Guest post: What to do if you get lost in the backcountry

Originally a comment by James Garnett on Help that never came.

I’m not going to pass any judgement on this poor woman. She was clearly doing something that she loved and made a mistake. That could describe any one of us, but most of us don’t pay this kind of price.

Instead, I’ll offer some information. I have been a hiker, backpacker, climber, and outdoorsman since I was a child. As an adult, I’ve taught classes on backcountry survival, especially in situations where you get lost (which is REALLY easy to do). I’ve also been a Mountain Rescue volunteer in the past, for many years (albeit not anymore).

To correct one thing in the article right away: SAR (search and rescue) people do NOT recommend that you move once you realize that you’re lost. Instead, the recommendation is to stay put. You don’t know where the high ground is if you’re in a thick forest, so don’t wander around looking for it. Stay close to where you last had contact or a fix on the trail. Dead reckoning almost always leads you astray; if you wander off, you’ll be leaving the search zone of the SAR teams that come looking for you. I can state, definitively, that SAR teams do not go looking in low-probability areas until we’ve exhausted the high-probability ones. If we think that you were hiking down Trail X, then we’re going to look closeby to that trail. We’re not going to extend the search two miles in each direction from that trail, at least not right away. Each meter away frrom the trail does far more than simply double the search area. As SAR people, we know that if we find you within 24 hours, then your chances of survival are the best. We’ll do everything we can to maximize that probability.

Some more useful ideas:

  •  ALWAYS bring the Ten Essentials with you on any hiking trip, and know how to use them. They can get you out of exactly this kind of situation.
  •  Take a course in compass use. Mountaineering clubs offer these all the time. They are everywhere. The Colorado Mountain Club is the one that I know well, but there are similar things all around the country. Just google for them. The courses are cheap, and valuable. Once you know how to use a compass and a map, you can get within a few feet of a target objective on the map, from miles away. I’ve done this so many times, and it still astonishes me how easy it is.
  •  Remember simple facts. The sun rises in the east, sets in the west. If you know basically which direction from which you left a known waypoint, you can use these facts to get you back.
  • Do not rely upon GPS. It needs batteries, and those can run out, and it needs signals from the satellites, and those can be blocked. If you are going to hike in the back country, learn to use a compass and map.
  •  Learn about local flora and fauna, if possible. Lots of things are good to eat, out in the wild. Perhaps disgusting, but better than dying.
  •  Last but not least: if you’re not experienced, or don’t have the skills above, do not ever go out in the backcountry alone.

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