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Backpacker Magazine – August 2010

The Manual: Finding Lost Hikers

Turned around in the backcountry? Here are 33 essential tips to remember if you or your partner goes missing.

by: Molly Absolon, excerpted from Backpacker Outdoor Survival: Skills to Survive and Stay Alive; illustrations by Supercorn



No surprise: The main task of search-and-rescue teams is finding wayward hikers. In our new book, BACKPACKER'S Outdoor Survival ($13,, excerpted here, author Molly Absolon advises what to do if you or a friend goes missing.

Ways to Stay Found
1. Note the landmarks you pass. Do the mountains trend north-south? Are there major features that can keep you clued in to the cardinal directions? Describe aloud the shape of the hills, and look over your shoulder to get another perspective.
2. Pick out handrails and landings. Handrails are features, such as valley walls (A) or a river, that act as a barrier, keeping you on the correct line of travel. Landings are places where things change—like a trail junction, a river crossing, or a mountain saddle (B). Once you encounter that landing, your handrails will change.
3. Look at the landscape before consulting your map. When you’re tired, it’s easy to look at your map and decide you’re close to your destination. To avoid this trap, first identify key points, like a lake inlet, a low pass, or a prominent mountain, and then locate them on the map. Only then try to home in on your location.
4. Keep track of time. Note when you leave camp and what time you pass major terrain features, so you have a sense of your pace and what time you should expect to arrive at your destination.
5. Stay together while hiking. You don’t have to hike lockstep with your companions, but you should have a system for staying in contact. That may mean having a designated leader out front and someone else bringing up the rear; keeping everyone in view when crossing open areas; or agreeing to rendezvous at decision points, like trail junctions or river crossings.
6. Know your campsite. Memorize its surroundings, especially if it’s in the trees.
7. Practice map, compass, and GPS often. It’s easy for navigational skills to get rusty.

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star


Nov 23, 2010

Idaho SAR
Oct 20, 2010

Please have you kids attend a "Hug-a-tree" presentation, or at least go to the web site and get you children introduced to it!

Contact your local Search & Rescue unit for info!

Jim A
Oct 08, 2010

The Boy Scouts teach that if you are ever lost you should remember the word STOP. Each letter in this word means something you should remember when lost. The letter S is for stop and go no farther. The T is to think about what is happening and where you have been. O is to observe where you are and finally the letter P is to remind you to plan what you will do.

Oct 06, 2010

First of all, If your going to go hiking you should have an idea where you are going, and know how to read a map. That's if your smart enough to bring one. If you have a deck of playing cards, hell with solitare, that's kindling for a fire, or you can use them to mark a trail. If you need to bring a pack full of flares, hope your planning to find a car accident so you can warn drivers, but come on get real. Some of the comments here are just plain stupid. The fact is you should have some sort of idea where you are going, and let someone know what your plans are in case you end up getting into trouble.

Scott Mc
Sep 24, 2010

Excellent prose, Steve C. Looking for a job from Backpacker Mag, are we? Good advice too: Deadlines can lead to danger and death. Familiar leads to comfort and found.

Scott Mc
Sep 24, 2010

10 Essentials:
1. knife
2. first-aid kit
3. extra clothing
4. rain gear
5. water bottle
6. flashlight
7. trail food
8. matches or lighter and fire starters
9. sun protection
10. map & compass

Before you hit the trail, make a plan and give it to a friend not going with you. In the plan, answer the 5 W's:
1. Where you are going?
2. When you will return?
3. Who is going with you?
4. Why are you going?
5. What are you taking?

And as a guide to remember what is important when you get lost, The Rule of Three:
- 3 hours of extreme exposure (cold, heat, storm) can kill you, so get to some form of shelter
- 3 days without water can kill you, if you find water and can safely stay near it, then stay near it. another reason that the general rule of following water is a good most cases.
- 3 weeks without food can kill you, so don't waste time & energy foraging for food
- 3 months of isolation will generally make you crazy and you'll wish you were dead

