You’re LOST…Now What? (Part 1)
A Beautiful Hike in the Foothills of the Berkshires…
It’s a beautiful spring day, and the sun is going in and out of the clouds. It’s cold at night and warm during the day…just right for the maple sugaring season. It’s been a cold winter, and I look forward to being able to get into the outdoors, and now is my chance.
I decide to go into the foothills of the Berkshires to go for a hike. I think I’ll take with me some basic essentials: a day pack, water bottle, bag of gorp, lunch, a way to make fire and light, heavy duty trash bag and a small first aid kit.
I tell my wife that I’m going for a day hike. I tell her I’m going to park the car at the trailhead…just in case. I always plan ahead like that.
When I get to the trailhead, I notice that the temperature has really changed; it’s a lot warmer, possibly mid-40’s. I’m wearing hiking boots, quick-dry pants, a fleece and the wind/rain jacket.
As I enter the forest, the tall trees, like pines, oaks, birches and beech, are all around me. I feel a sense of peace wash over me. As I walk on the trail, I start to let go the details in my head and about the things I need to take care of—at home or for work, like returning emails, making phone calls; it all seems to get further and further away from my mind as I keep walking deeper into the forest.
I walk for a few hours or so, and I begin realize my body is starting to heat up now. I need to take off a layer; it’s really important not to sweat. This is a really good principle to follow in the outdoors—the no-sweat principle. As I walk I pass several streams, and I see the spring wildflowers, hear songs of the birds as they fly overhead, it is quite serene.
I journey on for a good part of the day stopping for a light snack and then a hearty lunch, drinking water periodically. Continuing on, as I head deeper into the woods, I hear the call of the red tail hawk above (“keer!” pause “keer!”); we all know this sound (the movies have played it over and over…it is often heard, especially when a wilderness scene is shown on the screen). I love that sound.
I thought I would be able to tell where the trail is, but as I get deeper into the wilderness, the trail is marked less and less. I take a few steps closer to one of the blazes. Normally it has a white painted marking between 4 to 6 feet high. When I look really close, I notice that part of it has painted over brown.
So I’m able to tell for about a half an hour but then all of a sudden, I can’t seem to find the trail. I look around and it all seems to look the same. It doesn’t look like there’s been any maintenance out here for quite some time.
I try to retrace my steps; backtracking is something that I’ve read about where you try to follow the path that you came in on. But it is really difficult to see. I try to remember the key parts of tracking: notice a crease in the leaves from the weight of the foot, the area that was dug up by the heel or possibly the drag marks of my hiking stick or the tired footfalls. None of these things worked.
There’s a moment when you have to decide to cut off any other possibility, and take action and allow yourself that recognition that you’re lost!
Once you decide you’re lost, it becomes easier psychologically; you know you need to do something…some kind of lost protocol…but as you decide that you’re not lost, you keep telling yourself “oh it’s gotta be right up here.” “I know the trail is just up ahead.” “No, I’m not lost, just a little disoriented.” It’s thoughts like these that have you get farther away from the last place where you knew where you were…thoughts like these can keep you getting deeper and deeper lost in the woods.
When lost, this is an important acronym to memorize: S. T. O. P.
Stop: This means do just that. Don’t go any further. This has been an emergency protocol and has been very effective. It’s used by the Scouts, outdoor organizations and guide services, search and rescue and many others. When you stop, you also need to calm down; you may want to sit down and take a few breaths and get centered. This is important. Not only are you not going any further, you are also creating what’s called a “scent pool.” This is the term for when particles of scent flakes are falling off your body, onto the ground and the trees around you. It is a concentrated area where, if search and rescue are using dogs for searching, this will be really helpful for the dogs to locate you. This is also why you hug a tree when lost.
Think: A lot of things can be going through your mind at this time. You’ve accepted the fact that you are lost. This is very important step. You need to prioritize your thoughts. Think of your basic needs: shelter, water, fire, signal, food and first aid for the first 72 hours. You may have to spend the night.
A wilderness guide used a good analogy–the first hour or so, the search area can be represented by the size of a business card on a map, and a few hours later, it is the size of open newspaper!
Observe: Use your senses. Do you smell the smoke of a fire; listen for the sound of a roaring river; see the direction of where the sun is traveling across the sky; notice where you are; look for catching features on the landscape, i.e. rivers, streams, trail junctions, dominant boulders or trees, a ridge that you can get a bigger view to see a field or lake in the distance, or a road, a fire tower.
Plan: It is important to create a plan for yourself and know your plan and take ACTION.
This could be marking your area with bright clothing, create a visual signal that creates a contrast to the environment (red coat, orange poncho, etc.). You want to come up with some “what if’s” scenarios, such as “if I hear a vehicle, helicopter or people yelling, what do I do?”
Do you have a way to make noise or a bright light if it is dark and they are searching at night? Sometimes it is easier for the rescuers to see fresh disturbance of tracks at night with lights at a low angle (tracking tip).
It is now late afternoon, and as I make my decision and it begins to slowly sink in that I am here for the night…perhaps longer…I begin to take action. Although it is warm now, I remember the nights have been cold. Before I launch into creating an insulative layer up off the ground and sheltering me from the elements, my first action is making some noise. I get a good solid stick and look for a dead tree that is close by for a better resonance when I hit it. A solid live tree sound will not carry. I also have a skill of whistling with an acorn, and that is extremely loud. I know there is no one searching for me at this moment, however I may find another hiker or a farm house or logger in the area.