Survival: In the Backcountry With a Missing Partner

Lost your hiking partner? Here's what to do to make sure you both come home in one piece.
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Lost your hiking partner? Here's what to do to make sure you both come home in one piece.

Josh and Jacob Gately, two brothers from Missouri, began their descent of Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross together back in October 2007. As mist swirled around them at 13,000 feet, Jacob hiked ahead of his brother and became separated by the rugged terrain. When Josh arrived at basecamp a few hours later, his brother wasn’t there. Scenarios like this play out all the time in the wilderness. If faced with it, here’s what to do.


1. Do a Hasty Search

First, look at your watch. Knowing how long your buddy has been gone will help you and SAR teams calculate how far he might have traveled. Then organize anyone else in camp for a quick hunt in the immediate vicinity. Spend only an hour sweeping the area, because only 40 percent of hasty searches are successful.

2. Backtrack

If you don’t make contact quickly, leave a note in case he returns, then head toward the last known point where you saw the missing person. If that fails, apply these stats to the terrain around you to determine where to search next: Two-thirds of lost hikers show up within two miles of their final known location; more than half move downhill; and 75 percent follow trails, streams, drainages, and other easy paths (at an average speed of two mph). One-third continue to move after dark, but most stop moving after 24 hours.

3. Call in Help

If the lost hiker doesn’t turn up within a few hours, or you’re concerned about cold weather or his ability to survive the night, contact rangers or call 911 to initiate a professional search. That’s what Josh did, and two days later, a SAR team discovered Jacob hypothermic and frostbitten—but alive.

Stick Together

“Start as a group, hike as a group, and end as a group,” says Lt. Todd Bogardus, SAR coordinator with New Hampshire Fish and Game. Since groups naturally spread out, make it a rule to assemble at every junction, turn, and sign. Also, assign a sweeper to bring up the rear, and make sure everyone carries a map and a whistle, and knows the rally point (like a campsite or a trailhead).