Getting lost in the wilderness is not a pleasant experience and it can have a long-lasting impact on beginner campers or outdoors explorers. If you are unprepared for the journey, if you don’t know what you are doing, your first wilderness exploration may very well turn out to be your last.
In my younger years, I got lost in the wilderness on various occasions, but I always managed to find my way back thanks to the teachings of my grandparents. If you like to spend time in the great outdoors, read further, and I guarantee there will be something here you can take with you in your next journies. Follow these lessons and you will avoid getting lost in the wilderness.
A story about being lost in the wilderness
I first saw the movement at least two I miles away along a south Ontario firebreak. We were out in a sporting pursuit of the wily moose on ground so flat it could have been a 20 square-mile bowling alley. After a bit of fooling around with the focus on my binoculars, I was able to distinguish an odd white-to-light-tan form coming on the firebreak through the dog hair pine. Scruffy small pine characterizes most of the country around Lochalsh, Ontario, where we were hunting.
Whatever it was kept on coming at what was proving to be a pretty good clip. I sat quietly on my stump. The breeze crossed the firebreak from the west, so there was little chance the critter would wind me. I figured if I were patient, it would come right up to where I was sitting. After a bit, I was able to determine that the critter was, in fact, a man.
He had hunting pants on. No jacket. No shirt. His gloves, if he ever had any, were gone. The white I saw at first was a T-shirt. As he came closer, I was able to see the man’s face. He looked as though the devil had him by the ass. His face was contorted and pained, colored a deep, dark, cardiac red.
Obviously the poor fellow had been running for a long, long time. In spite of the cold, he was covered with sweat. He literally frothed at the mouth. His hair was disheveled, and his eyes rolled as a man possessed. On he came, totally distraught. His red face was gruesome. I sat there quietly, expecting the guy to spot me and stop suddenly. But he didn’t.
He ran by without seeing me. I was so surprised that I waited —perhaps 50 yards — before letting go with a sharp, high-pitched “Hey!” On the third call, he stopped abruptly, turned around, and, on seeing me, collapsed on the trail. It took a couple of hours up well after dark before the poor old bird was able to get up and follow me out.
He was in such a state of panic and exhaustion that it took that long for him to recover enough to talk, much less walk a mile or two. As it turned out, the fellow was a 55-year-old man from Denver. He had hunted moose regularly in this area for about 10 years, always using the services of the same guide.
Staying put when getting lost in the wilderness
Early that morning, his guide had put him out on stand by a large beaver pond. By 8 a.m., the fellow, tired of sitting, had followed the creek down through a meadow to where it crossed the fire line cut. He wisely hunted the fire line for a while, but couldn’t find the meadow back to the pond when he decided to return to his stand.
After a bit, he couldn’t even remember which direction he was initially headed, although he claims to have started the day with a compass. When I stopped him, he had no compass. The compass business was academic because the day was bright and sunny. He could have gotten a general sense of direction by looking at the sun.
As is often the case when an amateur hunts with a guide, he did not check directions or bearings and probably didn’t really know within 10 miles where the home base was. During his ensuing panic, the man threw down his gun, lost his lunch, gloves, hat, and jacket.
He became a panic-stricken, raving hulk, driven almost to fatal exhaustion by an irrational fear of his situation. He was in good company. This syndrome is exceedingly common among humans. Later, when he recovered enough to walk, I led him out of the woods. That night, our lodge-keeper drove him to his camp.
Although I hunted the following day for the guy’s gear, we never found it. No telling for sure where he had been or what he had done.
It was an incident that I will never forget. It forcibly drove home this truth: the first necessity when you think that you may be lost in the wilderness is not to panic. I realize that this advice — like “don’t worry” — is incredibly easy to give and unbelievably tough to implement. But, if you can remember one lesson about being lost, it is not to panic.
Keep calm, keep your head, and do something logical. Sit down, talk to yourself, recite Bible verses or do whatever, but don’t ever lose your cool. Try to remember that many things are far worse than being lost in the wilderness. Think of things like worms eating the cabbage plants, the toilet getting plugged, your daughter smashing the car, running out of aftershave, or one of your apple trees dying. These events are far more serious than being misplaced in the bush a day or two.
My wife hunts with us quite often in the mountains of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. She is basically unafraid of the woods, so she often strikes out across the country to an area where she thinks the hunting will be best. Like most people who operate this way, she sometimes sets herself up for becoming disoriented.
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Sometimes she drags in three or four hours after dark, yet in all these years, she has never stayed out overnight alone.
“The thought of you chauvinistic guys looking for me with your toothy smiles the next morning is more than I can handle,” she says. Often, she has walked in way after she was played out and should have holed up for the night.
Most people who have been in the woods a while develop an attitude much like my own. I have been misplaced quite a few times. Assuming that you keep your head, you will usually soon discover that you know approximately where you are. The problem is that it’s not usually where you want to be.
Some woodsmen I have known have become so irate over discovering where they really are that they are not fit company for man or beast until they have time to simmer down a bit.
