Celebrated adventure writer Mark Jenkins on what it takes to survive if ever you find yourself lost in the wild – and it all starts with a map and compass
The recent discovery of the body of Geraldine Largay, a 66-year-old backpacker who got lost on the Appalachian Trail in Maine and survived 26 days before succumbing to exposure and starvation, marks the beginning of another summer season of hikers losing their way and sometimes paying for it with their lives.
You might think that with the remarkable popularity of TV survival shows, everyone would already know all they need to know to live through getting lost. Alas, the eternal quest for higher ratings means these shows foolishly focus on the bizarre, the ridiculous and the idiotic. Why would you spend days constructing a laughable structure that can’t even keep out the rain? What happened to the regular old raincoat?
Related: Hiker who went missing on Appalachian trail survived 26 days before dying
I once spent a week with a survivalist for a story. He showed me how to build a bow-and-drill – an ancient Native American device – to light a fire. Really? What’s wrong with a lighter? On another assignment, a survivalist taught me what plants were edible and how to skin a rabbit. C’mon. What hiker doesn’t have a handful of energy bars in their backpack?
People who get lost and die in the wilderness often have all they need in their backpack to survive. These items are commonly called the “10 essentials”: pocketknife, matches/lighter, map and compass, headlamp, sunglasses/sunscreen, raincoat, extra clothes, food, water (and purification), first aid kit (with whistle).
To this list, you can also add new tech essentials: a GPS tracking device, a GPS app for your cellphone, a personal locator beacon or a satellite phone. Most of these require considerable field time practice before taking them into the woods.
Two years ago, I hiked up the highest mountain in Utah, Kings Peak, and was astonished to find a pack of Boy Scouts scrambling to the summit. They were in basketball shorts, T-shirts and sneakers. The scout master was an overwhelmed Mormon dad who offered that every fourth or fifth kid had a pack with water and food. So much for the scout’s motto: be prepared.
Not getting lost starts long before getting to the trailhead. You should not only have the 10 essentials with you, but know how to use them.
Being able to “read” contours on a map – what is a mountain, what is a valley; contour lines point upstream crossing creeks and point downhill crossing ridges – and recognize these features in the landscape around you is perhaps the most valuable skill, and not surprisingly, the biggest deficit among novice hikers (I once did an informal survey of hikers in Rocky Mountain national park and found that less than 50% actually knew how to use a map and compass).
Before heading out, leave a detailed description of where you’re going and when you expect to be back with a close friend or relative. This will require you to take a close look at your map and actually have a plan.
Identify landmarks, potential hazards (stream crossings, snowfields) and distances. Leaving a photocopy of the map with your actual route drawn on it could be invaluable if something untoward happens.
Go ahead and bring your cellphone, fully charged, with emergency contacts already on it – but don’t for a minute think your phone will save you if you screw up. Check the point weather forecast for exactly where you’re going. If it’s expected to be raining, snowing or blowing, think twice. Finally, if you can find someone fit and fun, go with a partner.
Get an alpine start. All things being equal, you should be hiking at daybreak. Everything is easier and safer with more time and more sunlight. Besides, in the mountains, afternoon thunderheads are common and dangerous – think lightning and hypothermia. Before leaving the trailhead, hide a spare set of keys somewhere on the vehicle and tell your partner where they are.
On the trail, you should be regularly matching landmarks on the map – peaks, river crossings, signs – with their three-dimensional counterparts in the real world. And keep track of time. Mark on your map how long it takes to climb up to a saddle or through a ravine. Note conditions and incline. On one mini-expedition to New Zealand, I climbed six peaks in seven days. On every peak I documented how long it took to go how far, vertical gain, aspect, snow conditions, wind and precipitation. These details gave me enough information to solo the final peak, Mt Cook, in four hours.
Take pictures, lots of them. You’ll be pleased you did when you get back home, and, if you do get lost, they provide essential information for finding your way back.
Peer behind you regularly to know what the landscape looks like going the other way. If you’re on a faint trail, you might leave tiny reminders of your passing, like a small limb in an unlikely place.
If you think you’ve done everything right and you still end up lost, well, welcome to the club. If you hike a lot, you’ll occasionally get turned around. I’ve been lost in Tibet and in the Sahel outside Timbuktu, in the Himalayas of Bhutan, and in the mountains not 30 miles from my home.
Every putative expert, graphic survival book and lame TV program will tell you that you should not panic. Yeah, right. Unless you get lost and find your way out frequently, being lost will not feel comfortable. You might well begin to panic. The trick is to let your panic pass.
