More than 1,000 hikers go missing every year in our national parks alone. Most are found within hours, but basic skills can help you get home without making a serious—or even fatal—mistake. Follow this advice for staying on course.
>> Conquer fear. Don’t let the onset of darkness cause you to panic. Hysteria drives lost hikers to keep moving (getting more lost) and boosts heart rate and muscle tension. Both responses compound stress. Try belly breathing to relax: Lie down on your back and place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Inhale through your nose, expanding your belly, and hold it for seven seconds before exhaling through your mouth. Repeat for up to 10 breaths.
>> Prioritize water. Dehydration undermines decision-making and endurance, and three days is your survival limit without fluids. If your supply is scant, look for a water source. If it’s plen- tiful but you have no way to purify it, collect the clearest water you can find. It’s better to stay hydrated than hold out for purification; most water-borne illness won’t strike for weeks, and by then, odds are you’ll be close to medical care.
>> Build a shelter. Settle on a suitable location—near water, but high enough to avoid potential flooding and cold-air inversions that settle into depressions. Fashion a modified lean-to (see Illustration above): Gather materials (body-length sticks, saplings, and bits of bark, moss, or leaves) anidentify a fallen log or upturned root ball that will act as your shel- ter’s support. Pile dry boughs to create an insulating bed beside the log and lean 5- to 8-foot branches against it, above the bed and approximately one foot apart. Interlace them with saplings to form a slanted roof, and cover the frame- work with leaves or bark to form a water-resistant surface. The structure should be just big enough for you to wiggle into without knocking it down.
Read Your Rescuers’ Minds
Don’t make assumptions. Here, we debunk missing-hiker myths so you can think like a rescuer. Make the right decisions and you’re more likely to be found quickly.
Myth: Disoriented hikers travel downhill. Truth: More than half are found uphill or at the same elevation as the base of rescue operations (usually a nearby trailhead); increasingly, hikers in trouble walk uphill in search of cell reception. Correct Action: Hiking to an open hilltop is OK if it will connect you with rescuers. If you veer up, leave notes or signals (like arrows made of sticks) at saddles, drainage entries, or other intuitive decision points.
Myth: A hiker’s dominant hand dictates his preferred turning direction. Truth: Right-handed people don’t nec- essarily turn right. People veer away from annoyances such as dense vegetation or wind. Without visual clues (in the dark or in fog) most people will eventually wander in a circle. Correct Action: Rescuers will predict your route by weighing variables at key terrain changes (trail junctions, saddles, drainages, etc.). They’ll usually assume you took the path of least resistance, so don’t forge through dense brush or cross streams.
Myth: Shortcuts save time returning to the trailhead. Truth: The trail is the shortcut, and the safest, often most direct, route. Correct Action: Stay on established paths. Don’t cut switchbacks or try to beeline to your destination.
Myth: Lost people stay put at night. Truth: As many as one-third of off- course hikers continue traveling after dark, which increases the likelihood of getting hurt or even more disoriented. Correct Action: In this case, the myth hints at good advice. The sooner you stop moving, the more you increase the odds that searchers will find you.