How to Get Lost: Lessons Learned from Tales of Wilderness Survival

December 3, 2015 by | Be the first to comment »

“This is how hikers die,” I thought, watching my husband half walk, half slip down a sheer rock face. We were in the middle of a week-long backpacking trip in Colorado’s Rahwah Wildnerness and things had taken a turn for the worse. We’d spent the morning hiking above tree line, with only cairns (rock piles meant to guide hikers) marking an otherwise indistinguishable trail. By midday we realized it had been an hour since we’d last seen a trail marker. We were both experienced long-distance hikers; we’d met through-hiking the Appalachian Trail, hiked the John Muir Trail for our honeymoon and spent every vacation in the woods, but this was the first time I’d ever been really and truly lost.

We’d searched in vain for any hint of the trail in all directions until we saw the telltale signs of a thunderstorm rolling in. We were at over 11,000 feet in elevation, so knew that we needed to abandon our search and get below tree line in order to avoid exposure to the elements. Armed with a map and a compass, we decided that if we could bushwhack our way down the steep mountain, loosely following a mountain stream, we could find our way to a road and then back to safety.

Spoiler: We made it out, but it took us two days and many scrapes and tears (from me), and it brought me a new-found respect for the mountains. Far from scaring me off from wilderness activities, I was inspired to figure out what we could have done better and learn more about survival techniques and equipment, so I would be prepared for anything in the future. Here are two more stories of people who have survived dangerous situations to help you (and me) ready yourself for your next outdoor adventure.

Eric LeMarque

In 2003, Eric LeMarque, a former Olympic hockey player, was planning to only be out for an afternoon of snowboarding on Mammoth Mountain, but took a wrong turn into a remote area of the Sierra Nevadas. LeMarque only carried gum, an MP3 player, a dead cellphone and soggy matches and had told no one of his plans for the day. Over the next days lost on the snowy peaks, he used his MP3 player as a crude compass, ate bark and pine needles for energy and dug snow caves for warmth at night. On the seventh day rescuers in a helicopter found LeMarque alive, his feet badly frostbitten (they would later be amputated). (1,2)

LeMarque’s survival story is one of perseverance, ingenuity and a lot of luck. Beyond the tactics he employed while lost, there are lessons to be learned from his mistakes.

  • Always inform someone of your plans and estimated time of return
  • Double check all batteries and equipment before you leave
  • Carry a device with GPS tracking
  • Do not cut corners on clothing, and bring extra layers for warmth and wetness

Justin and Jeremy Harris

Brothers Jeremy and Justin Harris were rappelling in Chute Canyon, Utah, when Justin slipped and broke his leg. Justin stayed put, equipped with extra food and clothing, while Jeremy headed back to their campsite for help. During the four-mile hike back, he missed a turn and found himself in an unfamiliar canyon. After 20 hours of walking in the dark with a fading headlamp and through, at times, freezing cold canyon water, Jeremy found the camp and alerted rescuers to his brother’s location. Justin was lifted 450 feet up a rock cliff to a waiting helicopter, while Jeremy was treated for hypothermia.

Jeremy and Justin were smart to keep Justin immobile with his foot elevated while Jeremy went for help, and several lessons can be gleaned from their harrowing experience.

  • Even if you think you know the path to your campsite, carry a map, GPS and compass
  • When travelling in pairs (which is always a smart idea), carry a two-way radio for communication — these will prove invaluable if you are separated
  • Carry extra clothing and food in case of sudden shifts in weather or being caught out after nightfall
  • Check the batteries in all equipment before setting out

Melanie Swick (a.k.a. Survival Chick) grew up wanting to be a rocket scientist, but when she realized she that required way too much math, she took to her second dream—spending time in the wilderness. Today, when she's not hiking, camping, or hunting, she's blogging about it. You can connect with Melanie on Facebook.

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