A pleasant hike in the Adirondack backcountry suddenly turns into a disaster. The heart quickens in the chest, the echo of the frequent beats drowning out the surrounding natural sounds. A thin sheen of sweat covers the skin, producing a clammy feeling and chills. Breathing becomes labored as if just summiting a faraway peak. A frantic feeling overcomes you, as if mortal danger is imminent.
What is going on? Is it a heart attack? A panic attack? Aliens?
Nope. It just means you made a terrifying discovery, as everything around you looks unfamiliar, and you no longer know where you are. You are lost. All the physical indications are there, the racing heart, the profuse sweating, the difficulty breathing, and the sense of impending doom. Every rock, tree, bird and chipmunk looks threatening. What choice do you have but panic, right?
Being lost in the backcountry usually means not knowing one’s whereabouts. This can easily occur when one carelessly neglects to keep track of their location, does not carry the proper equipment, or has the equipment but never learned how to use it properly. Although there are sometimes other contributing factors, in most cases getting lost is easily prevented.
Although there is a physical component to getting lost, it remains mostly a state of mind. Typically, it unfolds slowly over time until the evidence finally builds up to the point where it is undeniable. How is it possible to go from knowing where you are one moment to being totally disoriented the next? In most cases this is an unlikely scenario, unless a kidnapping, sudden blow to the head or a case of sleep walking is involved.
The terms “getting lost” or “being lost” have a notion of finality that has always bothered me. Unless map-less and possessing a complete lack of knowledge of the area, one should always have a general idea where they are located, at least within a square mile or so. For that reason, I prefer the term “momentarily displaced” as a replacement for the more traditional terminology.
Getting lost is much easier for traditional hikers, since any straying from the trail is a prime opportunity to get into trouble. On the other hand, a competent bushwhacker is almost continuously focused on their location, and by their very nature much more skilled with route finding.
Many years ago, in my earlier years as a trail hiker, I once found myself lost while hiking back from the Five Ponds after taking an old side trail near the Oswegatchie River. When the old trail started to peter out, I continued on following what I thought was the trail remnant, although it could have been all in my head. After continuing in this fashion until reaching a large downed tree, I found myself not sure of the way forward or how to get back whence I came. In every direction, a river stymied my progress, as if I somehow found myself on an island. In the end, it turned out I journeyed out onto a peninsula, and after keeping my head and returning to the downed tree, I found my way back along the old trail and I safely returned home no worse for the situation.
Although getting lost at least a couple times is probably inevitable during a hiking career, and potentially a good thing, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the number of incidents. Always carry a compass and map, and know how to use them. Every member of a hiking party should have these essentials, and all should be involved in the navigation, whether sticking to the trails, or going beyond them.
In no circumstances should you be without your compass in the backcountry. It should be the first thing you put on in the morning, even before your underwear, and the last thing you take off in the evening. And do not forget to take it with you when taking an emergency midnight dump too.
Despite all the concern about getting lost, it is becoming more difficult than ever to do so. Modern technology has shrunk the world to such a degree, that actually finding yourself lost or momentarily displaced is getting exceedingly difficult. With global positioning units, personal locator beacons and satellite phones, anyone with the monetary resources and the wherewithal can easily find their position at just the push of a button or two. Perhaps at some point in the future it will be impossible to get lost, as everyone will be equipped with an internal GPS chip that monitors your whereabouts at all time. Thank of the Facebook and smart phone apps!
If it is so hard to get lost in the backcountry, then why do people do so every year, with some losing their lives in the process? Getting lost is not directly responsible for their demise, panic is.
Panic is a typical reaction when suddenly finding oneself in totally unfamiliar surroundings, often followed by frantic wandering about, suggesting the reaction of a chicken after an encounter with an axe. This reaction is the result of the body’s natural defense system, commonly called the “flight or fight” response. Without any physical threat, flight becomes the only logical alternative and your brain screams “RUN.” It would not lie to you, would it?
Unfortunately, our natural physical reactions are not always the best course of action. This is just one of many examples where the natural response is not only dangerous, but could actually get you killed. Fleeing from you initial position can simply lead to getting even farther away from your last known position, which can get you REALLY lost, plus uselessly depleting any energy reserves that just might come in handy while trying to stay warm under a tree.
The most obvious take home message about getting lost in the backcountry is “Do not panic.” This can be easier said than done sometimes. I always remember the old fire safety technique taught in school whenever I find myself feeling the initial panic of finding myself momentarily displaced.
Just stop, drop and roll.
In the case of being lost, “stop, drop and roll” has a totally different meaning than when applying it to fire safety. Immediately stopping upon realizing you are not where you think you ought to be is the most important thing you can do to make sure that a bad situation does not get worse. This leaves you as close as to the last point where you were not lost, giving you the best chance of retracing your steps.
After stopping, the second thing to do is drop your backpack and sit down. Take time to reflect on your predicament. Look at your map. Think. This is often the most difficult step, especially these days since we live in a culture where always doing something is the norm. Between driving everywhere, reading email, texting and surfing the computer (hopefully not all at the same time), today’s culture rewards people on the go, where thinking is frowned on as being unproductive. When you think you might be lost, doing nothing but thinking may just make the difference between getting where you want to go and spending the night curled up under a log with toads crawling up your pants.
Finally, the roll portion. This does not mean roll around in leaf litter and have a good laugh, although that might help. When lost, roll stands for the process of breaking bread. Pull some food out of your backpack and eat it. Wash it down with some water. This will definitely help with the thinking above, and it gives you a chance to do something relaxing while thinking.
So the next time you feel as you might be lost, just remember to “stop, drop and roll.” It may sound completely stupid, but that might just make it memorable enough that it will come to mind when the need arises. Plus, it helps if you ever catch on fire too.
Getting lost in the backcountry can be a terrifying experience, and probably inevitable to some degree for anyone spending enough time in the backcountry. Learning how to anticipate it and manage the natural panic can make the crucial difference between getting yourself out of a sticky situation, an embarrassing rescue, or worse.
Photo: Forest near the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River, forest south of Lower South Pond and the edge of the carpet spruce swamp north of the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River by Dan Crane.