How To: Not Get Lost

April 24, 2008
Filed under Feature Stories

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Twelve-year-old Garrett was hiking with a group in the mountains of Utah when he decided to go back to camp for something. He hiked off by himself, became lost and was never found, despite a long search. Thirty-three-year-old Lucinda went for a hike on Mt. Lemmon near Tucson, Arizona. She planned to be back home by 4 p.m. but somehow got lost in an area she had hiked at least 20 times. She thought she knew the trail, but took a wrong turn and ended up deep in the wilderness. Luckily, she was found six days later by search teams.

One of the reasons people get lost is because they suffer from what I call “day-hike syndrome.” It’s a state of mind in which the person thinks that nothing can go wrong because the area is familiar, or because it’s only going to be a short hike and nothing ever goes wrong on short hikes. That false sense of confidence lulls the victim into complacency, which often leads to a catastrophe.

I could spend this whole column telling stories of hikers like Garrett and Lucinda. The point is that we need to recognize that there is no such thing as a completely risk-free hike or camping trip. The best we can do it is to prepare ourselves and our children with the knowledge and equipment that will help us survive.

Simple Rules

Staying found (the opposite of getting lost) requires that we follow some basic rules.

* Never leave a group and hike alone. If you need to go back to camp to get something, or if you become tired and decide not to continue with the hike, go with at least one other person. If there are only three of you in the group, then means you all go back together, so no one is left alone.

* Study the details of the trail, paying particular attention to specific trees, rocks, stream crossings or any other distinctive landmarks.

* Frequently look back at the trail behind you, because that is the view you will need to be able to recognize when you return along the same trail. Again, memorize specific landmarks.

* Learn to identify your own tracks-the tread pattern of your boots-so you can follow your own tracks back along the trail, if you have nothing else to go on.

* Diligently use the map and compass or map and GPS to make sure you are where you want to be. Constantly update your position on the map by either taking a fix on a visible object that is marked on the map, or by using the latitude/longitude coordinates displayed by the GPS and transferring them to the map.

* Pay attention to everything around you, even if the trail is familiar and you are going only a short distance from camp.

* If you must mark the trail as you go, use brightly colored plastic surveyor’s tape. This is the modern (and environmentally sound) version of blazing a trail that used to be done by using an axe to whack off a piece of tree bark. Wrap the tape all the way around the tree at eye level, so it is visible from every angle.

Prepare the Kids

Every youngster in camp should be taught that he must never wander off alone. It isn’t enough that he tell an adult where he’s going and when he intends to return-he should always go in the company of an adult, even if it’s just to go down to the fishing hole a few hundred yards from camp. This may seem like overkill, but if you could look into the lives of those who have lost children in the wilderness, you would understand that there is no sacrifice too great to make to ensure the safety of your kids.

* Every person, children included, should be taught how to use a signal whistle and mirror, and they should be equipped with those emergency signal devices and never leave camp without them.

* Dress children in clothing that not only protects them against the elements, but is also brightly colored and easy to see at a great distance.

* Parents should take their children on a tour of the campground, pointing out easily identifiable landmarks that the kids can look for to make sure they are still close to their own campsite. Kids should also be shown the boundaries that they cannot cross.

* Finally, prepare children with knowledge of how to help searchers find them, if they become lost. One young man who was lost in the mountains a few years ago intentionally avoided searchers, because he had been taught to not trust other people and was afraid of them. It took several days to find the lad, because he was purposely concealing himself. Teach children when it is appropriate to seek the help of strangers, and when it is not.

With a firm knowledge of how to stay found and a bit of the right equipment, anxiety about getting lost can be reduced, and staying found can become a fun navigation game we play while we’re camping or hiking in the wild.

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