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Wilderness Safety and the TRUTH about Wilderness Survival: LOST!

Anyone who claims to have spent any significant amount of time in the wilderness, and claims to have NEVER been lost, is a F-ING liar! That said, anyone who makes the same mistake twice, did not suffer enough the first time!! There are stories of native peoples, like the Australian Aborigines, who can travel vast distances alone and never get lost. Some think it’s because it’s in their DNA and/or they have some natural “gift”, WRONG! They are just as likely to get lost as anyone else IF they don’t pay attention.

One of the biggest reasons why hiking is responsible for the VAST majority of Search And Rescue (SAR) Missions is because people tend to equate “hiking” with “walking.” Walking connotes a rather mindless activity (typically performed in town). Hiking, on the other hand, connotes what should be a rather mindful activity. As you hike, you must constantly and consciously be aware of your surroundings and footing while making a “mental map” of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. You do this by training your eyes to pan-‘n’-scan the path ahead for variations and features in topography, and training your brain to make a "mental map." This sounds deceptively simple, however if you make the effort to put this in practice, you may find hiking takes some effort, both physically and psychologically, the reason is hiking requires you to THINK!

Two types of people are most likely to get lost in wilderness areas, hunters and day hikers (together they account for over 50% of those who get lost). Hunters because they are likely to pay more attention to what they’re doing, rather than where they’re going, and day hikers because… well… they’re just not ready!! (in a wide variety of ways and reasons). Moreover, the study of Lost Person Behavior dictates fairly specific statistics as regards the categories of people who get lost from children of specific age groups, to the experienced wilderness enthusiast, to the despondent. Each group having their own reasons for getting lost, typical distance covered, days lost and likelihood of living/dying. This is the type of information Search And Rescue Directors are likely to tap into when dispatching their teams. While lost person behavior is a handy thing to know for the SERIOUS wilderness enthusiast, the focus here is primarily on best practices for the average wilderness enthusiast.

THE FIVE ESSENTIAL STEPS

As I always say, “In the wilderness, YOU are your biggest problem!” In fact, most problems in the wild start at home, long before you get to the trailhead. This is what The Five Essential Steps are all about.

1- PLANNING: A research-intensive activity, planning is all about gathering as much relevant information as possible then putting that information together in a way that conforms to the given amount of time, including possible water sources, outstanding landmarks in the area, plan “B” routes and campsites, etc. To do this you need a topographic map, AND you need to learn how to read it! It takes a little practice AND experience to “see” the planned route in your mind’s eye, but while topo’ maps can tell you about the “lay of the land”, it can’t tell you about the current condition of the land like treefall, landslides, washed-out or overgrown trails.

2- PREPARING: This has to do with the gear and supplies you’ll take with you. Obviously, on this topic, that would include your topo’ map and compass (again, which you should learn how to use together AND separately). However, this would include items like a smartphone and a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). A note of caution, the more you rely on a compass/electronic device for navigation, the more you inhibit your sense of direction (it returns when as you curtail your reliance on that gear).

3- PROFICIENCY: Of course you should be able to navigate with a map and compass, and even without, but the question is can you do it WELL? One test I like to employ when I’m with others is, I’ll lead them into a wilderness area, then I’ll tell them to lead us out. Better yet, from memory! This is a very effective way to not only test their wayfinding proficiency, but drives home the importance of being mindful!!

4- BACKUPS: Yes, you can have a GPS & map enabled smartphone, electronic gadgets with built-in map and compass, and even a paper map with compass, but batteries die and maps and compasses can get lost. But did you remember to study AND memorize the key elements of your route? Even if you lost your PLB/s, did you tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back? Moreover, did you leave a WRITTEN itinerary with at least two responsible adults in two different social circles with all the vital information SAR would need? You should have two “active” backups and two “passive” backups in place. Active backups are things that need you to do something to work, passive backups are things that don’t need you to do anything to work.

5- BASIC SURVIVAL (strategies and concepts): The Five Essential Steps are such that even if you screw-up any two, or even three, of these five steps, you should still be in relatively good shape. They are NOT about rubbing two sticks together or building a shelter, this is about having a basic understanding of what to expect psychologically and what to do in a practical sense. One such example is The Lost Rule:

THE LOST RULE

If you realize (and accept) you are lost: 1- Stop, 2- Sit, 3- Eat, 4- Drink, 5- Think. Then apply one of the eight reorienting strategies.

 

1- STOP: Don’t make the situation worse! If you continue, you risk panic and possible injury.

2- SIT: Rest and CALM yourself! The worst thing you can do is react to the situation emotionally.

3- EAT, 4- DRINK: Taking the time to eat a snack and rehydrate will not only help you keep calm, it may address the problem/s that got you lost in the first place.

5- THINK: Now you're ready tothink about the landmarks you may have noticed or recall notes from [hopefully] studying your route at home. NOW you’re ready to choose the best reorienting strategy for your situation.

