Survive This! Separation Anxiety

When you’ve lost your way on the trail, stay calm and act quickly.

POTENTIAL EMERGENCY: You’re hiking in the wilderness, and three hours into the journey you’ve become hopelessly lost. Then you realize you’ve dropped your map somewhere along the way. What do you do?

SOLUTION: You did at least remember to drop bread crumbs along the trail, right?

In all seriousness, much of wilderness survival is about what you’ve done before becoming lost—not what you do after the fact. So, before you laced up the hiking boots you, of course, remembered:

  • Not to hike alone.
  • To tell someone where you’re hiking, when you’re leaving, and what time you’ll be back.
  • To stay on marked trails.
  • To pack plenty of water and warm clothes.
  • To bring a compass.
  • To bring lots of matches (in a waterproof bag) or two lighters.
  • To bring a whistle (sound from a whistle travels farther than a human voice).
  • To carry a map (well, at least you were carrying one).

If you’ve followed all those tips, you’ll likely be found. So stay put and wait for rescue. In other words, as The Boy Scout Handbook puts it, STOP: Stay calm, Think, Observe, and Plan.

But what if you’ve made mistakes? You followed a false trail and can’t find your way back. Your canteen had a slow leak. You packed a meat thermometer instead of a compass.

Well, now it’s time to signal for rescue. And that means moving.

First, determine your general direction of travel. Though the method’s not perfect and can be difficult depending on weather conditions, use the movement of the sun across the sky to determine compass positions. Don’t bother with the tired “moss only grows on the north sides of trees” technique; this won’t work.

Begin traveling in the general direction you’ve come from. As you walk, turn over leaves and branches, or use cairns (stacks of rocks) to mark your trail, so that you don’t double back. Don’t split up from your buddy or your group; stay together.

Next, move to higher ground. This will allow you to view the surrounding terrain and help you spot critical landmarks: roads, bridges, rivers, shopping malls. Further, you’ll need to build a signal fire, and smoke coming from a hilltop won’t dissipate as much as smoke from a valley before it’s spotted. Find a small clearing and carefully build a fire—the smokier the better.

Use dry wood first to get the flames going. Then slowly add damp leaves or grass to create smoke. Keep the fire going all the time. If a spotter plane or helicopter flies overhead and the fire’s out, holding your lighter up like a concertgoer isn’t going to work. The fire also will provide light and heat as day turns to night and may provide some safety from wildlife. Just remember to build the fire so that it won’t spread.

If you’re carrying an emergency blanket, spread it on the ground during daylight hours to signal your position. At night, use it and the fire to stay warm. Then, sit tight and wait.

If you only hiked a few hours, you’re only a few hours from potential rescuers.

Josh Piven is the co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Handbook series. Visit his Web site atjoshpiven.net.

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