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.
S.T.O.P. (Sit. Think. Observe. Plan.)
Off track? Use this easy acronym to remind yourself that staying put is usually the best choice.
>> Sit. Unless your current location poses immediate danger, stop hik- ing. Rest and have a snack while you decide what to do next. >> Think. Consider the places where you may have gone wrong. Try to recall landmarks or reference points you can use to pinpoint your location on a map. Assess your supplies, and the skills and resources of group members. Estimate the time and distance you traveled off- course and decide if you can backtrack, or if you should await rescue. >> Observe. Use your compass to determine north, or set up a sun- tracking station (see backpacker.com/suntracking). Consider any approaching weather and other situational hazards that could worsen over time, like a limited water supply. Prepare to address them as early as possible and look for resources nearby. Scout access to hilltops (for potential cell reception or signaling opportunities) and water. >> Plan. If you are confident that you can backtrack to a known spot, do it in the daylight and allow plenty of time to find shelter and water before dark. Check your direction of travel often, and mark your path with rocks or sticks in case you become disoriented again. If it’s too late to continue, or you’re not sure of your location, prioritize your group’s needs and stay put for the night. Tomorrow, reassess.
Signal for Help
3 ways to alert your rescuers
[] Beckon search planes by building 8- to 12-foot letters out of high-contrast materials (like black rocks on snow, or bright clothes on grass). Universally understood: SOS (help), X (serious injury), or V (require assistance).
[] Your cell phone may reach 911, send texts, or ping reception towers, which can help res- cuers estimate its location, even if it displays “no service.” Hilltops offer the best chance at connecting. Power down between attempts to conserve batteries.
[] Create flashes visible up to 50 miles away with a signal mirror (improvise with your compass’ sighting mirror). Aim by holding two fingers at arm’s length, in a “V” shape pointed at your target, and manipulate the mirror so that the majority of light passes toward it through your fingers. Try to create a flashing SOS pattern every minute or so; three short, three long, and three short bursts.