Lost? Then Get Found

Lost? Then Get Found

Wilderness legend Daniel Boone once wrote, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.”

Lots of hikers, hunters, skiers and snowshoers lose their way in the woods each year, but only a few are truly lost.  There is a world of difference between being lost and simply not knowing exactly where you are. For instance, frequently hunters and hikers who venture off-trail don’t know exactly where they are. The very nature of their sports requires them to the leave the well-trod trails behind and venture out into the unknown. But just because they can’t pinpoint their exactly location, doesn’t mean they are lost. At the same time, a novice hiker who missed a trail junction, can feel lost and confused even when standing on a well-maintained backcountry trail. “Everyone will react differently to various situations,” said Tim Williams, chairman of Seattle Mountain Rescue. “But once they are ‘lost’ and in need of assistance, there are some simply, common things anyone should do.” First off, Williams says, stop where you are. Have a  snack and something to drink, and calmly check your map, consider your options, and figure out what needs to be done. The difference between not knowing exactly where you are and being lost generally comes down to this: panic. As anxiety and panic creeps into the mind, rationale thought fades away, and this is when bad decisions are made. “Typically, it’s not one bad decision,” William notes. “It’s incremental. Little mistakes that build on one another until you are find yourself in trouble.” So, according to wilderness survival experts, the first rule of “staying found” is staying calm. “Its important to stay calm,” said Tim Williams, chairman of Seattle Mountain Rescue. “Once you get that uncomfortable feeling that you don’t know where you are, stop and assess your situation.” If you truly are lost, stay put, Williams emphatically said. “Find yourself some shelter from the elements, but stay in one place. It is much easier for us (Search and Rescue) to find a stationary object than a moving target.” The hiker lost in the North Cascades in late September violated this rule, trying to hike out. She reportedly left notes along her path, but later seemed to have changed her mind, so while her notes said she was traveling down valley, she later decided to change direction and hike uphill. Searchers found some of her notes, and later found her. But her rescue could have been much quicker if she had stayed at the location of her first note! Williams said the important things folks can do to insure quick rescue should they get into trouble include:
  • Leave a detailed itinerary with someone before heading out.This should include such details as: the trailhead you plan to use, the destination of your hike and your estimated time of return. It should also include some possible contingency plans. For instance:
    • Though you may expect to back at home by 6 p.m., you might explain that seasonal conditions could prevent you from getting back to your car until after that time, so you shouldn’t be reported missing immediately – wait until morning.
    • Road and trail conditions may force you to choose a different route. Have your secondary plans detailed in your notes as well, so searchers will have a second – or even third – trail to check should your vehicle not be found at the first trailhead.
  • Be Prepared. Any dayhike, snowshoe trip, or even out-of-bounds ski trip can easily turn into an overnight adventure. Be prepared to spend the night, if not in comfort, at least in safety. An emergency blanket, a light source, extra food and water, and extra warm clothes can help you get through an emergency overnight bivouac safely.
  • Stay Put. Once you are sure you are lost or in need of help to get out, stay put. It is much easier for searchers to find a stationary target than a moving on. If you are in a group, stay together! Separating just doubles the work the searchers will need to do get you all safely off the mountain.
  • Carry a Cell phone and GPS,but don’t rely solely on them.
    • Cell phone coverage is spotty at best in the mountains. If you do get a signal, it is vital you be able to tell the responding agency (usually the county sheriff’s department) your location, and a GPS can provide pinpoint locations for the searchers to use. Note, however, Williams’ warning: “If you do get through to 9-1-1 and initiate a rescue, it will likely be several hours at least before those folks get to you, so you need to be prepared for a long stay regardless.”
  • Mark your location. A brightly colored tarp or jacket (bright orange is best) can stand out against the dark landscape of the forest. If you are traveling in snow, Williams suggests carrying a couple packages or cherry or strawberry flavored Kool-Aid. If lost, find an open area and sprinkled powdered drink sparingly over the snow in an X shape – the color will bleed out into the snow, creating a bright red marker that can be seen from helicopters.
    • High tech solutions are available to help mark your location. See sidebar.
Everyone who plan the possibly of getting lost or stuck out overnight (or longer) but they should also plan ahead to avoid the need for rescue in the first place. Some of the things they can do:
  • Carry and know how to use a map and compass. These items should be used during your hike or snowshoe outing so you are familiar with the area you are passing through. In this way, it will be easier to navigate out should you become disoriented later.
  • Carry and use a GPS device. Familiarize yourself with the unit’s operation before heading out. This is one “high tech” solution Williams endorses, he said. IF you mark the location of the trailhead before starting your hike, its easy to use the “track back” feature that’s built into the device to find your way back to your car from any location.
  • Familiarize yourself with the area before heading out. If you don’t know the specific region you plan to travel, study maps before heading out, and if possible, talk with the Forest Service rangers or other users to get specifics about trails and possible navigation hazards/difficulties.
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