Lost in the backcountry?
You may have heard a story about a hunter or hiker who went out into backcountry and never came back. It’s scary, but true: every year, people die, become severely injured or simply disappear on backcountry hunts. Even the most experienced backcountry hunters can get lost, and when that happens, you have to know what to do. I spend about 100 days in the backcountry every year and have been in some treacherous situations. Below are 15 tactics that have been helpful to me on my backcountry hunts.
Prepare for the worst
No one ever plans to get lost. Anticipate the unexpected. This includes bringing the right gear, advance planning your route, packing a wireless device to communicate with the civilized world and even leaving your footprints behind.
Paper can save you
Let a friend or family member know where you intend to go on your hunt and give them a paper map with your intended route highlighted. Also leave a copy of this map in your vehicle when you park. If you do get lost, rescuers can break into your vehicle and look for clues about where you are. Take a paper map yourself. Unlike a GPS unit, paper doesn’t run out of power or depend on batteries. Also bring some blank paper with you on a backcountry hunt to leave notes for potential rescuers if you do get lost.
Overshare location information
Hunters are known for being secretive about their location. But keep your family in the loop. If your plans change, let someone know. Even a text or voicemail with updated location information about your hunt can later save your life. Satellite messengers and personal locator beacons (PLBs) will also aid potential rescue efforts.
Know how to use a compass
Basic navigation skills can get you out of a sticky situation. Be able to read a topo map and use a compass. A GPS may fail or run out of batteries, but an old-school magnetic compass will keep going no matter what.
Bring along survival necessities
Along with hunt essentials like a first-aid kit, water, fire-starters and warm layers, bring along some paper, a pencil or pen, a small flashlight and emergency food (like energy bars). Also pack a space blanket, it is a lightweight way to ensure you can stay warm throughout a chilly night.
Make boot prints for trackers
If you’re going deep into backcountry or plan to be gone over 10 days, it may be worth it to create a copy of your boot treads to help a search and rescue team if you get lost. Step on a piece of medium weight tin foil to make a clear impression of your boots; this works best on a carpeted area. BeFoundAlive.com recommends leaving a copy of your prints with two different responsible individuals (they can go with your paper map and route information); we’d say to leave one in your vehicle too to cover all the bases.
You are lost. Now what?
Sometimes hunters get so focused on a buck they’re tracking that they stop paying attention to their surroundings. Other times they assume that since they’re hunting with a buddy or a group they don’t need to worry about getting lost. Getting lost can happen to even the most experienced hunter and most times it catches you unawares.
Touch a tree
Or a rock, or anything stable. You need a moment to breathe and calm down. Count to 10 and drink some water. Panicking will only make things worse.
Get your bearings
Figure out which way is north and you might be able to find a landmark you noticed earlier on your hunt. Use a compass for a quick orientation; if you don’t have your standard compass on you, most GPS units have one built in. Other ways to find north: orient yourself by the direction of the sunset or by the stars. You can also find north by looking at the moss on the side of a tree — it only grows on the north side.
Admit to being lost as soon as possible
The sooner you call for help the better. Hunters who continue wandering on for hours in denial about being lost just make an eventual rescue attempt more complicated. We say if you can’t figure out where you are after trying to get your bearings for an hour, it’s time to call in some help.
Follow the STOP protocol
Developed by the Emergency Response Institute of Olympia, Washington, S-T-O-P stands for Stop, Think, Observe and Plan.
- Stop: Touch that tree or rock, and then take stock of your surroundings.
- Think: Use a map, look for landmarks. Think back to last place you were certain of your location. If you’re in the snow, can you retrace your tracks? Don’t move yet.
- Observe: Use all your senses and take stock of what you have in your pack and pockets.
- Plan: Now it’s time to figure out your plan. If you’re with another hunter, talk through all possibilities together before moving. If alone, try talking out loud as a way to sort through your thoughts. Be cautious, ensure your immediate safety, and then figure out protection, rescue, water and food (in that order).
Get up to get down
If there are multiple hours before sunset, sometimes it’s worth it to try and find a road or trail. These are usually downhill. First climb up high on a ridge, rock or hill to see if an overview of the area allows you to recognize anything. You might be able to see a way out. If you do decide to try walking downhill, leave a marker for anyone who may come looking for you. A piece of paper with directions stuck on a tree or visible and weighed down with a rock is perfect.
What to do while waiting for rescue
You’ve sent an SOS through your satellite device. Now stay right where you are and use the following to help out your rescue team:
Stay put and stay warm
While waiting, make sure to cover yourself to stay warm. The early stages of hypothermia affect your brain and judgement, so don’t move even if you get chilled and think that sounds like a good idea. Getting even more lost now helps nothing.
Avoid camping by water
Find a water source by looking for deciduous trees like aspens. If you must spend the night, sleep away from rushing water. The sound will likely mute the voice of any rescuers calling for you.
Get on a ridge
Stay up high and you will be visible to aircraft. Camp on a ridge, not in a basin, since it will be easier to see you. You’ll also be able to signal anyone that happens to be flying by.
Signal for visibility
Most states require you to wear blaze orange when on a rifle hunt. If you are lost, attach your blaze orange vest, shirt, etc. to your pack to be visible. You could also attach it up high like a flag, but don’t take any risks climbing trees or scaling a sheer rock face.