Search & rescue calls can quite literally be all over the map. From the ones you might expect such as hunters, hikers, and campers to special needs populations such as Alzheimer’s patients and people in the autism spectrum, to teenage runaways and children who wander off, there is no “typical” lost person. But one thing that ties almost all of our calls together is that they were preventable. Any SARTECH will tell you that the best search & rescue call is the one that never happens. A big part of what we do in search & rescue is community education and awareness training in order to ensure that as many people as possible know the basics of how not to get lost in the wild, and at SARCRAFT, we aim to continue that work.
That education and awareness training can vary drastically depending on what segment of the population you’re working with, for example, the training for families of Alzheimer’s patients is going to be very different than, say, parents of toddlers that like to wander off. That being said, this post will be geared towards the outdoorsy crowd. Hikers, backpackers, backcountry hunters, campers, and the like. Because out of all of the categories of lost and missing persons, you’re the easiest to keep found. If you follow the seven steps outlined below, you can be almost assured of never having to meet your local search & rescue team, or at the very least make their job far easier.
1. Complete a trip plan.
A trip plan doesn’t have to be complicated, but the more detail, the better. It can be as simple as a few sentences on a piece of scrap paper or as complex as a full-on National Geographic-style expedition plan with chapters, headers, maps, photos, etc. A trip plan has three main ingredients: Where you’re going, how long you expect to be gone, and who you’re going with. It needs to be in writing, since spouses, friends, and family members are notorious for remembering details incorrectly. A SAR team could waste valuable hours or days looking for you in the wrong area, all because your point of contact back home was certain that’s where you were going. Ideally it will be a specific route plan with where you park to start your trip, the trails you plan to take, campsites you plan to stay at, and where you plan to take out. Scheduled check-ins are advisable if you’re traveling alone. Leave a copy of the trip plan with each trip member’s point of contact, so everyone is literally on the same page. Sound extreme? It shouldn’t. This is the stuff you should be doing to ensure a successful outdoor adventure anyway, you’re just putting it on paper. As a search & rescue technician, I can tell you this: We’re trained to find lost persons with or without this information. But having it makes our job far easier, potentially cutting out hours of time spent gathering information. In a survival situation or medical emergency, especially in extreme conditions, those hours are worth a lot. In cold, rainy, and windy conditions, hypothermia can set in and prove fatal in under an hour if you’re not moving. But what room does that leave for changing your mind while you’re in the woods, and letting the adventure take you where it wants to? Read on…
2. Stick to your trip plan.
A trip plan is useless if you don’t follow it. If your point of contact back home believes with full certainty that you’re on X Mountain, because that’s where you said you’d be, and you’re really on Y Mountain because your group decided to change plans, you’re worse off than if you didn’t leave a plan at all. SAR teams will focus all of their efforts in an area you aren’t. But what if there’s something really, really cool to check out on Y Mountain and your whole group wants to change your route? If you have an inkling this might happen, write it into your trip plan. Say that you’re planning on going to X Mountain, but you know that you might want to go to Y Mountain, and give the contingency route. This isn’t as good as a single route, but it still allows SAR teams to concentrate their resources in a far more focused area than what we call ROW, or the Rest Of the World. If you change plans on the spur of the moment, your other option is to call your point of contact back home and inform them of the change of plans, should cell service allow, which it may or may not. Which brings us to our next point: Who is this point of contact of which we speak?
