Despite all your preparations, planning your route, knowing how to use a map and compass, it still happened - you're lost! So, now what should you do?
Following some simple guidelines will greatly improve your chances of being rescued rather than recovered - if you know what I mean. They are simple guidelines, but over and over again people lost in the woods just can't seem to follow them. Sometimes, it takes a strong will to stay under control and do what is needed.
The Number One tool needed for survival when you are lost or injured in the wilds is a Positive Mental Attitude. You should continually tell yourself that you have to get home. When you panic or lose hope, the situation becomes fatal.
The Number One thing you should have done before you got lost is something you should have done before ever stepping on the trail. Leave Your Hiking Plan and expected return time with someone, they can report you missing if you do not check in with them at your return time. If you also left this information with a ranger at the trailhead, they'll know quickly when you are not back.
STOP - As soon as you realize you may be lost, stop, stay calm, stay put. There is nothing you can do about whatever got you to this point - all you can do now is solve the problem of getting out of the situation. The further you walk, the longer it will take rescuers to find you. If you don't know where you are, walking further has at least a 75% chance of being the wrong direction. If you are not safe where you are, then move to someplace safe and stop there.
Sit down, take a drink of water, eat a handful of trail mix, and relax while you think things over.
THINK - Go over in your mind how you got to where you are. What landmarks should you be able to see? Were you heading North or West?
Do not move at all until you have a specific reason to take a step. Walking around while thinking is not good, sit on a rock or log while you observe your surroundings.
OBSERVE - Get out your compass and determine the directions from where you are currently sitting. Using your map and the general area where you are, identify landmarks that you should be able to see. This step is often enough to get re-oriented and sure of where you need to go to get back on track.
Consider your situation. Estimate how long you have until dark. Check out the weather and determine if it looks like it will be getting better or worse. Check your water and decide how long it should last. Consider the other hikers in your party and how they are doing when you plan your next steps.
PLAN - Based on your thinking and observations, come up with some possible plans and then act on one of them. Prioritize the needs of your group and deal with them in turn.
If you are confident that you have determined the way to go and have time before dark to reach a known spot, such as the marked trail on your map, then go carefully and obviously mark your route with stacked rocks, sticks stuck in the ground, or strips of cloth from your bandanna.
If you are not very, very confident in the route, then its better to stay put.
Surviving Until Found
So, you make the best choice and decide to wait to be found. Now, you need to take steps to ensure rescuers find a live person and not a body. There are a handful of problems that tend to be the most common threats to your chances for survival. Be aware of these and be ready to combat them:
- Loneliness - If you begin to feel lonely and bored, it means you are not taking your situation seriously enough. When lost, the only resource you have is yourself. Either you are not really convinced that you may die or you've given up - either way, this is a common threat to lost hikers.
To combat this, make a list of useful tasks that need to be done and stay busy doing them. Things like collecting water, firewood, bedding, and insulation materials, or setting up signals. There should always be something else to be done. Even sleeping is a survival task that rests your body and conserves energy.
- Fear - There have been plenty of scary movies made about bears, wolves, cougars, and other nasty wild animals. When you're alone with just your pocketknife for protection, fear about what might be out there can build up. Also, being afraid that no one will find you, or that you'll get hurt, or that it will snow tomorrow can all work against you. Everyone will experience some fear when lost, but turning that fear to a motivating driver is your goal. Being afraid of the cold night ahead, you quickly build a small shelter, make a fire and gather plenty of wood for the night. Being afraid a plane might not see you, you lay out some bright cloth and have leaves and green boughs ready to throw on the fire.
Or, you curl up in a ball and wait for a miracle. Fear can motivate or paralyze - you need to control it or it will control you.
- Thirst - you can last 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. Don't worry about collecting berries or eating pine nuts. Dehydration is the most common physical ailment of lost hikers. Find a water source, filter or treat the water, and keep your body hydrated. Even if you can not treat or filter the water, it is better to be sick a week from now rather than dead 3 days from now.
- Exhaustion - Whenever you feel tired, you should try to sleep. Catnaps all day long may be what you need, especially if you were too cold or scared to sleep at night. When you are tired, you can not complete your tasks effectively and you are more apt to become injured. Get as much rest as your body seems to need.
By making a somewhat comfortable and warm sleeping area and shelter, you are more likely to sleep better and this will help you ward off the other threats.
- Hot/Cold - Unless the temperature where you are lost is right around 90 degrees, your body will either be fighting to stay warm or to cool off. Not being prepared to combat the weather will be disastrous. Hypothermia and heat illness are two very common problems effecting found survivors, and both can be prevented with preparation and sense.
Staying dry and warm are two of the most important tasks you have when lost. When you are wet, your body gets colder much faster and you can die from hypothermia when its 60 degrees. Preventing unnecessary sweating is a good goal to help keep you dry. When clothes do get wet, do whatever you can to dry them out as soon as possible. Using the sun or your survival fire are good options.
- Injury - Of course a broken leg is going to really reduce your ability to get anything done. But, even small cuts and scrapes and burns can become serious in the dirty outdoors. Its important that you clean and treat any wound you might get immediately to help prevent infection. A burn or cut on your hand can make gathering wood or filtering water more difficult. Every small thing makes survival a bit harder and you don't need the extra challenge.
- Hunger - anyone lost for more than a day when they were just going on a day hike will probably experience hunger. Every day that you don't eat is another day you are consuming your body's stores and becoming weaker. Fortunately, you can go many days without food, but every day will see you weaker. It's important to complete all the survival tasks you can early on so you aren't required to do them as you weaken. It's also important to understand what edible plants are available to you.
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