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The ''10 Essentials'' - And What To Do With Them If You're Lost In The Woods

By Bill Greer, Dallas Sierra Club Senior Outings Leader

On a beginner backpack trip I lead recently one of the hikers (not a beginner) became separated from the group around 4PM Saturday, while we were on a 2 hour day hike. We didn’t see the lost hiker again until around 8AM the next morning. Fortunately the weather was very mild, and some kind strangers were encountered, so all was well in the end. Partly as a result of this I’d like to discuss two closely related subjects: the basic safety items you should always, always have with you, and what you should do with those items if you should find yourself lost in the woods. We have had lost hikers on other trips than mine, and it’s sure to happen again. Here’s how to be ready!

The 10 Essentials

First let’s talk about the tools you should have with you to deal with being lost. These things are your own emergency gear, so don’t depend on someone else to have them. That would be like feeling safe in a car because someone else buckled their seatbelt. That’s good for them, but doesn’t do you any good! A very experience hiker who I have all of the respect in the world for once told me “Why should I carry all that stuff? I know you’ve got it all!” There are two answers to that. First, what if you get separated from the leader? An item in the leader’s pack may not do you any good. Second, what happens if both you AND the leader find yourself in trouble? Who gets the one piece of gear you both need? Everyone should have this stuff on their person. Like the incident mentioned above, emergency situations almost by definition pop up suddenly. When the stuff hits the fan, it’s too late to prepare. You will see small variations in different “10 essentials” lists, but here is mine. They should be with you on any dayhike or backpack, whether you are a beginner or expert.

  1. Map of the area. Know where you and where your camp or car are on this map at all times! If you’re not sure, ask the trip leader.
  2. Compass. If you don’t know how to use it, ask the leader to show you. And take the Wilderness Navigation Class!
  3. Whistle. Not one of the wimpy tin things many people have, but one of the orange plastic ones that can be heard for ½ mile or more. The "Storm" brand is very good.  Its sound carries much farther than a human voice, and it doesn’t get hoarse after a few blasts. Three blasts is a universal emergency signal, use one blast for an attention getter. The whistle is also a very useful communication tool for the searchers. It ends up being used on lots of trips, and one of the most frequent uses is to recall hikers who have headed down the wrong trail, so have it where you can get to it quickly.
  4. Flashlight with spare bulbs and batteries. The new LED lights are a good bet since the LEDs don’t burn out. Yes, I know you always plan to be back well before dark. We’re talking about emergencies here, and that means things didn’t go as planned. Trying to walk in the dark can lead to a fall that turns a potential emergency into a real one.
  5. Rain gear. Even if it’s not supposed to rain! The weather can change in minutes without regard to what the forecast says. Good rain gear is also a valuable wind barrier.
  6. Extra warm clothing. Sure it’s 70 degrees now, but a strong cold front can drop the temperature 20 degrees in an hour. A 50-degree temperature with a 25-mph wind gives a chill factor of 30 degrees, prime conditions for hypothermia. Throw in some rain and it really gets nasty. And at night the temperature could easily continue to drop into the 30s. I have seen this exact sequence of events more than once on weekend hikes, at least once without benefit of a forecast. Remember that the lost hiker from my beginner trip spent the night out away from camp. I always carry clothing that would let me survive the night. Maybe not enjoy it, but survive.
  7. Extra food. You should come back from a dayhike or backpack with some extra food. It can make the difference between surviving or not when things go wrong.
  8. Waterproof matches and fire starter. We usually don’t build fires on our hikes. In an emergency we do.
  9. Pocket knife. Leave the giant sheath knife or folding toolbox for the gear heads. A small Swiss Army Knife is lighter and will do the job just fine.
  10. First aid kit. It must include moleskin, waterproof surgical tape, Second Skin, and basic bandages. In snake country include your Extractor. The small rubber cup "snake bite kits" are worse than useless. Include any medication you may need. One rescue official told me about finding the body of a backpacker who left on a dayhike without taking his insulin. He took a wrong turn and didn’t find his camp in time. If you’re not sure what the kit should include or how to use it, take a Wilderness Medicine class. A standard Red Cross first aid class doesn’t cover what you need to know in a backcountry medical emergency.

What To Do If You Get Lost

You have left the group for a few minutes, and you’re hurrying to catch up. All of the sudden you realize that the trail has vanished. What do you do now?

The very first thing you should do, the instant you realize that things don’t look right, is to stop! I can’t say it any clearer, so I’ll say it louder:   STOP!!!!

You are headed in the wrong direction or there wouldn’t be a problem, so any farther progress only makes the situation worse. Find a nice place to sit, put your rear end on that spot, and relax! DO NOT keep plunging blindly on! Mountain rescue workers will tell you that keeping going when you are lost makes you almost impossible to find and decreases your chances of surviving. You will sometimes see other recommendations, for example finding a stream and following it downstream. This can lead you deeper into the woods, or lead you to impassable terrain. Resist the temptation. Just stop.

The next thing you should do is get out your whistle and blow a good, long, blast. If the rest of the group is nearby, they’ll come check on you. If our lost hiker got lost where I think, the rest of the group was no more than 300 feet away and would have come running to see what was wrong. Blow the whistle before they have a chance to get farther away. This may be a little embarrassing, but it’s a lot less trouble and danger for everyone than a major search.

The next step is to think back to the last time you saw the trail, or otherwise knew where you were. If you are sure you can backtrack to it, do so. If you’ve been paying attention you should not be very far from the trail.

Next, get out your map and compass. If they were already out you probably wouldn’t be lost! I won’t try to do the whole Wilderness Navigation Class here, but see if you can figure out where you are. If you are absolutely sure you know where you are and how to get back to where you should be, do so. Otherwise just stay put. Don’t make the situation worse by continuing on in the wrong direction. If you are sure you can return to the last place you saw the rest of the group, do that. That is probably the first place they will look for you. Just be very sure that you know where you are. If you are ever in the least doubt, just stop! Don’t make things worse.

This is now an emergency, so blow three long blasts on your whistle every few minutes. The rest of the group will start looking for you where you were last seen, and you shouldn’t be over ½ mile from there. If it is a good one your whistle will carry that far, so you should be found right away.

If it’s starting to get dark and you still have not been found, settle in for the night. Find what cover you can, maybe build a fire, and save your strength to keep you warm. There is a wise rule that no searching takes place after sunset. It’s too dangerous for the searchers and not likely to produce any results. Eat your extra food, put on your extra clothes and rain gear, and get ready for the night.

When daylight comes, continue to stay where you are. Don’t make things worse by moving. Unless you have done something you shouldn’t have you will not be very far from where you were last seen. This is where a search for you will start. The farther from that place you are the longer it will take to find you. Continue to blow your three whistle blasts every few minutes.

If you ever take children into the woods, be sure that they have a whistle and keep it with them. Give them some practice using it. Your neighbors may not be amused but the kids will think it’s great fun. Be sure to impress this rule on them: if you’re lost, stop and whistle!

"If a person lost would conclude that after all he is not lost, he is not beside himself, but standing in his own old shoes on the very spot where he is, and that for the time being he will live there; but the places that have known him, they are lost ... how much anxiety and danger would vanish."

Henry David Thoreau

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