Drew Pache is a Senior Manager in Global Rescue’s Security Operations Department. Prior to joining Global Rescue, he spent 21 years as an officer in the U.S. Army Special Forces.
Most people who go out and enjoy the outdoors don’t think they will become lost. They certainly don’t intend to, and it can happen shockingly fast. Trails can peter out or become overgrown. All the rocks you try to remember as landmarks look alike when you are in a canyon or above the tree line. Even if you have a map, you might walk for hours without looking at it, confident in your bearing when, in fact, you have no clue (not that this has ever happened to me).
Becoming disoriented in the wilderness does not have to be disastrous. Following these simple rules will help you stay safe and get found again, at the slim cost of having to tell an embarrassing story.
Don’t panic. People rarely make good decisions when they are hysterical, so once you realize the pickle you are in, take some deep breaths and chill. Assess your situation. What gear, food and clothing do you have with you? Would someone know you’re missing?
Stay put. All instincts will tell you to keep moving, to keep looking for that last place you recognize. This instinct is lying to you. A little backtracking is fine, and maybe you can move to some high ground to try and get your bearings (or a cell signal). But if you do this and determine that yes, you are well and truly lost, now is the time to get comfortable. Moving without knowing where you are headed simply makes you tired, and being tired increases your risk of injury. You go through whatever food and water you have faster too. So now your priorities are water, shelter, fire, and food. In that order.
…except when you shouldn’t. There is one exception to the “Stay Put” rule: if you messed up and didn’t tell anyone where you are going. They won’t find you if they don’t know you’re missing and they don’t know where to even look. A general rule to follow here is to head downhill. Eventually you will hit a stream. Now you have water to drink and a terrain feature you can use as a guide. This stream will eventually flow into a larger stream, and then a larger one, and so on. You will usually find people near a water source, and this increases your odds of finding help.
Advertise your dilemma. Whether staying put or on the move, call out and do your best to make yourself seen. If you have a whistle, use it. Bright colored clothing or tents should be as visible as possible, and yes, if you have to move a bit to get to a field or clearing so you are visible from the air, that’s OK. Also, start a fire. It will keep you warm, and burning green leaves will make lots of smoke that can be seen from a long distance.
Avoid getting lost in the first place. With a little bit of planning and knowledge, there is really very little reason to get lost in this day and age.
- Always tell someone where you are going and when to expect either your return or a phone call.
- Have a GPS and/or map of the area. You don’t need to be a whiz with a compass but you need to at least know how use it to orient a map to north and follow a cardinal direction.
- Use the My Global Rescue mobile app to leave breadcrumbs along the way (and to call us for help if you need it!)
- Dress for the weather, have a container for water and means to purify it.
- Have fire starters, and the knowledge to use them.
- Be prepared to spend the night, even an uncomfortable one, outside.
These simple rules apply pretty much across the board for wilderness travel and they will keep you happy, safe, and most importantly not lost the next time you head out into the woods.
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