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What Is the Buddy System?

By Alan Rankin
Updated Feb 09, 2024
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The buddy system is a technique for increasing personal safety in a risky or dangerous situation. Two people enter the situation together, and each one maintains visual contact with the other. In case an emergency befalls one person, the other can offer aid or call for help. Scouting groups employ the buddy system during nature hikes, water sports, and strenuous activities that could involve a risk of physical harm. The concept is known by other names in various fields, such as the “spotter” in weight training and the “wingman” in the U.S. Air Force.

This safety technique is related to the concept of safety in numbers. In a crisis situation, a single person alone may be knocked unconscious or otherwise be unable to escape or call for aid. If others do not discover the situation in time, the consequences can be fatal. Numerous people have died when prompt aid could have saved their lives, bleeding to death from injuries or dying from exposure in harsh conditions, to name just two examples. Soldiers and hunters have long known that it is safer to travel in groups in dangerous or unknown situations.

The Boy Scouts of America organization refers to this technique as the buddy system. It is especially important because many scouts are young children, without the judgment skills to avoid or escape dangerous situations. For activities such as swimming, hiking, and other outdoor sports, scouts should always be paired off. In fact, scouting regulations advise the use of this technique in any situation where an adult cannot constantly monitor all scouts. The term “buddy system” has passed into common usage.

Many recreational sports use their own form of the buddy system. In weight training, a spotter monitors a weightlifter, offering encouragement as well as watching for mishaps or injuries. Rock climbers and other mountaineers are anchored by another person in the group, sometimes called the second. The term “second” has also been used for the cornerman in boxing and the associates of each party in a duel. Long-distance bikers and swimmers are often followed by supporters in a car or boat for safety purposes as well as to monitor their progress.

The use of the buddy system continues in modern military forces. One of the most famous examples is the wingman or wingmate used by pilots in the U.S. Air Force. This is a pilot in a second plane who follows close behind the lead plane, watching for enemy aircraft and other dangers. The term has been popularized by American movies, particularly 1986’s Top Gun and 1996’s Swingers. The latter movie helped the term “wingman” gain popular usage to describe a dependable friend in the nightclub dating scene.

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