I recently spent time at a Boy Scout camp situated in a remote back country area. The director and program director told me the tale of a lost camper. This story thankfully has a happy ending. I will recite the story as I understand it.

A couple of weeks ago a man in his early 50s (old enough to know better) was at camp with his scout troop. His actions offer a textbook example of how to get lost in the back country. Here are the basic steps:

1) Don't tell anyone what you are doing or where you are going.
The man awoke early one beautiful morning and decided to do a little exploring. Not wanting to bother his fellow campers, he quietly slipped out of camp. He didn't bother to leave a note or anything like that because he wasn't going far. He would be back in time for breakfast.

2) Hike alone.
Since the man was only going a short distance outside of camp, he wouldn't need a buddy. Besides, no one was awake to go hiking with him and he was a relatively avid hiker.

3) Have no plan.
The man really didn't have a destination. He just wanted to explore some of the beautiful region near the camp.

4) Hike in an area with which you are unfamiliar.
Familiarity with the area was unnecessary, or so the man thought. After all, wouldn't he always be able to find the great depression in the landscape that denoted the location of the lake adjacent to the camp?

4a) For extra credit, make sure to hike in an area infested with bear wallows.

5) Take no navigational tools with you.
GPS. Map and compass. Why would such things be needed for such a short hike?

6) Take no provisions with you.
Why take food and extra water when you're going to be back in time for breakfast?

7) Once you realize you are lost make sure to keep hiking.
The man felt quite foolish the moment he realized he was lost because he knew that he had broken almost every hiking safety rule. Since he was on a roll, he decided to break one more. Rather than stay put, he kept hiking around. And around. And around in a circular pattern. Heck, the dense forest all looked the same. How was he to know he was going in circles? And where the heck was that lake?

Some eight hours after the man left, members of his unit came to the camp office and said that they hadn't seen the man all day. Thanks to an updated communication system, forest service rangers and county search and rescue crews were soon involved in the search. Since no one had any idea of what had happened, they began at the man's campsite and started branching out.

One crew came upon a black bear sow that was unusually aggressive. (These were people that were experienced in dealing with bears.) They assumed that she was guarding a carcass, perhaps that of the missing camper. Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case.

About 29 hours after the man first left camp, he was returned safely by a crew that had located him a mile and a half from one shore of the lake. Since he didn't stay put once he realized he was in trouble it took search crews extra time to find him.

Earlier in the summer the camp had (much more briefly) lost another camper who ended up being located by helicopter. As in the case above, many rules had been broken. But at least this camper had the excuse of being just a kid.

The wilderness is a beautiful but dangerous area. It really is infested with wild beasts that can be hazardous to humans. More so for humans that fail to follow basic safety procedures. But campers themselves are often their own worst enemies when it comes to back country safety.

The real rules are actually quite simple:

  1. Have a plan for where you are headed and when you will be back. Share the plan with responsible parties (that are not hiking with you and can get help if you don't return on time). 
  2. Take a buddy. 
  3. Either hike in area familiar to you, hike with someone that is familiar with the area, or take navigational tools that you know how to use. Or all of the above.
  4. Take communication tools (if you have any hope of using them effectively).
  5. Avoid areas with high populations of dangerous animals (like bear wallows).
  6. Take extra provisions and water with you.

And if you do get lost, "hug a tree." Stay in one place. Make irregular sounding noises. Hiking whistles are nice, but the sound carries only so far. Whacking on a tree or a log can help, but only if you do it in a pattern that no one would suspect as being naturally occurring. Try to keep yourself in an area with some exposure so that you can more easily be seen by searchers.

Some have suggested starting a fire when lost. That can help if you make it smoky enough. But remember to use proper fire safety because burning down the forest is a bad idea even if it brings fire crews. Being lost is bad enough without having to try to escape from a wild fire that can move at speeds of up to 80 mph.

Of course, the number one rule is DON'T GET LOST! Countless hikers traverse the back country each season without getting lost. A few simple precautions can help ensure that you are not among the unfortunate few that do.
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