Lost: What to do when you realize you are off route - Page 2
Remaining calm is crucial. A clear head and slow, meticulous thinking allow you to better evaluate your situation and make good decisions. It may sound trite, but take some deep breaths. Step back and pretend you are an outsider looking in, or imagine you’re watching a TV show of yourself. You know how you critique show plots or joke about the cheesiness of that B movie? Sit down, take a sip of water and think rationally.
How long ago did you pass the turn off? When will it get dark? Did you pass other trail junctions? Would you recognize those junctions (keeping in mind that you will be coming from a different direction)? Is it a full moon providing enough light to keep moving safely? Is a storm moving in? How much gas do you have left in the tank? How cold are the overnight temps? Is there a real chance of getting hypothermia and exposure?
In the best-case scenario, you can reorient yourself by identifying a landmark from a nearby hilltop, or simply having confidence that you can backtrack, even in the dark, safely to the trailhead or civilization. Be careful, though, not to fool yourself into recognizing landmarks, i.e. in a panic, it is easy to convince yourself that you recognize a distinctive bush or rock formation.
If you decide to backtrack, it is best to stay on trail and backtrack the way you came, especially after dark, rather than taking off cross country, where you could encounter cliffs, downed trees or impassable vegetation. Leave “bread crumbs,” or clues (e.g. arrows scratched in the dirt or made from branches) along your travel route, especially at intersections and junctions, so that in case you head the wrong way, you can turn around and retrace your route. Such clues will also aid potential search-and-rescue (SAR) personnel, if it comes to that.
If you cannot simply backtrack, there are options. Is there a road that you know parallels the area on one side that you could drop down to? Do you see car lights indicating a road nearby? Can you follow a creek or river drainage to safety?
If you make it out, great! Go home, have a beer, sit on the couch and watch the next episode of Survivorman. If you try to make it out but end up even more lost, stop. Eat a snack, take a drink. Do not let embarrassment keep you from admitting you are lost.
OK, now you admit it—you are really lost. It is cold and getting dark. Your best course of action is to stay put, and prepare to bivy.
Look for a sheltered spot, e.g. a rock overhang, a low, thick-branched tree, close to the trail so you will hear people if they pass by. If you can’t find a natural option, create your own. Drape some thick branches a few feet over your bed area to create beams in a lean-to style. Lean the branches up against something sturdy like a solid tree or rock. Then collect more branches and boughs to create an insulating roof. The best branches to collect are evergreen boughs, which layer well and cover a lot of surface area.
Inside your shelter, create a bed of pine needles, leaves and/or more boughs to insulate you from the ground. Then, when you bed down, pile on more duff, boughs or branches. You can also sleep on top of your pack (if you have one) or slip your feet inside for more warmth.