What do you do when you’re lost in the woods ?

Recently, I helped out with a search and rescue of a fellow motorcycle rider in a remote area. The rider who had been lost, is a expert off road rider and outdoor enthusiast. He co-owns a cabin right next to the off road riding area in a national fores he rides in and is very familiar with the area, including many of the “off-trail” (unmarked) trails.

The rider went up to the cabin and went riding, met up with a friend, parted ways and was last seen returning to his cabin on the trail system. A few days later, friends and family were not able to get a hold of him and notified the authorities, who checked the cabin and found everything locked up, his truck (he used to drive up to the cabin) was still there, but the motorcycle he was riding still gone.

Unfortunately, the search didn’t start until almost a week after he was last seen in the area and the rider has a medical condition (diabetes). The area is very rugged and consists of many trails that are on the side of a ridge with steep drop offs and dense vegetation. There are also several “expert” level trails, which would be hard for many search and rescue (SAR) members to navigate. There are over 100 miles of marked trails in the area. In addition, the area has unknown trails and roads that are not marked on the trail maps or current USGS maps. Finally, there are illegal marijuana growing plots that are guarded by armed thugs who are known to shoot off warning shots if you come to close.

He usually carries a supply of insulin when he is outdoors, as well as water, and presumably some emergency supplies. His bike would have a range of 50 miles or so; it was unknown if he carried extra fuel. He was also carrying a smart phone, he uses to record his rides (both motorcycle and mountain bike) and he was in good physical condition.

The agencies SAR teams focused on trail systems near the last point he was seen, and included airborne search by helicopter and coast guard search and rescue assets. Volunteers, friends and family scoured the rest of the trail systems as best as possible, walking several of the high consequence trails.

At the time of writing (14 days since last seen), he has not been found and his chances are not very good at this point. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is not uncommon near where I live and many outdoor enthusiasts are lost.

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, what can you do to protect yourself from getting yourself in this kind of predicament, other than abstinence ? Here are some things which will likely reduce the chances of becoming another statistic, when you’re hurt or lost by yourself.

  1. Take a buddy. If at all possible, always ride/hike with a buddy you can trust, who can get help if needed.
  2. Let people know of your plans. Be as precise as possible. E.g. “I will be riding trails x,y and z in this area and my goal for the day is to practice this particular technical obstacle. I plan to be back by this time.”. Also, let them know who to contact who is familiar with your abilities and the area you plan to be in, as well as agencies in that area (Sheriff, Ranger Station, etc…).
  3. Leave a note on your vehicle, including emergency contact information and where/when you will be hiking/riding. This will help the local authorities and rangers who patrol the staging/trail heads know who is out there. Check in with the ranger station, if that makes sense for your area/locale. Some areas require wilderness permits to access areas, which help the authorities keep track of who is out there.
  4. Carry a card on yourself with emergency contact information, and ID bracelets/dog tags which notify of any medical conditions. Mark all your gear/clothes with your name in permanent marker, etc… This way if you lose gear, it will be a clue for the searchers and search dogs. We found several items of clothing on and near the trails, and weren’t sure if they belonged to the lost rider or not.
  5. Stay on marked trails as best as you can. The reason is three fold. One, it’s better for the environment to only wear specific trails that can be properly maintained and checked. It reduces the impact to an area. Secondly, if you go off trail you may wander onto someone’s illegal pot field/meth lab and risk exposing yourself to the criminal element. Finally, if you’re off trail, it will make it that much harder to find you.
  6. Carry a personal locator beacon (PLB) or similar device in addition to your cell phone. Cell phone have limited battery life and do not work well in remote/rugged terrain. If you have a cell phone, your should text/SMS a message with your location. Even if the cell phone does not have a signal, it will queue the message until it gets  chance to send it. If you are mobile, try to move to a location that has cell phone reception, if it is safe to do so. Usually elevated areas have a better view of cell towers, especially if the area is facing a major highway/interstate. Text/SMS message can be sent with intermittent coverage. There are several flavors of beacons. In an emergency, they send a message with you GPS coordinates to a satellite which than forwards it to dispatch center, who then dispatches a local emergency response team. In order for the beacon to work, you need a clear sky view. Some models also have a check-in feature, which allow you to send non-emergency type messages. Some can be tracked on a website and will send a message if you haven’t moved for a while. I like the 406 MHz type PLBs. It also uses satellites to send the initial message, but transmits at higher power and will work even if it does not get a reliable GPS fix. Also, many emergency response agencies have radio direction finders that can be used to locate the beacon locally. It’s the same system used off-shore and in planes. 406 MHz PLBs  usually have a shelf live of 10 years, and will transmit for 24 or 48hrs. Any beacon is better than cell phone and a cell phone is better than nothing.
  7. If it is safe and especially if  you’re injured stay put. It is difficult to find people when they move around, especially if they are lost. If you can, find a clear spot which makes it easier to locate you from the air. Make some sort of marker on the ground which breaks the look of the natural terrain. Things like crosses, triangles, are unnatural and easier to locate from the air. You can use gear, clothing, rocks, etc… If there is no risk of setting a brush fire, you can make a signal fire when you hear planes in the area flying a search pattern. Also, stand up and wave your hands when you see an airplane searching. If you are near a road, stay by the road.
  8. Take a back country first-aid or first-responder class. Self administer first aid to life threatening injuries. If you are bleeding, stop the bleeding. If you think you have a spinal injury, try not to move. Hydrate and keep warm to prevent shock.
  9. Most of all Don’t panic ! Unless you have life threatening injuries or are in a dangerous location, you will be fine. A normal person can go for 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. The only possible concern might be shelter if the weather is cold or you’re wet. Hypothermia can set in quickly, especially if you are wet. Relax, rest, ration your water and food.

Here is a review of some PLBs.