There is a useful acronym for what to do when you’re lost: STOP.
S is to simply stop. Frantically moving faster will only get you more lost. Sit, and breathe from your belly (short quick breaths only increase the symptoms of anxiety – lightheadedness, trembling, confusion). Drink and eat. With any luck, your amygdala (the almond-size flight-or-fight controller in your head) will calm down and your cerebral cortex (responsible for rational thinking) will take over again.
T stands for think. Ask yourself some basic questions. Which direction were you going? What was the last landmark you recognized? How long ago was that? How far have you come since? Hiking on a trail with a pack, most people travel only about two miles per hour. Where was the last time you knew where you were?
O is for observe. Look around you: can you see any landmarks? Can you recognize a craggy mountain top or arcing valley? Try to find what you see around you on the map. Get out your camera, go back through the pictures and do the same thing. Think about time. How long have you been hiking? How do you feel? How long before sunset? What is the weather doing? What is the weather predicted to do? Is there natural shelter nearby? Is there dry fuel for a fire?
P means plan. Don’t move until you have a plan. (If and when you do move, do so methodically and observantly.) If you whistle, might someone hear you? Do you have enough daylight to try to retrace your route? Should you consider building a fire because it is almost dark?
And finally – can you make a call? Can you text? If you do get through, can you tell anyone where you are?
Geraldine Largay sent multiple text messages, none of which went through. Having a cellphone doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean you’ll be saved. You should first try to save yourself. One of the oft-stated reasons for going into the wilderness is to have the opportunity to be more self-reliant. Getting lost is one of those opportunities.
Except in canyon country, walking downhill, especially in forests and mountains, will often get you out. It won’t be easy, and it will involve considerable bushwhacking, but eventually you’ll hit a trail or old logging road. This is particularly true in the eastern US, where it is essentially impossible to ever be more than 10 miles from a road. (The most remote place in the lower 48 states, near the south-east corner of Yellowstone national park, is still only 23 miles from a road. When I was there, we saw a dozen wolves, two grizzlies, and no humans.) Even if you’re only moving at a crawl, keep going downhill and after, say, 10-20 hours, you’ll reach some form of civilization.
So let’s say your cellphone has no coverage and you don’t know how to use a map and compass and you didn’t take any pictures and you’re a little panicky – your average lost person. What to do? Or in the immortal lyrics of the Clash, “should I stay or should I go?” Depends.
If you still have lots of daylight, it is often worth trying to retrace your path. Try to locate your footprints, or rocks that moved when you stepped on them – anything that’s a sign of your passing. Leave obvious landmarks (little stone cairns, piles of branches) all along your return path. If you do manage to get back to the trail and know where you are, hightail it out and back to your car. Even if it means moving in the dark – wear your headlamp. The last thing you want is a search and rescue mission to begin – that always puts other lives at risk.
If you don’t hit a trail, and find yourself even more lost and confused, just start heading downhill.
If it’s nearing night, stay. First, get warm. Put on your extra layers. If you’re wearing a cotton T-shirt, you’ll be warmer taking it off and having a synthetic fleece against your skin. Try to find a natural shelter that might afford some protection from wind and rain. Collect fuel and start a small fire, enough to keep you warm but unlikely to get out of hand. Eat your granola bar. If you don’t have any food left, don’t worry about it: the human body can go weeks without food. Food is the least of your concerns. Water, on the other hand, is critical: depending on conditions, humans can live only three to six days without water. But don’t go searching for water in the dark. Sit there, stay warm, and suffer through the night.
One very difficult condition is cold rain. A fire won’t be possible and hypothermia is a life-threatening possibility. If this is the case, zip up your raincoat, attempt to get inside a cave or a makeshift shelter, and jog steadily in place.
In the morning, reassess. If you think you might be able to retrace your steps back to a known location, try it, leaving breadcrumbs along the way. If this is not possible, whistle your ass off, hang all your bright clothes on tree limbs, build an SOS of rocks or branches in a clearing, use a mirror to bounce the sunlight in multiple directions, move to the top of a hill to get cellphone service.
If you do all these things, chances aren’t bad that you’ll be found. But after several days of waiting, don’t let your energy get so low that you can’t make a real effort to get out on your own.
Thousands of hikers get lost every year and manage to find their way out (usually with a great story about narrowly escaping disaster). A few navigational skills and the right equipment are useful, but common sense and equanimity are paramount. The truth is, getting lost doesn’t kill anybody. You don’t die from not knowing where you are – you die from bad decisions.