REORIENTING STRATEGIES

1- FOLK WISDOM [NOT recommended!]: This is a miscellaneous category using any saying/adage on how to find your way, often passed-on over camp fires or even disguised as “facts” in so-called survival books. The most common is, “all streams lead to civilization.” This depends, if used in Nova Scotia, it will likely lead the lost person to a remote and bug-infested swamp. Another is “Moss on trees grow on the north side.” This also depends, in some areas it does, in other areas, not so much. One “survival“ book even advised locating your “place of birth” by facing various directions and having a friend test your arm strength at each orientation. Whatever!

2- RANDOM TRAVELING [NOT recommended]: Moving around randomly, following the path of least resistance, with no apparent purpose other than to find something or some place that looks familiar. This is a hit-‘n’-miss approach, and is about as effective.

3- ROUTE TRAVELING [NOT recommended]: Traveling on some trail, path, drainage, etc., unknown to them and they are uncertain regarding the direction they're headed, but they hope that eventually they will come upon something familiar.

4- DIRECTION TRAVELING [NOT recommended]: Making their way cross country, often ignoring trails and paths leading to what they think is “the ‘wrong’ direction.” Sometimes, a person will cross railroad tracks, power lines, highways and even backyards in their conviction that they're headed “the ‘right’ way”, even refusing to believe their compass.

5- ROUTE SAMPLING: The person uses an intersection of trails as a “base,” traveling some distance down each trail in search of something familiar. After “sampling” a particular route without success, they return to the intersection and try another path. Three possibilities (1) they may repeat the procedure, but now traveling farther distances on each route; (2) they choose to go down the likeliest trail until they come to another intersection, where they can repeat the strategy; or (3) they decide to try another tactic altogether.

6- DIRECTION SAMPLING: This is similar to route sampling, except that the lost person does not have the advantage provided by an intersection of trails. The person selects some identifiable landmark as a “base,” such as a large tree or outcropping, then go in selected directions, always keeping the base in view. When they're just about to lose sight of the base, they return to it and sample another direction, repeating the process until all possible directions seem to have been tried. Often, however, they do lose their base before the sampling procedure can be completed.

7- VIEW ENHANCING [Recommended]: Unable to find anything familiar after traveling around in the woods, the lost person attempts to gain a position of height by climbing a hill, ridge, or tree in order to view landmarks in the distance, possibly attempting to “terrain associate” with the help of a topo’ map.

8- BACKTRACKING [Recommended]: Once getting turned around, the person reverses himself and attempts to follows the exact route that brought them into the woods. This can be a very effective method if the lost person has the skills and patience to employ it. Unfortunately, lost persons seem reluctant to reverse their direction of travel without good reason, believing perhaps that it would just be a waste of time and safety might be over the next hill or around the next bend in the trail.

In any case, if one method does not work, you can either try another or, pitch camp and JUST STAY PUT! If you’ve done the smart thing, you told at least two people where you’re going, when you’ll be back, and gave them an information sheet that includes an itinerary with a map and an image of your boot print. For good measure, this would be a good time to activate the SOS function on your PLB!!

7 Replies

Very nice essay. 

"One “survival“ book even advised locating your “place of birth” by facing various directions and having a friend test your arm strength at each orientation. "  I would love to read this book!  It sounds entertaining, and I do collect books like this.  Do you perhaps have the title/author?   If you also have a link to it, you'd be really enhancing my laziness, and I'd be eternally grateful.

Retired medical technologist and engineer
REI member since 1978
Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.
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LOL, it sounds like you have an "entertaining" library. I THINK it's "Surviving the Unexpected Wilderness Emergency" by Fear.

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I poked around a little after posting this.  I think the author is Greg Fear, and if we're right, it's a little hard to come by!  Not that that's ever stopped me, a lot of my life has been tracking down hard to find books.  It's a lot of fun!

HUGE library!  I'm in the early phase of getting ready to move from Florida to the east Tennessee mountains, exact location yet to be determined.  So, packing up the library.  Rough estimates are over 70 cubic feet of books, with another rough estimate of hard back and soft back books, about 1,560 lbs.  Harumph!  Not planning to "get rid of" any of them! 

Thanks so much for getting back with me.  I was pretty sure I'd tracked it down, but after your input, I'm dead certain!  i really appreciate the help!  I think I found one of the sources for your excellent essay, which helped me track down the original source.  But you cinched it.  😊

Remind me to tell you the story of meeting a fella that routinely outbid me on eBay for books like these.  We met on the Appalachian Trail, in one of the shelters in the Smokeys. 

Retired medical technologist and engineer
REI member since 1978
Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

LOL, yikes! Yep, Greg Fear, that's the one! Don't forget to check Amazon!!

My first stop.  Second only by eBay.  Copies are out there, but I'll need to be patient. Sooner or later, the price will drop down to where I'm comfortable.  It almost always does.

Retired medical technologist and engineer
REI member since 1978
Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

Have you ever tried bookfinder.com?  They can be useful too.

(Fellow book geek.)

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.
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I have!  A couple of decades ago, they found a like new first edition hardback, with intact dust jacket, of Patrick McManus' Kid Camping From Aaaaiii! to Zip.  Out of print for quite a while, but since then a second edition has come out so it's readily available now.  Highly recommend, especially if you haven't grown up yet.

Thanks for reminding me!

Retired medical technologist and engineer
REI member since 1978
Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.
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