3. Have a Point of Contact (POC) back home.
This can be a spouse, parent, adult child, other family member, friend, trusted coworker, or really anyone responsible who cares about you. This is who you leave your trip plan with, check in with if you change plans, call in the event of a problem, etc. They are the person who will call 911 if you’re overdue, and turn your trip plan over to SAR or law enforcement. All of these points so far have to do with pre-planning. What about when you’re actually out in the field? Well,
4. Stay on the trail.
In July 2013, 66-year-old Geraldine Largay, a long-distance section hiker on the Appalachian Trail, was scheduled to meet her husband for a food pickup in Redington Township, Maine, before continuing her hike. She never showed up. Two years later, her remains were discovered by a surveying crew. Although her bones had been scattered by bears and wolves, the medical examiner determined that her death was caused by starvation and dehydration. According to her diary, she had gotten off the trail and became lost in the dark, dense spruce forest, wandering in circles for days. She went weeks without food before zipping herself in her sleeping bag and preparing for the end. She was half a mile from the trail. Although Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness is much more forbidding and easy to get lost in than most of the areas we frequent, the rule still holds. Stay on the trail. Your chances of becoming lost or disoriented increase dramatically without that reference point. And also,
5. Stay situationally aware.
We’ve mentioned situational awareness on the SARCRAFT blog before, and I’m confident we will again, because it’s probably one of the most underrated of all lifesaving skills. Staying mindful of your surroundings as you travel through the wilderness is extremely helpful in preventing you from looking up all of a sudden and realizing you have no idea where you are. Make mental notes of terrain changes, flora and fauna, and the position of the sun in the sky. Turn around from time to time to see what the trail you’re on looks like going the other way. (This is especially true for those of us who hunt on foot. When we’re tracking game, everything else gets blocked out. Break your concentration from time to time.) Look for distinctive landmarks, like large boulders or unusual trees. And the instant you’re unsure of where you are or where you’re going, stop and get your bearings. Speaking of bearings…
6. Bring a map & compass.
Not a dollar button compass, or one that’s part of your whistle, or hangs on your zipper, but a well-made, reliable baseplate or lensatic compass. I personally carry a Suunto MC-2 Professional. Brunton and Silva also make serviceable compasses. Your map should be a topographical map in a standard scale and datum format that you know how to read. Having a topo map in itself can be invaluable, just by orienting the map to the terrain, you can often determine your location without a compass. Notice I have not recommended a GPS. They are useful, but only to a point. I have seen thousand-dollar GPS units glitch out and be off by as much as half a kilometer. Heavy tree cover in the summer can block the signal, as can terrain features such as steep ridges or mountainsides. Batteries can always die. In search & rescue, we carry them as a supplemental navigational aid to verify our map & compass work and to transmit coordinates, but we never, ever trust them with our lives or the lives of our patients. The earth’s magnetic field is a constant. Get a map & compass. And when you do,
7. Learn how to use them.
Like any other gear, a map & compass are useless unless you possess the skills to harness them. Accurate land navigation is a skill that takes a great deal of practice to master. Learning how to plot a point, shoot a bearing, count your pace, and so on can take months, but are well worth it if you intend to spend a great deal of time in the woods. Reading a map is a skill that surprisingly few adults have. Be the exception. In addition to learning a map & compass, learn methods of navigation without them as well, such as using your watch. (It’s a cool trick. Take our Wilderness Survival Basics or Intro to Land Nav and we’ll teach you how to do it.) As I talked about in my last post, you need to cultivate these skills before you need them. When the situation arises, you’ll already be comfortable with them and can focus on solving the problem at hand, rather than fiddling with your compass and second-guessing yourself.
There’s never any guarantee that your trip will go flawlessly and without mishap. No matter how great your gear and how well planned your trip, nature is unpredictable. Some circumstances, such as medical emergencies, are often beyond your control. But if you follow the steps outlined above, your chances getting lost decrease exponentially, and your chances of being found increase dramatically. They will save search & rescue teams precious hours when time is of the essence. Rescue, although it may sometimes be technically challenging, is the relatively easy part. The search for an individual or a group, especially in the “big woods,” is what’s difficult. It truly can be like finding the needle in the proverbial haystack. File a trip plan, communicate with your point of contact back home, and set fire to the haystack. It might just save your life.
If you have any tips to add to this, or personal stories of getting lost in the woods, feel free to share them in the comments! Also, if you LIKE what you see here, SHARE it with your friends!