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Avoid Getting Lost

With the fall hunting seasons upon us, as well as the fall weather tempting hikers, campers, and fishermen to get out into the wilderness, I want to give some tips on how to avoid getting lost.  Each year about 3,000 search and rescue operations are carried out by the Mountain Rescue Association alone, and many more are carried out by other agencies.  Still, hundreds of people die each year in the Rocky Mountains before they can be rescued.

Yesterday I went for a one-day elk hunt to an area that I had never been to before.  I left my truck before sunrise, and I returned well after dark. While I did take a GPS reading of where my truck was parked, I didn’t need to use it to get back, and I went for about a 12 mile round trip.  While I would be a liar if I said I have never gotten lost, it is true that I have always found my way out and I have never required a search and rescue.  In fact the times when I have gotten lost, it didn’t take long to figure out where I was, and on a few occasions I just felt like staying put for the night.

To avoid getting lost, the first thing to do is get a good map of the area you will be venturing into, and study it before your trip.  Don’t just look at it once; look at it every day until you can visualize it in your mind.  I also suggest getting a map that is not too big as you are not likely to go more than 15 or 20 miles in a day.  A map that represents too much area will not have the level of detail that is useful.  I wrote an article on using a map and compass, you can read that by clicking here.

Next, use your map and compass or GPS while you are on your trip, always paying attention to where you are.  As a hunter I am always looking at my map to not only see where I am, but also to see where I think the animals I am pursuing might be.  Constantly translate landmarks from your map to what you are seeing as you are walking through the wilderness.  A stream or river is an easy thing to follow, but also look for ridge lines, mountain peaks, canyons, or even open areas with little elevation.  Try to visualize what the terrain might look like from a bird’s eye view, and try to locate yourself on the map in your mind.  Think of the “You are here!” arrow that you saw at the trail head, and constantly think about where that arrow would be at any moment.  It is critical to always know where you are, rather than pulling out the map once you are lost.


A landmark you won’t find on a map

As you are walking, pay attention to landmarks around you and things that may not show up on a map, like a large tree blown down, a boulder field, or any other characteristic of the landscape that catches your eye.  Register these things in your mind, and also make a mental note of when you saw those landmarks.  For example, I was on a turkey hunt in a new area this past spring and I saw this enormous pine tree that had been hit by lightning.  It was early in my hike, so I knew it wasn’t too far from camp.  It is also important to look back frequently to see what the land will look like on your return trip, if you are returning on the same path.

Finally, always make sure that you are prepared to spend a night out if you have to.  That doesn’t mean you have to carry a tent and a sleeping bag with you, and all the food you would normally consume over night.  It means having the basics for a shelter, something to keep you warm, and a little bit of nourishment to get you through.  This is where your survival gear that you carry on any hunt or hike is crucial.  A couple of light-weight emergency blankets and some para cord can keep you sheltered, always have fire starting tools, and always carry some extra food like beef jerky and power bars.  Most importantly, always let someone know where you are going and when you will be back, and tell them what to do if you aren’t back at the scheduled time.