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Lost in the Boonies? What's Your Most Important Task?

Search dog and handler.

If you're ever lost, try to make the job of searchers as easy as possible. Photo by diveofficer

People who find themselves lost in the boonies, whether it's forest, field, desert or other terrain, frequently make the same mistake. If you find yourself unsure which route leads back to civilization, the following story offers a clue about your most important task.

Stories about people who become lost in national parks and other outdoor locations often include a common theme. A recent example occurred last week at the Buffalo National River in the Arkansas Ozarks. According to a park report,

During the early evening hours of January 18th, dispatch advised rangers that a cell phone call had been received from a group of five college students who reported that one of their friends—19-year-old Steven S.—had become separated from the group and was overdue by several hours after camping the previous night in the Ponca Wilderness.

The caller also reported that Steven had no previous camping experience, had an injured knee, and required two hearing aids to hear properly. Rangers conducted hasty searches of area trails until 1:30 a.m., but failed to find Steven.

Rangers spike-camped overnight in the search area and resumed searching at first light, along with additional rangers and park fire personnel. Shortly after 9 a.m., ranger Melissa Lamm came upon fresh, wet boot prints on dry slick rock along the Sneeds Creek Trail. She then found additional fresh signs and began moving quickly up the trail, following a series of fresh signs until she located the missing man as he slowly worked his way uphill.

He was not injured, but reported that he had spent a cold, dark, hungry night after having lost his sleeping bag and lighter during a river crossing, run out of food, and broken his one light source. Steven also reported that he’d quickly become disoriented after separating from the group, as he had no map, and that he’d wandered off trail for hours and had only stopped after he’d fallen over a 10-foot-high cliff in the dark.

There are some serious cliffs at the Buffalo National River, so this man was fortunate his fall while wandering in the dark was a short one.

Most Travelerreaders are experienced enough in the outdoors to pick up the point of this story, but since it occurs so frequently, it bears repeating: If you realize you're lost, don't make the rescuer's jobs harder and risk injury or worse by continuing to forge ahead in hopes you'll get lucky and find your way out.

Your most important task in such situations? Stop, look around, find a spot nearby where you can be as safe and comfortable as possible, make sure you're readily visible to searchers…and then wait for help.

Stories from other parks illustrate the value of that advice:

Just last month, the search for three lost hikers at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Kentucky/Tennessee ran into an extra night and day because the lost souls failed to follow instructions to stay put—even when that advice was given to them during a cell phone conversation with rescuers who were trying to find them.

Several years ago, two adults from New Jersey managed to become lost while hiking in the popular Cliff Palace area of Mesa Verde National Park. Rangers noticed their rental car parked in an area that is closed at dusk and began a search, which expanded to a major effort the following day. The couple was found safely three days later. Why so long? The lost pair kept moving and managed to cover about nine miles of rugged canyon terrain before they were located.

Youngsters can be especially prone to panic if they become lost. On a January day several years ago, an 11-year-old boy was on a day hike with his parents and uncle on the Appalachian Trail, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The boy lagged behind the adults in the group and then panicked when he could no longer see or hear them. Instead of stopping and waiting for them to come back and find him, the boy began to run, hoping to catch up with the group.

Unfortunately, he became disoriented, ran in the wrong direction, and kept moving until he met two backpackers, almost ten miles from his starting point!
The backpackers were able to convince the boy to stay at their camp, where they fed him and provided warm clothing to keep him from freezing in single-digit temperatures and high winds. Searchers found the boy at the camp at four a.m. the next morning, in good condition, except for blistered feet. Had he not been found earlier by the hikers, who were well equipped for the cold weather, this ending to this incident could have been tragic.

That last situation offers a good reminder of the importance of teaching kids what to do if they should become lost. Here's one way to reinforce this message to youngsters: The Association of National Park Rangers (ANPR) offers a twelve-minute, professionally produced video called "Lost . . . but Found, Safe and Sound" that's "designed to show children, ages 4-12, what to do if they become lost in remote areas such as parks or forests." It's available in VHS, DVD or CD-ROM from the ANPR website.

Lost in the boonies? Sit tight and wait for help.

Your rescuers will appreciate it.

Oh, by the way, before you left on your trip, you did make sure a responsible adult back in "civilization" knew your plans, and who to call in case you didn't make it back on time—didn't you?


During my 32 years as a park ranger I cannot remember how many times lost hikers made the job of locating them more difficult because they did not stay in one spot. Even when lost people had cell phones and we could talk to them and instructed them to stay put they would continue to try to find their own way out. In one instance the state police had called in a helicopter at night whose pilot kept reporting that he could see the lost subjects. Then when he turned to relocate them and get a fix on their location they were gone. The lost hikers later said that they were embarrassed and kept trying to find their own way out. This prolonged a search in the dark complicated by an area full of rock bluffs and drops through the night. Luckily in this case no one was injured.

So hikers listen to the advice in Jim’s article and keep yourself safe while enjoying your National Parks.

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