Waving the flag makes you more visible to searchers and to helicopters.

To mark a location in thick trees, I would find the highest tree with dead branches, tie long tails of flagging around a stick and throw the stick so that it caught in the branches near the top. This became a highly visible marker I could use to relocate that place or to attract attention.

A single strand of flagging is easily broken but if you wind several strands around something, it becomes fairly strong and can be used to build shelters or other implements without wasting cordage that might be needed in more crucial situations. In the event of a broken bone, flagging can be used to tie sticks to make a splint. Short pieces can even be used on a hook to make a fishing lure.

Be different. Include surveyor’s flagging in your gear and surprise everyone with your unique survival tool.

If you have comments or want to share experiences, write me at

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