So you are hiking along and suddenly you get the feeling you are off trail, or you have intentionally left the trail for some reason and can’t find your way back.
STOP is an acronym for Stay (or Stop), Think, Observe, and Plan. The first word is probably the most important. If you are with a group, get everyone together and just stop moving. Have some water and a snack and collect your thoughts. Stay calm and don’t panic.
If you envision a pie with one small slice removed, you are in the middle of the pie and the missing wedge represents the direction you need to move to “get out”. You have a much greater chance of moving in the wrong direction than in the right direction.
Think about when was the last blaze or indication that you were on the trail. If you can clearly see the path that you followed to get to where you are you may be able to back track and get back on the trail. Before moving, mark where you are by tying a bandanna or a piece of surveyors flagging.
If you are with a group ask the others for their input. Don’t just give up. Put some effort into self-rescuing without making the situation worse.
If you intentionally leave the trail for some reason then leave something in the trail to indicate to others that you have left the trail. You could leave your trekking poles, your hat or tie a bandanna.
When looking for a lost person one of the first things we want to establish is either a Point Last Seen (PLS) or Last Known Point (LKP). Once a PLS or LKP is established that will be the focus of the search. Make sure to sign in and out all trail registers and shelter logs. This will help make the LKP and PLS more accurate.
Plan on spending the night.
Because you shared your plan with someone at home and they know when to contact authorities that you are overdue help will be on the way.
Your plan most likely would have said that you would be off the trail by dark and then home shortly after that. It will most likely be late in the day by the time the call is made to report you as being overdue so it will most likely be several hours from the time that you realized that you were off trail and the time any help starts your way.
Make yourself big
In order to help searchers find you, there are a couple things you can do. If you can safely make a fire in an open area do it. The visible smoke and the smell will be indicators. If it’s a clear night there will most likely be aircraft looking for you. A light from a fire will stand out for a long way and will be highly visible by forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR) which some agencies are equipped with. During the day use bright colors.
If you have a whistle, three blasts are the international signal for distress. Searchers will be listening for you. If you hear a whistle blast respond with three and continue to respond until found.
The Maine Warden Service (MWS) will be notified and will coordinate the search. The MWS has an exceptional track record of locating lost people over, 90% will be found in the first 24 hours. It is rare for a search to last for more than three days. So stay calm, stay put and do whatever you can to make noise and make yourself visible. Bright, contrasting colors such as hunter orange can be a great asset.
By creating a solid plan and following these tips, you can increase your chances of being found in the event of getting lost in the woods. For more information check out these helpful resources:
Bryan Courtois is an avid outdoorsman, a Registered Maine Guide, President of Pine Tree Search and Rescue, a volunteer search and rescue responder and the Education Director and a Board Member of the Maine Association forSearch and Rescue.