I admit it. I have a terrible sense of direction. And terrible seems to be a delicate term for my situation. It honestly doesn’t matter if I am driving in a new city or heading out on a familiar trailhead, I can always get myself turned around. All joking aside, getting lost in the wilderness is a real thing that can ultimately be life-threatening. Some people are lost and found. Some people are never found. So, let’s talk about how to survive when you become lost…
First Step: Avoid getting lost.
Easier said than done, as preparation is always easier than response. However, there are some simple solutions that can make the difference between life and death.
- Tell someone where you are going. When my adult daughter who lives five states away from me goes hiking alone, she texts me a topo map of where she is going and what trail she is hiking. She texts me from the trailhead and texts me again when she gets off the mountain. We have an agreed upon time when I should officially worry. While there isn’t a lot that can be done from a distance, I can reach out and start a search in a reliable location.
- Know your location and bring a topographic map if you are not very familiar.
- I highly recommend looking behind you frequently to get a feel of what the landscape looks like from another direction. I cannot tell you how many times this has helped me out when I got turned around.
- Take your cell phone with you at all times. While service is most likely not always available, sometimes it is from remote mountains. Additionally, even if a cell phone is turned off, it can be pinged for location as long as there is battery life.
- If you have a satellite phone, just take it. Just. Take. It. A fully charged satellite phone can be your very last line of defense.
- The SPOT satellite safety system is amazing. I highly recommend this for anyone who spends time in the backcountry. This satellite based system allows the user to SOS for emergency help, submit 2 way text messaging, turn on tracking for others to follow online and send pre-set messaging. The SPOT-X is around $250 and fits into the palm of your hand. I used this device on a recent trip to Tajikistan. I enabled my tracking system so my family could track my whereabouts for safety reasons, but to also Google Earth where I was. It is a fantastic product.
- Pack your pack as IF you were going to get lost. Firestarter. Space blanket for warmth or tarp. Extra food. Knife. Water. Jacket.
- I am a huge proponent of carrying a Lifestraw in my pack. I can drink any water anywhere as it filters 99.99% of bacteria and protozoa from your water source. It costs around $20 and weighs ounces. If you don’t have a Lifestraw, consider another water purification source.
Second Step: You are lost. What should you do?
- I most likely don’t need to mention this, but if you have any of the aforementioned devices, you simply need to call for help. But let us move on assuming you do not have these devices or your cell is out of battery or there is no service.
- Stay put. Think about your options. Observe the terrain and weather. Plan.
- If it looks as if you will be spending the night, create a shelter and start a fire early. Fire is not only for warmth, it is a beacon for searches if necessary.
- Try to find open areas that are conducive to signaling for help via fire, movement or other ground signals.
- Stay warm. Hypothermia occurs quickly and can be life-threatening.
- Stay put. If you are in a very remote area or if you are injured, stay put. Rescuers have a better chance of finding you if you are not wandering around.
- If you are NOT in a wildly remote region, just head downhill and follow water sources downstream. You will ultimately find some sort of civilization.
- Stay calm. Again, easier said than done but avoiding panic will be a saving grace.
Once again, prevention and preparation are going to be the key to survival should you get lost in the backcountry. Plan your excursions as IF you will be lost. If you do become lost, you have already conquered the most life-threatening elements.