Getting lost on a hike


Even with a compass and a detailed map even experienced hikers can get lost. Sudden fog can make it impossible to see your feet, let alone the trail. Flooded rivers can wash out visible tracks, tiredness can kick and affect you and sometimes it just happens. If you can’t get a signal your GPS toys will be about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.

My worst experience of getting lost on a hike was around Meullers Pass overlooking Albina Lake. We were lucky with the weather for most of the weekend but we were above the tree-line for almost the entire hike and the weather can turn pretty quickly. When the sun went down each evening the temperature plummeted to below freezing. To be honest I’d make mistakes in gear selection and wasn’t expecting it to be so damn cold! On the second day a combination of fog, tiredness (I wasn’t sleeping much in my two season sleeping bag!) and yes I have to admit poor map reading took as way of route.

So what’s the best thing to do when you get lost on a hike? Rule Number One is don’t panic! Getting lost in backcountry is unnerving but having a meltdown will make the situation worse. I swear my old man often got us lost when he took me out on hikes when I was an ankle biter but he’d never admit it. It might take us a couple of hours longer but we’d get to where we’d set out eventually. The maps were pretty basic in those days too and there was no GPS or other fancy gear to guide us.

It can be a good idea to leave your hiking itinerary with park rangers, friends or family – especially for winter adventures. Once you miss your return deadline a search-and-rescue team will set out to find you and I’ve got to admit the embarrassment of that would keep me on track! But seriously, don't think of this as an unnecessary precaution taken only by rookies. As soon as you think you've strayed off-course, try to re-orient yourself. Stop for a rest and a drink and get your head together. If, between your map, compass and all the scout tricks you can recall you still can't find your position on the map accept that your lost and consider what to do next.

The best option may in fact be to stay put. If you've left an itinerary behind, rescuers begin by mapping out a grid to search. Every step you take outside that grid means they have to broaden the area of coverage. And the more you move, the thinner their resources will be spread and the less likely you are to be found quickly.

If you're with mates don't think about splitting up. Rescuers will have an easier time finding one stray party than two. What's more, mates can keep each other calm, entertained and warm if the temperature drops. This could be something you look back on as some real ‘male bonding’ time! You need so stay warm and dry so use what shelter you have but you also need to be noticeable. If you're in the woods, hang a bright piece of clothing on a branch. You might suddenly be very grateful for that pair of bright red grundies the wife bought you last Chrismas! (And hopefully you’ll forget that you hung that from a branch and leave them behind when you get rescued) If you're out in the open, use rocks or sticks to make an arrow pointing to your location, or spell out "S.O.S." Tinfoil, coins or reflective things you might have can be used so that any search lights will catch them.

Be ready with a flash light in case you hear rescuers approaching – so save the batteries if you can until you really need them. One of the smallest, lightest and most useful things to carry on any hike is a whistle. You’ll thank yourself for it if you do get lost on a hike. Now I like a drop of the amber nectar as much as the next guy – more in fact! – but don’t think about hitting the grog if you get lost. You need your wits about you. And worse still you don’t want to wake up with a hangover and remember you’re lost in the wilderness.

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