With the news that Hawaiian hiker Amanda Eller was found alive after being lost for 17 days, it’s worth considering what to do if you find yourself alone and lost in the wilderness. Eller did a lot of things right, according to early news reports. CNN says that “She picked berries and guava to eat when she could find them. She drank water only when it was clear enough and looked like it wouldn’t make her sicker. She took care of a bum knee and nursed sunburn so bad it got infected.”
If you’re injured or hopelessly lost, wilderness survival is largely a matter of waiting for rescue without making your situation any worse. If you’re in good shape, you may be able to find your own way out. The tricky part is knowing the difference.
Stop and think
As soon as you realise you’re lost, remember the classic survival mnemonic STOP:
Stop. Sit down. Don’t panic. Stay where you are.
Think. What do you know about your situation and location? The US Forest Service advises, “Do not move at all until you have a specific reason to take a step.”
Observe. Gather information that can help you figure out where you are. Do you have a map and compass? Are there signs labelling trail intersections?
Plan. Consider possible courses of action, and choose one. Maybe you should continue down the path, or turn back the way you came. If you are injured or night is falling, it may be best to stay where you are.
By the time you’re lost, it is obviously too late to plan ahead, but probably most of you are reading this out of curiosity rather than mid-wilderness googling. (If the latter—call 000 while your phone still has a signal and some battery life.)
Some of the things you should consider:
Tell somebody where you’re going. For a big trip, send detailed information to several people. For a quick stroll in the woods, at least text one friend or family member to let them know where you’re headed.
Bring essential survival gear, including first-aid supplies, an emergency shelter, a flashlight, and sunscreen.
Have a way to communicate in an emergency. Your phone (plus a backup battery) is a start. Consider emergency beacons or satellite messengers if you spend a lot of time in the outback.
Know how rescues work
If you’ll need to be rescued, it helps to know how the rescue process works. Outside has a good rundown here. Authorities usually start with a 000 call from someone who suspects you’re missing, and then they gather information to figure out whether you’re actually lost in the woods or just left town without telling anybody.
Then, they start looking. Even if your phone is turned off, cell towers can ping you to try to get a location. Searchers will have a description of what you were wearing, and where you might be. They will start searching the area based on an analysis of the terrain and what people in your role (skier, hunter, etc) tend to do.
The good news is that 97% of people who go missing in the wilderness are found in the first 24 hours. The bad news is that if you can’t be found in that time, there’s usually a reason, like being stuck in an area where you’re hard to spot. Even tricky rescues sometimes succeed, though, so do your best to plan ahead and, if you do find yourself lost, think clearly and don’t panic.