When Lost: The Gentle Art of Not Freaking Out

The one thing that a bear doesn’t do in the woods is get lost. The same cannot be said of people. A regular staple of national news reports are stories of some poor soul who wandered away from camp and couldn’t quite a way back. Quite a few of these people survive thanks to the massive efforts of land and air rescue teams. Many don’t.

A game warden friend of mine once rescued an adrift elk hunter in Montana. The guy had been stumbling about for two days, was severely dehydrated, and had no idea that he was less than a half-mile from a perfect view of a busy state highway. The problem, and it’s a common one, is that the disoriented Orion had been walking in circles.

There’s a reason for this, and it’s one of the big reasons lost people frequently stay lost.

Everybody has a slight difference in the lengths of their legs; it causes them to veer. Many decades ago the German army did a study on just how far off a straight line this veering effect would cause the normal person to deviate. They learned that, if traveling with a full backpack and a relatively brisk pace, a person makes a full circle in just a few hours. The effect is a constant, and also has to do with one’s dominant eye and the human tendency to pass an obstacle on its right side (that’s from a study by the Swiss army; Europeans have a lot of time on their hands).

If you find yourself lost and alone you should immediately sit down and chill out.
Have a smoke. Look at the birds. Do whatever is necessary to keep calm. You’re probably not all that far from camp at the moment you realize you’re lost. The way people get in trouble is by freaking out, going stupid, and adopting the attitude of “when in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.”

Decision time comes when you have your wits about you.

If you’ve no idea where you are it’s probably best to stay put.
Build a fire and build a shelter. Evaluate your supplies. If you’re short on food or water it’s okay to try and replenish them . . . assuming you can do so without getting yourself into even more trouble.

Keep that fire going, and make sure it smokes to high heaven
Try not to burn down the forest. If you’ve got a whistle or signaling mirror you should keep them close at hand (I’m assuming you didn’t tote your cell phone into the woods, and if you did, then you probably shouldn’t be out there in the first place. Taking a cell phone into the great out-there is just SO wrong).

If you do recall the direction from which you came, and you best be very, very sure of this before embarking, you can try and walk out. To avoid traveling in circles, however, you should line up a couple of landmarks both in front of and behind you. Walk toward the front, looking back occasionally to make sure you haven’t veered off kilter. Do this every 100 yards or so (more often in dense forests . . . you might need to notch a tree or something to create a definable landmark).

Remember that objects look nearer when the air is clear and it’s sunny out, or you’re looking up or down a hill or ridge. They’ll look further away in poor light or over rolling terrain.

Whistle, make noise (singing is good) or even yell occasionally
Some folks are embarrassed by that; mostly because they don’t want to admit they got lost. Let me tell you, admitting you were lost, and being found by a fellow hunter, hiker or camper is less humiliating than seeing your mug on the front page after the park rangers spent about a week looking for you and dropped $50 grand on personnel and helicopters.

And of course, it can get you found.