Preparation can Keep Lost Hikers From Staying Lost

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

A week of warm weather melted the snow and I took the opportunity to make a hike into Marion Lake. I left the trailhead in the early morning as the sun came over Rockpile Mountain. The path wound up through old growth fir trees hanging heavy with moss until finally I could hear water running out of Ann Lake, the first stop on the trail.

I watched some ducks for a few minutes then started out again, leaving the trail at the first opportunity. Pretty soon I was down in a swamp and could see no landmarks. As the sun warmed the rocks I picked my way across a field of boulders, sure I would find a trail again on the other side. The only path I found had been made by a deer and not in the recent past.

Slipping out of the backpack, I guessed it was time to have a candy bar and figure out where I was. The first part was easy. The second part should have been. If I had done things right from the start I would have known exactly where I was the whole time, but the map stayed in my pack while I gawked at the scenery.

It doesn't take long to get turned around when there are no landmarks. And relying on your own internal compass is a good way to get farther off course.

All travel requires some type of navigation. A person can use visual landmarks as guides, road signs, maps or mental notes to work out a route. Navigating in the backwoods is easy to learn and usually does not have to be precise. However, in the event of an emergency involving a member of your party, you must be able to find your way out by the quickest way possible; describe the situation to a rescue team; pinpoint the exact location and be able to direct or lead help back to your injured partner.

Those of you who use Global Positioning Systems stay with me. Technology can let you down. You still should bring a map and compass as backup. Many GPS units will fail in deep canyons or in heavy timber. And batteries do run down from time to time.

Most people are not intimately familiar with the places they hike, hunt or fish. But you don't need to be to find your way from one spot to another and back again. You just need to follow a few simple rules.

Carry maps of the area you plan to be in.

Bring a good compass. It doesn't need to be expensive but it should be reliable and of the protractor type with a dial that can be rotated 360 degrees.

Try this exercise. Stand holding your compass and note in which direction the magnetic needle points. This is magnetic North. Place your map such that the directions on the map line up with the directions on the ground.

Place the compass on the paper with the edge of the instrument along the intended line of travel. Then turn the dial until 'N' points to North on the map. Note that direction in degrees is read at the index line of the dial.

Declination is the difference between magnetic north and true north. Make the adjustment recommended on the map for the area you are in. Compensate for declination by rotating the dial the distance indicated on the map legend.

Next, pick up the compass and hold it level so that the needle is free to rotate. Turn your body until the pointing end of the needle aligns with the orienting arrow and 'N' on the dial. Sight along the direction of travel indicator and pick out a distant landmark, whether it be a tree, a rock or a mountain. Proceed to your landmark and pick out a new one from there. Follow this pattern until you arrive at your destination.

Stuck in the woods out there between Marion and Ann Lakes, I plotted out the course I would have to take before I struck a trail. Satisfied with the direction I had to travel, I set out, leaving my compass on a stump. Maybe I'll go back and get it someday.

Should you lose yourself in the woods without a compass or map there are some easy rules to remember to help you find your way out.

Stop and think, resolving not to panic. Listen. A vehicle traveling along a road some distance away may give you a reference point to travel toward. Climb a tree or a hill and look for signs of civilization such as a roadbed, a building, a fence or a logged area. Without a view of a place to head toward, find a stream. Water will always flow toward a larger body of water. Camps, houses and towns are built near water. Following a stream will always bring you to civilization eventually. When you cross a road or trail determine whether it is being used. Move along the trail until you come to a fork in the road. Which one is the main trunk of the road? Most roads branch as they leave civilization. Point away from the branches and head back along the main road toward help.

You've heard that people lost in the woods tend to travel in circles. To keep yourself from doing that, pick out a tree and walk toward it. Upon reaching the tree, sight along your backtrail and then extend it in a straight line toward another landmark. This will force you to move in a reasonably consistent direction and avoid wasting energy.

Survival, after all, is up to the individual. It costs little money and time to be prepared. It can cost you your life if you're not.

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