What to do if You Get Lost
Imagine... it's a beautiful day. You've taken your camera and headed out for a short hike away from your campsite. The wild flowers are compelling and you wander about aimlessly for a few hours. Two rolls of film later, you begin to head back for camp. Suddenly, nothing looks familiar. You look around for a while, trying to find something, anything, that looks familiar. As dusk approaches, your heart beats faster and you become very anxious. You have nothing but your camera and two spent rolls of film and without a flashlight, it will be impossible to find your way back. Your head sweats and your heart pounds feverishly as you begin to feel the panic associated with being lost.
Discovering you are lost in the backcountry can be a frightening experience. This feeling can be compounded by the five basic fears: that of being alone, darkness, animals, suffering and of course death.
At the moment you realize you are lost, the most important thing you can do is S.T.O.P. (Sit, Think, Observe and Plan). Do not run off frantically looking for a way out. Rather, stop and assess your situation! Use your head, not your feet. At this point your brain is your most important piece of survival gear. The first ten minutes of being lost are when most search fatalities make their deadly mistake.
Whatever you do, don't panic. In most situations you can survive 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Force yourself to breathe deeply and slowly. Rest assured that by remaining calm and relaxed, your chances of survival, which are quite good already, have increased by 50 percent. Your primary goal now should be to stay alive, not to find your way out. Help will be on the way soon after you are reported missing. Sheltering the body and conserving energy is your greatest concern right now.
When you first discover that you are lost, stay where you are. Yell or blow a whistle 3 times to signal your party or any others within earshot (a whistle will carry farther than your voice and requires less energy). Wait several seconds, then turn 90 degrees and try again. Do so several times in every direction. If you have no whistle, yell "HELP" rather than a friend's name. Doing so will help assure that your distress call is not ignored.
If someone yells back, let him or her come to you. Rock walls and valleys play strange tricks with echoes and you may lose your potential rescuers by attempting to locate them. In addition, your rescuers are most likely a group of people, so they will have a better chance of finding you than vice-versa. If you do hear someone yell back. No matter how faint his or her yell may be, stay put and keep yelling. They may sound far away only because they are facing away from you and have not yet ascertained from where you are yelling.
If you are near a loud stream, move away before yelling or whistling for help. Be certain to mark your way back to the stream, however, as you may want to follow that stream later if your calls go unanswered. The same is true for windy areas where a howling gust can be quite loud. Remember, someone may hear your call at times when you cannot hear his or her reply, especially in windy areas. Do not give up yelling or whistling simply because a reply is not heard.
When setting up a search, mountain rescue teams follow certain priorities and make certain assumptions about their subjects. These assumptions are based on behavior patterns of lost subjects. An understanding of these assumptions may help guide you to a place that is searched early.
The first members of a search party are quickly dispatched to the point at which the subject was last seen (strangely enough, referred to as the "point last seen "). They follow trails and streams near this last seen point, yelling the subject's name and blowing whistles. This simple fact is reason enough to just sit still and wait for rescuers to find you. Unfortunately, nobody does. Less than 30% of lost persons are found within one mile of the last seen point.
Additional rescuers search areas of high probability near the last seen point. Statistics on behavioral patterns of lost hikers have shown that 88% walk downhill when lost, 73% find and follow a trail or path and 82% are found in open areas. Based on these facts, field teams often search downhill from the last seen point before spreading the search out in other directions. Air searchers are generally used soon after you are reported missing and weather permits flying. Plan to stay near open areas and be ready with signals.
For more information on backcountry safety, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @ http://mra.org/training/public-education
Courage - Commitment - Compassion
Mountain Rescue Association