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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

Life-or-Death Decisions - Lost

How did you get here? How can you get out? Staying found starts at home.

by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

(Illustration by Supercorn)
(Illustration by Supercorn)
(Illustration by Supercorn)
(Illustration by Supercorn)

4. Hiking the trail
WRONG: Daydream as you hike, paying little attention to your map or the terrain. Todd Brown, North Carolina's SAR coordinator, reports that he's seen an increasing number of lost hikers who zone out on the trail, assuming their GPS units or cell phones will guide them back.
RIGHT: Orient yourself with prominent landmarks as you go. Verify your location on the map. Take a mental note of bridges, boulders, and trail junctions, and turn around often to study the trail from another angle, so you'll recognize it if you have to backtrack.

5. When you suspect you're lost
WRONG: Continue to hike, even though you believe you might be off track. Maybe you'll find the trail if you keep going.
RIGHT: Stop as soon as you think you might be off course. Be alert for clues, such as the trail suddenly becoming faint or not reaching landmarks you expect to pass. Stay calm and try to match the surrounding features to your topo, triangulate your position with a compass, or use your GPS to locate yourself on a map.

How to Read a Topo Map
Match what you see in the field to what you see on the map by knowing how to recognize these key features.
>> A. Peak
>> B. Pass/saddle
>> C. Cliff
>> D. Ridge
>> E. Cirque
>> F. Valley

How to find yourself with GPS
(1) Match your GPS to your map's datum.
(2) Mark a waypoint and view its coordinates.
(3) Match the coordinates to the grid lines on your map. If using UTM, the first coordinate refers to how far right you are from the left side of the map. The second matches how far up you are from the bottom. You are where the lines intersect.

6. When you know you're lost
WRONG: Freak out. "When you're lost, fear and panic set in," notes Denali National Park Superintendent Paul Anderson. "If people don't have a plan, they're liable to react very irrationally. Some people run. Some huddle and cry."
RIGHT: Sit down, take a deep breath, and assess the situation calmly. Find a sheltered spot and have something to eat and drink, then take an inventory of the gear you have, the weather, and how far off track you think you are. Mentally retrace your steps to the last place you knew your location–can you pinpoint where you made a wrong turn?

7. Making the call
WRONG: Bushwhack across unfamiliar terrain in a panicked attempt to regain the trail. "The mistake we see over and over is, instead of making a decision to stay put or find the trail, lost hikers try to find a new route home," says Van Tilburg.
RIGHT: Stay where you are if you're unsure of your location, night is falling, or bad weather is approaching. "You don't want to make the situation worse," says Anderson. Moving without purpose wastes energy and exposes you to other risks, such as slipping down a slope or twisting an ankle. Backtrack only if you're confident you can find the spot where you were last on a trail, and strike out cross-country only if you can see your destination and you won't run into impassable terrain on the way.

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star


Jun 22, 2014

Under Lost>Pack>Right>Survival Kit: forgot whistle.

AZ Hiker
Aug 10, 2012

Thanks Backpacker for the good advice!
All ages can learn or review essential day-hiking skills, items to pack, how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass, and how to get rescued by reading Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon). A fast, easy read that could save your life and will definitely make your hike more safe and enjoyable!

Dec 17, 2009

Donald, the idealistic view of life in the wilderness, along with the anthropomorphic musings of human/animal interactions that you present make for fine poetry; particularly when read from the relative safety of a comfy couch in a warm home. While I get the drift of where you’re coming from (you seem to be an experienced hiker) I caution the inexperienced reader that may take your comments a bit too literal; NEVER loose sight that the root of the word ‘wilderness’ is ‘WILD.’ The wilderness is a place, just like a large city is a place. While you can certainly love both, rest assured it is a one-sided relationship. Both have friendly residents that can help in times of need, but to venture unprepared ‘Into The Wild’ (Google it) of either place solely relying on their love and kindness can get you killed. Love with your heart, survive with your head.

Sep 06, 2009

Donald you are a Jedi of the Forest ~ Thanks :)

Apr 18, 2009

I think donald may have done one too many hits of acid in his I actually agree with all of this, my wording would have been a bit different however...

Feb 13, 2009

Comment on the comments above by DonaldJ and Michel: I thought you made some good points.
I really enjoy navigation and find it boring not to navigate! And if you know where you are every 10 minutes, then you're only 10 minutes away from being found.

DonaldJ ("cosmicb")
Jan 15, 2009

When navigating dangerous terrain, take each step in your mind before you physically take the step...

I was searching a scrap metal yard, when the old yard owner comes toward me, and confronts me... He tells me there's only one rule for playing in his yard.. that's to take each step in your mind before actually taking it.. because this place is full of dangerous sharp knife edge metal... He tells me he loses an employee every three weeks from accidents... I tells him, I will do as he says... After a few minutes it became second nature to me... In just a couple seconds, I studied the dangerous metal terrain before each step...

When you are negotiating loose rock, test each step with only a quarter your weight, before taking that step.. and know which way you will move that step should the material under your step give way... After a few minutes it will be second nature to you...

Use your mind when you are trekking in the wilderness...

And be kind to the animals... You are in their living room... Be respectful of other creature's homes...

I find that the animals reward our respect and kindness... When I'm in the bush, critters pause near me, screaming at me to get my attention... I pause, and say "I am watching, your majesty."..
The then critter shows me how it acquires food.. It actually teaches me how to survive... After it's done its lesson, I say "I thank you your majesty for the lesson."... I know, if I were disabled in the wilderness, wild animals would care for me and protect me... They feel the love I have for them... I treat them all as they are better than me, and they feel that, even squirrels, and even bugs... I can say an excited friendly "Hi!" to a passing huge dragonfly, and it will decelerate as it circles me at the shoulders, and land on my nose or face... Same for a wasp, a hornet, a butterfly, a bird... It's no big thing, but each time it happens, it feels like I just received a million dollars in my pocket that can't be spent... That's why I love the forest.. because the forest loves me... When I'm in the forest, we are one... When you go out into the forest, bring all your love with you, and you will leave with ten times more than you came with... This is how the wilderness rejuvenates us... This is the lure of the wild...
Having done that, should you become lost, all you need do is ask a critter... "Your majesty, I am lost.. Kindly point the way to the road... Watch its quick movements very very closely... The critter will show you the way, in a second or two...

Be nice to the little life, and the big life will be nice right back...

Trust your love...

If you don't have any love in you, Don't go out into the forest...

Michel Rysenaer, Belgium
Nov 27, 2008

While hiking, always keep your map in hand (not in a pocket or your pack) and orient it with your hiking direction, so what you see on the terrain is displayed the same way on the map. When you turn, you turn your map. Use compass to orient the map properly and confirm direction. Don't check your map only at main points or when you're lost but regularly check what you see vs map and what's on your map vs terrain. If possible, it's boring but useful, keep your thumb on your location, you are on the map and move it as you progress.


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