If lost, stay put, relax and gather enough wood to keep a fire going.
Getting from lost to found
Anyone can lose their way in the woods and marshes. Keep your cool, carry helpful gear, prepare to survive an unexpected night outdoors, and make it easier for help to find you.
Kathryn A. Kahler
It may seem like a thing of the past, from a time before the days of cell phones and GPS devices, or something that happens in the vast wilderness of the West, not in Wisconsin. But face it, the more time you spend in the outdoors – whether it's hunting, hiking, mountain biking or snowshoeing – the better your chances of getting lost.
"Actually, people can get lost in 40 acres," says Dick Thiel, a DNR educator who teaches orienteering and survival skills at the agency's Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center near Babcock. "So Wisconsin has plenty of places into which people might disappear!"
Take, for example, the more than 1.5 million acres of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, or the 2.4 million acres of county forests and wildlife areas, like Crex Meadows Wildlife Area in Burnett County. That was where Conservation Warden Chris Spaight assisted in a search and rescue for a 60-year-old hunter in the closing days of the deer season in 2008.
"The gentleman had become separated from his hunting party and got turned around in the woods," said Spaight. "That area of Crex Meadows is very flat and there's little in the way of landmarks to get your bearings. There were about 35 people involved in the search, including county sheriff's departments, local fire departments and a volunteer canine search and rescue team. Apparently when it got dark, he sat down to wait out the night and I found him at about 3:30 that morning. That was the smartest thing he could do – stay put!"
In a typical nine-day deer season, DNR wardens get involved in about a dozen searches for lost hunters. County sheriffs call on local wardens to assist them because they have knowledge of the area, and often have the gear and equipment to help in those situations.
Another recent incident shows why it's important for everyone who spends time outdoors to be prepared for anything. In late December 2008, two young Wisconsin women vacationing in Arizona set out hiking in the Coconino National Forest. After four hours of hiking, they realized they were lost. They were ill-prepared for an overnight stay, without jackets or any kind of survival gear. They did, however, have a cell phone and called the county sheriff's communication center. Rescuers told the hikers to stay put, coached them on building a signal fire, and found them in good condition within about three hours.
Next to carrying a cell phone, of all the strategies lost people use to get "unlost," the best one is to stay put and wait to be found. Unfortunately, it's also the one hunters and hikers – the subjects of most search and rescue (SAR) missions – use the least. Even so, statistics show that more than 95 percent of all searches end successfully within the first two days.
"Hunters and hikers are the subject of almost 40 percent of all searches," says Robert Koester, a national SAR expert and author of Lost Person Behavior. "Hunters tend to focus on pursuit of their game and follow it into unfamiliar territory. They are also more likely to 'self-rescue,' perhaps to avoid embarrassment or the fear of paying rescue fees. A third of them find their way out on their own. Because they rely on GPS, radios and cell phones, many lack outdoor skills. And unlike hikers, they're more apt to abandon a trail and strike out cross-country if they think they're headed in the right direction.
"Hikers, on the other hand, are trail oriented and tend to get lost as the result of a navigational error, such as taking the wrong trail, reading a map upside down, or not even noticing that they've left the trail." So don't get lulled into thinking that it can't happen to you – even the most veteran outdoor enthusiast can get lost. Your comfort – even survival – can depend on how well you are prepared.
It won't prevent you from getting lost, but the most important thing to assure you will be found quickly should be done before you even leave home for a hunt, hike, pedal or paddle. Tell someone exactly when you are leaving, precisely where you are going and when you expect to be home. Then, stick to your plan. Be specific so that if you are reported lost, the SAR folks can narrow their search and quicken your rescue. Tell family members or friends to contact the local sheriff's office who will mobilize other official and volunteer searchers.
"If you haven't planned ahead, it's a good idea to leave a note in your vehicle saying 'Gone for a two-hour hike to the west at 2 p.m. on June 1,'" says Chuck Keuhn, an active member of Headwaters Search and Rescue based in Eagle River. He and his group of two- and four- legged volunteers are regularly called upon to find lost hunters and hikers. They are one of about a dozen SAR teams statewide.
