Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of campfire and man © H. Halawi

If lost, stay put, relax and gather enough wood to keep a fire going.
© H. Halawi

April 2010

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.

Prevention and preparation

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:

  • Travel with at least one other companion so you can help each other.
  • Get a GPS unit and learn to use it before going into the woods.
  • Before setting off, set a waypoint for your vehicle.
  • Learn to use a compass. GPS units and cell phones don't always work.
  • Take an orienteering class.
  • Pack a reliable map of the area, preferably on durable, waterproof paper. Learn to interpret topographic contours and symbols and know what landmarks to look for.
  • Check weather forecasts and wear appropriate clothing for season and conditions. Be prepared for changing conditions.
  • Learn basic first aid. Know how to tell the signs of heat exhaustion, heat stroke, hypothermia and dehydration, and how to treat them.
  • Practice starting a fire with something other than matches or a lighter, like magnesium and steel.
  • Ask a search and rescue group to give a presentation to your sporting club, school or civic group.
  • Visit a sporting goods store or go online to get ideas for the best survival kit to suit your needs. Pack your kit and keep it replenished and up-to-date on an annual basis. Keep it in your vehicle's glove box so you don't forget to take it. (See sidebar below for suggested items.)
  • When hiking, biking, skiing or snowmobiling, stay on marked trails. Look around for features and landmarks along the trail that will remind you of where you have been; stop often and look back to see what the trail looks like from the opposite direction.


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:

  • STAY PUT! Moving around wastes precious time and energy, increases your anxiety and makes you even harder to find. Sit down and stay calm.
  • THINK! Take inventory of what you have with you, what you can find and use around you, and what you need to do to make yourself safe and comfortable. Remember the rule of three: you can live three minutes without air, three hours without warmth, three days without water and three weeks without food.
  • OBSERVE! Use your compass and map and try to determine your location and heading. Look for landmarks that you can identify on the map. This may help you re-orient and get headed in the right direction. If not, check how much daylight is left and what the weather is doing.
  • PREPARE! Plan what you need for an overnight stay to keep warm and dry. Based on the rule of three, decide whether you need to build a fire or shelter. Gather tinder, kindling and fuel. If you followed the basic rule of the outdoors and told someone your plans before leaving, you can plan to be found within a day or two and food may not be your top priority.

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.

Survival shelter © Ken Miller, Exodus Survival
This simple survival shelter was built against a fallen tree stump.
© Ken Miller, Exodus Survival

"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."

Building shelter

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.

Equip your child to survive in the woods

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.

  • Always carry a folded large orange trash bag and whistle with you when you are hiking or camping. Have your parents make a hole in the sealed end just big enough for your head.
  • Once you think you are lost, hug a tree! Make the tree your friend, talk to it. This will calm you down and keep you in one place so you won't be injured. It will also make it easier for people to find you.
  • If you need to keep warm or dry, sit down and pull the bag over your entire body, with your head sticking out the hole.
  • Blow the whistle three times every 5-10 minutes. The whistle can be heard from farther away than your voice and doesn't take much of your energy.
  • Don't be afraid that your parents will be angry with you. Anyone can get lost so don't be ashamed or try to avoid people who are searching for you. They will be proud of you for using your head.
  • Make yourself big if you hear an airplane or helicopter. Go to a clearing near your tree and wave your arms or lie flat with your arms and legs out, like you do when making a snow angel. If you can, make a big SOS with sticks, branches or rocks.
  • Don't be afraid of noises at night. If you hear a noise, yell at it! If it's an animal, it will run away. If it's a searcher, you'll be found!
  • There are hundreds of friends searching for you, so if you stay in one place it will be much easier to find you.

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

Gear up

A good survival kit should be compact, lightweight and contain the bare necessities. Ideally, much of what you pack should serve more than one purpose. Look around your home and use your imagination. Prescription medication bottles make nifty waterproof containers, and mint tins hold an amazing array of small items. Here are some things to consider:

  • Charged cell phone. Whether you keep it in your pocket or backpack, enclose it in a waterproof plastic bag.
  • Compass
  • Whistle
  • Fire starting materials – disposable lighter, waterproof matches, magnesium and steel, candle, fire starter cubes, cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly (all packed in a waterproof container). Bring three different kinds of fire starters in case a method fails to work.
  • Orange plastic trash bag – can be used as poncho, ground cloth, shelter or to signal your location.
  • Mini-flashlight
  • Signaling device – mirror, foil, glow stick, plastic neon-colored tape
  • Knife or multi-tool
  • Poncho, space blanket or tarp
  • Parachute cord or rope (about 25 ft.)
  • Water purification tablets
  • Several waterproof bags in varying sizes – to keep things dry and segregate items that get wet
  • Prescription medication
  • First-aid kit: antiseptic wipes, assorted bandages, tweezers, pain reliever, insect repellent, sunscreen, lip balm, tablets for diarrhea/upset stomach, safety pins

Other personal items to consider if you have room in your backpack are high energy foods like granola bars, candy and fruit; sunglasses; extra socks; rain gear; hat; and gloves. Bikers should always carry a basic repair kit to fix flat tires and make minor repairs.

Starting a fire

Pick a sheltered spot out of the wind and at least six feet from any fuel source – especially your shelter! Clear the area of debris and surround it with rocks, if you can find them to contain the fire. Rocks will also retain heat for several hours and radiate it to a nearby shelter.

Gather dry tinder, kindling and fuel:

  • Tinder has a low flash point and is easily ignited. Things like dryer lint, cotton threads, dry wood powder, sawdust, wood shavings, unraveled string, wool fuzz, dry shredded bark, crushed fibers from dead plants, cotton balls smeared with petroleum jelly, steel wool and foam rubber make good tinder. Always carry some tinder with you in a waterproof container.
  • Kindling has a higher combustion point and should be mixed with tinder. Paper from your wallet, dollar bills, pine cones, pine needles, dry twigs, wood shavings, dry bark and dry grass make good kindling.
  • Fuel ignites and burns slowly. Itís best to use dry, dead wood like the insides of fallen trees and large branches. Green wood will work, but will produce a lot of smoke; split it if you can and mix it with dry fuel.

Build a teepee of small dry twigs and branches with an opening in one side. Shelter the tinder in a small ball of dried grass. The easiest igniter is a disposable lighter. When the tinder catches, shove it under the teepee and add bits of tinder and small kindling until the fire is burning. If you chose to pack a candle, it can be a life-saver for starting a fire. Add fuel and keep replenishing it until the fire is well established.