What do you do when you are lost in the woods or face some other type of wilderness emergency? There are two essentially different survival strategies. One is to stay where you are and wait for rescuers to find you. This is what most experts recommend, and it certainly makes life easier for search-and-rescue volunteers. It is not uncommon for them to find previous campsites of lost hikers and hunters who have unwisely moved on.
The other strategy is to find your own way out to civilization. This too can be a good idea in the right context. We’re going to look at which survival strategy you might choose based on a variety of different circumstances. We’ll also look at some other possible options.
Survival Strategy: Stay Where You Are
If you are injured in a way that limits your mobility you generally won’t have much of a choice except to stay where you are while awaiting rescue. Of course, even in a case like that, if you are with others, they have to decide whether to go for help or stay with you. Going for help makes sense if moving will not make your injury worse, and if you know where you are. If one person is immobile, and you know where you are, and if there are at least three in the group, the best option is normally for one person to stay with the injured person while the other goes for help.
In general, it is best to stay in one place if you are lost and there are rescuers looking for you. Years ago a hunter was lost in northern Michigan, and he kept trying to find his way out of the woods each day as he got weaker and hungrier. Meanwhile, the people looking for him kept coming upon his campsites from the night before day after day. In other words they would have found him quickly if he had just stayed in one place. Fortunately, despite being old and hungry and cold, the man did survive long enough for the rescuers to catch up to him. But rescuers chasing after empty campsites is not an uncommon story, and does not always have a happy ending.
If you do choose to stay put, the next step is to prepare to help the rescuers locate you. This can mean getting something reflective ready to signal planes. A CD will work if you don’t have a mirror. Preserve those flashlight batteries for signaling at night as well.
You might also look for a way to make a loud noise repeatedly. A gun is an obvious choice if you have one, but don’t fire it endlessly. Use when you think rescuers are in the area, and make your noises three at a time. Three is the universal symbol or indication that you need help. A large hollow tree that you can thump with a log might make a sound that carries well in mountains.
One of the most common ways to signal rescuers is with fire and smoke. If you have an open area and suspect a search from the sky, prepare three fires in a triangle, and light them when you hear planes or helicopters. If you have a car tire or other large piece of rubber, you can burn this to create a black column of smoke. If your fuel is limited wait for times when searchers are most likely around, times when the wind is not to strong (it will disperse the smoke), and times when you are cold and need some warmth.
Survival Strategy: Get Moving
When should you try to get out on your own? To start with, it makes sense if you have only a minor problem and you know roughly where you are. For example, if you dropped your backpack in a river and you have no food or shelter, you need to get back to civilization. If you also happen to be lost, but you know that you are less than a day’s hike west of a highway that runs north and south, you can simply head east carefully until you find the road.
The other time when it makes sense to start moving is when you are lost but you neglected to tell anyone where you were in the first place. Of course you should always tell someone where you will be hiking or otherwise venturing into the wilderness, but perhaps you changed your mind on the way to the trail head. Or maybe you left a message telling a friend where you would be, and later realize that your friend was going to Europe for a month and so wouldn’t get the message or tell anyone where to look.
In cases like these it still makes sense to prepare to signal rescuers. After all, a pilot flying over might investigate more closely if you use a CD to flash sunlight at him. But if there is no reasonable expectation of a search where you are, it is also time to get traveling.
If you find a creek or river you can follow that downstream. Follow any larger rivers it runs into and eventually you should arrive at some town or farm. This is true in most parts of the world other than the far north.
If you know that the area you are in is framed by several roads, aim for whichever you suspect is the closest and hike in as straight a line as you can using a compass or natural direction signals like the sun. If you get too confused about direction, do most of your traveling in the mornings and evenings when the sun is closest to east and west.
There is another time when you may have to move. It’s when you don’t expect a search to begin for a while and you have no water supply near you. In that case you may have to move until you find a pond, pool, puddle or lake. You can always set up camp there and wait to wait for rescuers.
Using Both Survival Strategies
There might be a time when you are lost and perhaps injured and when it really isn’t clear whether you should stay put or get moving. In these cases it might make sense to stay put for a while and then start hiking out on your own. For example, if you are in a well-traveled wilderness and you are hurt, someone might find you within a few days. If you have food and a way to stay warm it can make sense to stay and wait for this kind of help.
On the other hand, if nobody arrives and you run out of food and you suspect there will be no search for another week or more (maybe you planned to resupply, and only told your family the date you would be completely done with the hike), you might have to start moving. In the meantime, while you are staying in one place for the first few days, you can prepare whatever you’ll need for getting out. This could mean making a splint for a broken bone, or carving a crutch out of a tree branch and so on.
The bottom line with any survival strategies is to use them as they make sense. In other words, you have to think. No rule about what you should do can think for you. There are good general ideas and guidelines about these things, but there are no absolute rules for this or any other area of life.