Here are some further steps you can take to prepare yourself:
It's happened: despite your best efforts and intentions, you're lost. What to do now? It might help to remember a common tip – the STOP method:
Dick Thiel recommends a two-pronged survival plan, based on whether or not you followed that first basic rule.
"The first and most difficult thing is to not panic," says Thiel. "Stop, catch your breath and determine if you are probably going to have to spend the night in the woods. If so, find a sheltered spot out of the wind and give yourself enough daylight hours to gather enough wood to start a fire, keep it burning all night, and build a shelter.
"Your next step depends on whether or not you told someone when and where you were going. If you did, you should settle down, sleep, stay put the next day and wait to be found.
"But if nobody knows where you are and when you left, you're probably better off making plans to walk out in the morning. You'll need to know what direction to walk and make sure you walk a straight line. Here's one way of figuring that out, and the next step you should take in your plan."
First, place a stake in the ground near enough to your fire that you can see it, but can also locate stars. Have another stake handy. Under darkness and provided it's a clear night, says Thiel, locate the pointer stars of the Big Dipper. Hold your hand in the sky, place your index finger and thumb over them and "walk" your hand in the air in the direction they point to; walk seven "finger-thumb" distances away and you'll arrive at the North Star. Align yourself so that the stake you put in the ground is between you and the North Star; drive the other stake in the ground so the North Star, stake #1, you and stake #2 are aligned in a straight line pointing north and south.
"In Wisconsin, roads surround all wooded terrain no matter how large the forested expanse," says Thiel. "So in the morning, you should walk out in one of four cardinal directions by aligning yourself to the two stakes you put in the ground. Decide which direction you will take, face that direction and look for something unique like a stump in direct alignment with them. Walk to it and look back to make sure you are still in alignment with the stakes. Then look ahead to another unique object and walk to it. Look back to the first object and repeat this process until you literally walk out onto a road."
If it's already dark and building a shelter isn't an option, try to find a large spruce or fir tree with branches to the ground and huddle at its base. Gather or cut green boughs and whatever soft dry material you can find as insulation to sit or lie on.
One of the easiest shelters you can build is a debris hut. Look around for a natural structure to use as a base, like a fallen or uprooted tree. Make sure the tree is sturdy and won't shift and fall on you once your shelter is built. If you have to, make your own base by propping a long sturdy branch on a stump or in the crotch of a tree about waist-high.
Here's where a tarp, space blanket or poncho comes in handy. Drape it tent-like across the base and use rocks to hold it secure to the ground. If you don't have a tarp, lay sturdy branches along the base as close together as possible.
Then search the woods for whatever kind of insulating material you can find to add to the roof – green spruce or pine branches, sticks of varying sizes, and any other kind of debris you can find. The thicker the insulation, the warmer your shelter will be. You can also use large chunks of decayed leaf litter from the forest floor placed like shingles across your roof. Start at the bottom and work your way up so water will run off and not leak through your structure. If there's snow on the ground, use it to pack on top of your roof. Line the floor of your shelter with a thick pile of pine boughs to insulate you from the ground.
Don't build your shelter any larger than your body. If there is a lot of air space around you, it won't be as effective in keeping you warm.
Chuck Keuhn of the Headwaters Search and Rescue Team, recommends that all children who spend time in the out-of-doors – whether it's camping, hiking or picnicking with their family – learn the basics of survival. One program that does just that was developed specifically for kids age 7-12. It's called the Hug-A-Tree and Survive Program and here's how it works.
Parents and teachers – want to share this advice with others? Contact your local law enforcement or a search and rescue organization in your area to schedule a "Hug-A-Tree" presentation for your school or scouting group. Visit National Association for Search and Rescue for more information. To find a search and rescue group in your area, search online for "Wisconsin search and rescue."
Writer and hunter Kathryn A. Kahler researches and crafts feature stories from Madison