We can get lost in a variety of ways. I work under Daniel Boone’s precept: “I’ve never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.”
While I’ve done a lot of land navigation, both day and night, and spent considerable time working off of maps during training and on deployments, there have been times when I’ve gotten ‘confused’. My experience is that once I got lost, it could easily escalate into something worse, unless I follow some guidelines.
As with all aspects of preparation and survival there are numerous variables. We should be properly prepared before any trip with the correct supplies to keep from getting lost such as GPS with applicable map tiles loaded, paper map backups (including in your car), a compass, signal mirror, whistle, signal panel and more.
Know how to us a map and compass. Remember, a compass can’t tell you which way to go if you don’t have an idea where you are. Your local REI stores runs courses on basic land navigation. There is no substitute for actually getting out there and actually doing it.
A big key is if off road is to know what is your ‘safe’ direction. That’s the direction where you will eventually hit a known line, whether a road, rail-line, river, etcetera which will let you know where you are. Then you also need to know whether to turn left or right on that limit to get to safety.
Have enough food and water for whatever activity you plan, plus a bit extra.
Always have a paper map and compass. You can lose your GPS/phone or the battery might die.
SHORTS CUT ARE RARELY EVER SHORT
AND CAN BE DEADLY
Let someone know where you’re going. What your plan is. When you expect to be back. An important key is to tell them after what time, without hearing from you, they should notify help. I do this even if just heading out for a bike ride or run. I use Road ID when I go for hikes/bikes/runs where there is cell phone coverage. I check in with my SPOTX when going on longer or overnight trips. If I change plans for any reason, I update my contacts for both.
At a trailhead it pays to leave a note inside your car/truck window, facing out, with information on what your plans on. When you expect to be back. I’ve checked trucks and cars at trailheads and most are unmarked. I know there might be a fear that someone would break in to the car, but weigh that against not making it back?
Fill out wilderness permits and check in at Ranger Stations. Make yourself noticeable. A couple was left behind on a scuba trip because they kept to themselves, didn’t interact with others and no one missed them on the trip back.
I cover what to do if you do get lost in the Survival section of the book.
What To Do If You Get Lost
Should you stay or should you go?
For most situations, it’s best to stay in place.
If you are injured. Don’t exacerbate your injury by moving.
Search and Rescue will start at the last known place you were or where they think you are. Moving could take you out of the likeliest search area. If you’re lost and don’t have a plan, you will get more lost.
LOOK BEHIND YOU WHEN
TRAVELING SO YOU KNOW
THE ROUTE BACK
Search and Rescue is usually free. The reason for that is often these teams are made up of volunteers. More importantly, they don’t want people to hesitate to call. When in doubt, Call 911 because most teams work through the local sheriff’s office. Remember, a text has a better chance getting through than voice if your signal is shaky. Conserve your phone’s battery as much as possible. If you make contact, set up a time to check in so you can turn the phone off in between.
The key rule to follow is STOP:
STOP: As soon as you suspect you are lost immediately STOP. Many people panic and while in that panic make the situation worse. Panic is your greatest threat.
THINK: How did you get here? What landmarks do you remember? Which way did you turn if you left an established trail? What direction? Do not move until you have a specific reason.
OBSERVE: Which direction is north? Do you have boundaries such as a river, mountain range, road, etcetera that you know for certain are in a certain direction?
If you are on a trail or road stay on it. Roads and trails are built to take advantage of the easiest route. While you might think taking a “shortcut” cross-country might save time and distance, it won’t.
As a last resort, follow drainage downhill. Streams run into rivers and there is usually civilization along rivers. However, depending on terrain, this might not be possible. Also, try not to get wet, especially if the temperature will drop, as hypothermia is deadly.
Can you follow your own trail back to the last known spot? Footprints? Broken branches?
Before moving make sure you have a plan. Think the plan through. Are there other options?
If you are not confident in your plan, stay in place.
Don’t move at night. When we were heading toward the Grand Canyon, my wife said she thought people probably fell into it. When we got there, I saw she was right. Anyone who has been on patrol at night can tell stories of the cat eyes on the back of the cap of the patrol member right in front disappearing as they fell off a ledge or cliff.
STOP: As soon as you suspect you are lost immediately STOP.
Many people panic and make the situation worse.
THINK: How did you get here? What landmarks do you remember?
Do not move until you have a specific reason.
OBSERVE: Get oriented. Which direction is north?
If you are on a trail or road stay on it.
Roads and trails are built to take advantage of the easiest route.
PLAN: Before moving make sure you have a plan.
Think the plan through. Are there other options?
If you are not confident in your plan, stay in place.
Signal for help: Cell phone. Satellite messenger. Mirror or anything reflective.
The universal distress signal comes in threes: three blasts on a whistle.
Make a smoky fire. Green leaves and grass help. Ruber makes black smoke. The flame at night is a signal. A VS-17 or bright clothing can be used to signal.
To aim a mirror, hold it in the palm of your hand. Extend the other hand with two fingers forming a V in the direction you want to signal. Angle the mirror so that the reflected light passes through the V.
If you must self-rescue:
Rest when you feel tired. Don’t push it too hard so that you become exhausted.
You can’t hike and easily digest food at the same time. Eat and then rest.
Mark your trail as you move, so at the very least, if need be, you can get back to where you started.
WHAT TO TEACH CHILDREN TO DO IF THEY GET LOST:
Make sure your child knows both parent’s full name, phone number and address. Memorizing key phone numbers is a skill all of us need to practice.
Have your child practice calling your phone.
Teach your child how to ask for help. While we emphasize ‘never talk to strangers’ tell them who it is best to ask: police, a mother with a child, a store salesperson with a name tag, a security guard.
Tell them not to go looking for you if they become detached. It is best they stay in place and you find them.