Steve Cash
Sep 24, 2010

I recently had a harrowing ordeal, felt completely frustrated and turned around. I went through the emotions of confusion, bewilderment, even anger. My local grocery store had completely rearranged the whole store. Baby cereal was where the baking stuff once was, greeting cards where the coffee once dominated the landscape. The magazines...gone! I was lost...and I knew it. There I was, a grown man, completely turned around and vulnerable. Nothing was as it should be. The landmarks and features I had come to expect were all wrong.... It was getting late and I was getting very tired. I knew that it was past the time I was to get back and my wife would worry. "I must hurry," I thought. But I remembered that hurrying is how I hurt my knee once trying to rush down after summitting Mt. Hood. "Never climb on a deadline." That was a lesson I had learned. Deadlines like a flight scheduled for that afternoon. It's not worth it. But back to the slot canyons of the Payless, aka Kroger wilderness, I was searching in my mind for what to do. "Stay calm," I told myself, "you'll make it." Wondering if I would have to make shelter in the seasonal aisle, my heart rate slowed down and I began to think. I began to remember that this reminded me of other places I had visited on other treks. Even though someone had moved the trail signs, even moved the whole trail, I could reasonably make it out alive. I might even get what I came for...ha... even I knew that wasn't going to happen, not under these conditions. I've been in whiteouts that were easier to navigate. So, I took my bearings and tried to retrace my steps until I found something familiar... Then, behold, as I was backtracking I spied something familiar. My heart leaped. It was out of place, but I didn't care anymore. There it was - sitting there like gold in a dense jungle. I reached for it. I smiled, knowing it would give me comfort. Like finding an old friend in a new city, I found help. I stood there for the next twenty minutes reading the Editors picks in Backpacker magazine, not realizing that time spent being lost and time spent doing something you enjoy are two different things.
Satisfied, I made it home safe and sound, but having forgot to get eggs or lunchmeat or something. But that was ok. I made it back and that is what mattered. I think it was Sir Edmund Hillary that said it didn't count if you didn't make it back (or something like that). I had survived!

curt harler
Sep 24, 2010

The best way to avoid getting lost is always to be "found" ... ie, know where you are at all times. Don't move a mile without knowing exactly where you are and what landmark (creek, hill) you will pass next. Cavers will tell you it pays to look behind you regularly. Coming back to a Y intersection and not knowing which leg you came down is a major cause of getting lost

curt harler
Sep 24, 2010

The best way to avoid getting lost is always to be "found" ... ie, know where you are at all times. Don't move a mile without knowing exactly where you are and what landmark (creek, hill) you will pass next. Cavers will tell you it pays to look behind you regularly. Coming back to a Y intersection and not knowing which leg you came down is a major cause of getting lost

Never Lost
Sep 10, 2010

Any Boy Scout Handbook will tell you what the 10 essetials are.

Sep 09, 2010

what are the ten essentials

Little Behr
Sep 06, 2010

Stay found.
Carry the ten essenitials.
Know how to use map and map tools(compass, GPSr).

Survival Einstein
Aug 28, 2010

1) Hit the panic button on your key fob.
2) Call SAR on your cell phone
3) Walk in an ever widening conical circle until you get tired, colapse and SAR finds you.
4) Never go into woods again.

Missouri Steve
Aug 17, 2010

So, Instead of the "Gong" I suggest the following sure fire method of "Getting Found." Always carry a pack of playing cards. When you're lost just stop and start playing solitare. As soon as you lay down a Red King, some one will come along and suggest you move the Black Queen on top of the Red King. If you try this at home, it'll work every time.

Aug 15, 2010

never hike anywhere with out a megaphone or a gong and a pack full of flares or fireworks .I like the gong, much more zen.

Aug 14, 2010

-1. Be prepared for spending the night (or two or three...)anytime you venture off the road. (98.6 and H2O. You won't'll just get hungry...maintain 98.6 and H2O. Stay dry on the outside and wet on the inside.) 1. Be where you are. Are you safe? Then stay safe where you are and don't do something stupid. 2. Be calm...think...plan. 3. Stay visible...think about being seen. 4. Never, ever panic...panic=stupidity stupidity=death.

Forget all the theories. Down a creek /river...up a hill...lay in a field with your arms spread. Just think about how you got to where you are then plan...slowly...the next logical step. Don't move an inch until you have a plan. Rivers meander then drop suddenly off cliffs. Hills are often higher than they look. Some trails are game trails that end up in very nice high meadows and just end. There is no specific formula for getting unlost and found except clear logical thought without panic. Oh...and being prepared in advance.

Aug 13, 2010

"Start by following rivers downstream—stick to the bigger drainages." That might be fine in a suburban day-hike area, but in the mountains that river is almost certainly going to lead to impassable terrain. Ask James Kim.

Aug 13, 2010

Exceptions to the below — when you're so close to an urban or suburban area that the terrain has been "tamed".

Aug 13, 2010


With a few exceptions, this is disastrous advice. Streams carve channels, so the terrain immediately around them tends to be steeper and more hazardous. Streams promote vegetation, so the terrain will be tougher to travel, with many more opportunities to stumble and get injured. That same vegetation makes it harder for rescuers to spot you.

Better: follow the advice in the article, with the addition: if you can safely get to a place where you will be seen easily by an aerial search, go there and stay there.

Aug 13, 2010

Answers door, "You, again? I thought you were getting a gps."

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