Let me repeat it again. On a strictly academic basis, there is little to fear from being lost in the wilderness. You might think about that fact for a moment next time it seems like it has happened to you. Literally, thousands of worse things can and do happen every day.
I don’t like to spend a miserable night in the woods trying to sleep on the cold, hard ground, holed up under a tree or in a temporary shelter. But even if you forgot your matches and can’t build a fire, and even if you are not clever enough to pull the bullet from a cartridge and start a fire that way, and even if you have eaten all your lunch, you will still survive
Statistically, the number of people who die in the woods as a result of getting lost in the wilderness, hunger, and exposure is insignificant — one or two per year in states where millions of man days are spent hunting.
The morning after, you will be stiff and cold, but more energetic than the night before and certainly better able to put a plan together to enable you to walk out.
So the first thing I do when I discover I got lost in the wilderness and I don’t know where I am is swallowing any temptation to get panicky or upset. Then I develop some sort of reconnaissance or backtracking scheme to help me find out where I am and where I have to go.
The second consideration when getting lost in the wilderness is to establish some sense of time and direction.
When I am in the woods, I usually don’t carry a compass, but I always have a watch. By looking at my watch, I determine how much time I have left before dark. Unless I know exactly and unquestionably where I am and where I am going, I never move after dark. The only exception is if I am on a familiar trail and know without question where it will end.
One afternoon while hunting cougar, I got really lost in the wilderness. We bagged a cougar, stashed it in a talus slope, and headed down to a small creek. At the creek, we turned downstream and walked about three miles to a small logging road. It was pitch dark at the logging road, but I pretty well knew where we were.
We decided to go on, following the little road downhill to the main road and on 17 miles to a small tavern, where we spent the night sleeping on the floor. There are several points to this tale, some of which we can come back to.
The main lesson is not to travel at night unless you know where you are. People are surprised that I don’t usually have a compass with me. I don’t dislike using a compass, or have some special directional talent. It’s just that I seldom use one and often forget it when I saddle up in the morning.
Most places I have operated in, including Africa, Asia, and North America, have built-in signposts that, when observed, preclude the necessity of getting the compass out. Usually, there is at least some sun, a prevailing wind, a river or drainage running in a known direction, a road in a cardinal direction, birds flying towards some fields, truck noise in the distance, mossy cedar thickets on the north of slopes, and so on.
These subtle signs signal the direction loud and clear. You will find you seldom use a compass, even if you have one. An exception, of course, is in heavy mountains or during really poor weather. Even then, a compass is nice, but not always useful.
A few years back, we discovered a small, rectangular piece of ground lying between a logging road and a railroad spur that was virtually impossible (under the right conditions) to cross without becoming disoriented.
The small finger drainages in the area crossed each other at odd, random angles, and several look-alike creeks flowed parallel in opposite directions. Measured on a topo map, it was only 5/8 of a mile across, but on the ground, it was something else again.
Four or five of us used to practice trying to cross when the elk hunting season was slow. On a cloudy, quiet day, without truck or train noise to orient us, it was totally impossible. The only sure method was to whip out the trusty compass and walk on a line.
No matter if it’s mountains or plains, the propensity to walk in circles is awfully strong in humans. I’ll readily admit that I walk in circles, occasionally, even though I am very sensitive to nature’s subtle hints when establishing a cardinal direction through the bush.
In the mountains, I keep some dominant peak or saddle in mind, move up or downhill, sight on a large tree across the valley, and stay out of thickets where I can’t see far enough to line out my path by sighting on rock ledges or whatever.
On basically flat ground, I again try to stay out of woody thickets, to use whatever prominences exist and to keep my basic sense of direction.
Generally, you’ll move through mountains by drainages. Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter if your compass says the camp is north on a line over the mountains. You aren’t going to cross the mountain to get to camp, anyway. You will, if you are wise, swing around the drainage, contouring at an even elevation till you are near the camp.
The real trick here is not to wander out of your assigned drainage. If you do, be sure you know how to get back in and which way to turn when you do. The first thing I do when scouting new country is to look at a map of the area or have someone do a rough map in the dirt for me. I am not smart enough to remember all the stuff on the map.
All I want to know is the natural boundaries — what lakes, main road, river, ridgeline, etc., form the edges of the area over which I will be operating. Then I can move with impunity to these places and either turn around or along them, knowing in a general way that I have not moved out into truly unknown country.
Pre-establishing the general boundaries or limits helps mightily after being tangled in the third small thicket along the sixth small creek. It is tough not to be concerned unless you’re certain that the main river is still someplace ahead. To the side, perhaps a ridgeline will be the boundary, and behind the road from which you started.
I do have a few tricks I use in the field to keep from getting hopelessly lost in the wilderness. One relates to my upbringing in the rural Midwest, where everything is as flat as a table. All these tricks originally came from my Uncle Dugan, who was half Ojibwa Indian. For instance, Dugan always said to approach an uncertain camp or location one side or another.
Never try to save time and hit it dead on. Generally, the target destination will be on some sort of identifiable landmark: a river, creek, lake’s edge, road, mountain ridge or whatever. If you try to hit the camp dead on, you won’t know which way to turn toward the camp when you get to your river or road.
On the other hand, if you are certain you are north, you then know to turn south. The toughest location to find is one on a large, flat bench covered by small, look-alike brush. Keep this in mind if it becomes important to hide or to obscure your location.
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Most camps, however, are built along something —a road, river, lake, or ridge — and in that regard are easy to find. Good ability to track helps immeasurably. I have run into people lost in the snow who didn’t think about back-tracking out of their predicament.
Another hint from Uncle for when getting lost in the wilderness: before starting in with anyone in the bush, spend some time studying their boot tracks. Then you will know the prints again when they turn up in the backcountry. You’ll be able to tell if someone walked a ridge, which way they went, and to some extent how long ago they passed in that direction.
This is especially vital if the tracks are your own! I have often hunted with people who didn’t know if the tracks they saw were their own. I believe it is always wise to tell someone approximately where I am going when I am out in the field. In a general sense, I want them to know on what trails I will be traveling, around which side of the mountain, over to which lake, and when I intend to return.
Most experienced scouts tell their crews not to worry about them until noon of the second day. Personally, I’ve slept in the woods only a few nights. But a great number of times, I ended up across the canyon and stayed in someone else’s camp. And I’ve been across the mountain to a road from which I hitchhiked back to the main base camp. It is relatively easy to do all this if you are at ease with the backcountry and don’t panic when you find yourself miles from camp in the late afternoon.
Another suggestion is always to try to maintain a reserve of energy for the late afternoon, when you may need to climb a hill or walk a road to determine where you are.
When my sons were young, I used to preach that message to them often. One day my eldest boy and I followed elk through to a small road, arriving just at dark. We hiked 11 miles down the road to a tiny town without meet-ing a single rig that could have given us a ride. In town, we watched in disgust as our buddies pulled out 300 yards ahead and drove three more miles back to camp. By the end of that march, we were genuinely happy we hadn’t hit the road at dark, bone tired.
Along with that suggestion, there is the related matter of carrying lunch. I suggest a very large lunch that you don’t eat until late in the day. Never eat all your grub before 2:00 in the afternoon. You may need the energy later, or you may want to save a bit of food for the following morning.
There are rabbits, porcupines, squirrels, cattails and water lilies to eat in the bush, but finding them at dusk is a tough deal. You’d be better off spending your time stacking up firewood. Wait till morning to decide on any extensive food-gathering program. I always get a tickle out of outdoor advisors who suggest firing into the air three times if you are lost in the wilderness.
My suggestion is that you save your ammunition and throw your knife into the air three times instead. If you decide to shoot, wait till well after dark, and then fire once. The sound will carry farther and will be noticed. During the day, a gunshot just sounds like another deer hunter putting meat in the pot. At night, you may even arouse the interest of a possum sheriff out looking for deer poachers.
Depending on where you are, a large fire built at night can be seen for several miles. However, smart buddies who see the fire will note your location and assume you are okay. They will not try to come to your aid that night.
The worst lost in the wilderness conditions are those that occur when the weather closes down movement and visibility becomes very limited. Like a good pilot, learn to read the weather, and stay close to camp if things look like they are going to get tough.
Stay on known trails, and don’t strike out across country unless it is absolutely necessary. Moving in a storm or in a very flat, open country without landmarks is similar to navigating on the ocean. Use a compass, travel in a cardinal direction, and keep track of the time.
Then it is possible to figure out, for instance, that you walked an hour at 1 ½ miles per hour in a direction, across country — about 1 ¾ miles in width — and that it is about time to be at the target boundary river, or whatever.
Most people, my uncle claimed, grossly over-estimate the distances they have traveled or underestimate the time it will take. If you are a sometimes-woodsman, a full mile across country may be a hell of a long hike. It may take you two hours of hard going.
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Getting un-lost in the wilderness is much easier if you have some general knowledge of how far you are able to travel in difficult terrain and conditions in a given period of time.
The excellent old Indian adage is that, when in doubt, you probably haven’t gone far enough. Almost invariably, camp is still on ahead. This assumes that you, like the Indians of old, haven’t lost your head. I don’t carry a lot of gear with me when I am scouting through the bush.
In my opinion, large knives, belt axes, collapsible fishing poles, portable toilets, first aid kits, climbing rope, hard hats, and chain saws are best left in camp. I am careful, however, to dress for the day and to carry gloves. Gloves, for me, are important to use to keep warm, if camping under a tree becomes necessary. I have already mentioned matches, a lunch, proper cloth-ing, and perhaps at minimum, a .22 pistol. For a knife, I like a small folding model.
Readers probably have gathered from the subdued tone of this article that for me, getting lost in the wilderness is not a big deal. The exception occurs when you venture out improperly dressed without having looked at a map or having someone explain the country, and with. out at least a little basic equipment.
That only happens if you allow it to although getting lost in the wilderness sometimes occurs due to circumstances beyond a person’s control. The goal, then, as I have explained, is not to allow the situation to become serious, but to work out a valid rescue plan for yourself logically.
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