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Old 06-21-2006, 08:28 AM   #1
Iceman
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What to do if lost in the woods

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This might be fine for someone with your experience. But not everyone always knows where they are. Perhaps this is a good discussion for another thread.

Dick
Since “What to do if you are lost in the woods” was my suggestion for the FAQ, I thought that I would take the lead on this. I think that “How to avoid getting lost in the woods” is a related topic that warrants discussion as well.

First, as a beginner, I would not leave the house without the ten essentials. They tend to vary depending on who’s list you read and Kevin has covered most of them in his pack list but here is what I feel is important:

Map, Compass, Headlamp, Extra Food, Extra Clothing, First Aid Kit, Pocket Knife/Multi-Tool, Waterproof Matches/Fire Starter, Water/Filter, Whistle

The more you leave at home, the more risk you are willing to take. The most important thing that you can bring with you into the woods is not on this list and that is common sense. Also, you can bring all the survival gear that you want but if you don’t know how to use it then it is just extra weight in your pack.

Another thing to do before you leave for the woods is create an itinerary and give it to a responsible person. As a beginner, I would not deviate from this itinerary. Again, the more you deviate from the itinerary, the more risk you are willing to take.

If while out in the woods, you do find yourself lost or injured, don’t panic, the universal signal for a hiker in distress is three short whistle blasts.

Iceman

Edit: Another very important thing that I forgot to mention is that as a beginner, I would not advise hiking solo. It is best to have one or more partners that have some experience in the woods. When hiking solo, you have no one to rely on but yourself and if you don't have the skills required for the hike that you attempting then you are asking for trouble.
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Old 06-21-2006, 06:36 PM   #2
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I'd say the most important thing to bring is not only common sense but knowledge paired with that. With the right outdoors know-how you can be fine without most of those listed essentials. I happen to be a bit of a minimalist. I train for it, too. I spend several-day stints in local woods when I can: I learn how to live with as little as possible there, and I have the insurance of a warm house fifteen minutes away if indeed necessary.

Learn the uses of local plants ("Using Wayside Plants" is a very useful book), learn how to start a fire without matches/lighter, learn how to keep yourself warm, and most importantly, put it to use. Learn from experience. I've found that sleeping in a grassy field the way deer do with a mosquito net over my face is quite comfortable. Add layers of clothing if it's cool out. Learn how to keep yourself warm without man-made items.

When I go out hiking, I go with a shelter, food, stove, extra clothes, lights, and just about everything else to satisfy my creature comforts. But I also go assured that I can get by if necessary without them. If I get lost, my main worry is getting found, as I've already prepared to survive.
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Old 06-21-2006, 06:51 PM   #3
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Here's some prior related threads on the subject:

http://www.adkforum.com/showthread.php?t=161
http://www.adkforum.com/showthread.php?t=3360
http://www.adkforum.com/showthread.php?t=1793

It's a fascinating topic, and in the "Lost!!!" thread there's an interesting article about the mentality behind those who get lost, and how often what you think is the right course of action ends up killing you.
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Old 06-22-2006, 08:23 AM   #4
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Learn map and compass. Practice map and compass. It will make this issue go away for you. Take a course, read some books, go with someone that can teach you. Study the map(s) before your trip. ( I can usually see the map in my head by the time the hike day comes) Then practice on the trail and on the summits. Whenever you stop pull the map out and locate yourself (shouldn't be too hard on marked trails) and try to identify features around you. When on the summit in good weather take the time to orient the map and identify your surroundings. Eventually the map will start to look like the area around you. If you follow little dots (trail markers) through the woods and then lose the dots your lost. If you follow a mapped route through the woods (even on a marked trail) and get off the trail then you are not lost just off trail. And lastly, if you are not sure stop and figure it out rather than pushing on and getting in deeper. Usually only takes a minute or two. Confidence in navigation skills can't be substituted. The freedom that comes with knowing you can find your way is immeasurable.
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Old 06-22-2006, 10:20 AM   #5
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And lastly, if you are not sure stop and figure it out rather than pushing on and getting in deeper. Usually only takes a minute or two.
And the variation on this I've learned and actually practice is to backtrack (assuming you know exactly where you just came from ). Within minutes, on several occassions, I 'found' the trail behind some blowdown, etc. Lots of little paths get formed, especially after the wind storms we had and the immense blow down issues. I'm guilty of blindly following paths, but like Rik says, knowing where I'm supposed to be going ahead of time triggers "uh oh" signals in my brain after a few minutes of heading in the wrong direction.
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Old 06-22-2006, 11:03 AM   #6
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Stop occasionally and look back from the way you came. Especially at junctions.

The trail or terrain often looks very different coming from the opposite direction.

You're also more apt to remember the way back to your last stop (and the one after that, and so on) if you do get "misplaced"

Try to pick up on one or two features that are prominent at each stop.

If you are with a group and become separated, everyone should use the PLS principle, Returrn to the Point Last Seen.

Everyone should carry a whistle, one with a long range like the Fox40, as well as a flashlight of some kind.

Everyone carry a lighter, waterpoof matches and some firestarter. You can always use flame or smoke to help people find you.

Split the food up among the party so that if someone does become lost they and the group all have food.
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Old 06-27-2006, 08:53 AM   #7
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All good backcountry navigation tips so far, most I follow strictly, especially understanding map and compass AND continuously relating them to the terrain I am in.

One more important point I'll emphasize that is only eluded to... if you find yourself confused, do not compound errors. The woods are full of continuous navigation clues, some better or more obvious than others. All must fit neatly into the puzzle. If any one does not make sense you must logically rationalize why not before you continue. It is relatively easy to find one error... just sit down, retrace your steps in your mind with memory and map in hand back to your last known identifiable location (you have paid attention to all compass headings and time traveled haven't you?). However, if you make a second navigation error, say alter course based on a previous mistaken assumption, recovery is exponentially more difficult. Unless you are hopelessly lost (then you stay put), you are better off to continue on course until you reach (or don't reach) a preplanned backstop terrain feature. Then figure out what the original error was. This point bears repetition... do not navigate based on compound errors!
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Old 06-27-2006, 06:17 PM   #8
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all good points, as Wldrns has said.

One thing I do on my maps is to take a straight edge, and draw a line across the whole map showing magnetic north. That line helps me orient the map later, at home, or in the field.

When I'm planning a bushwack in, and out on the same path, I do my preliminary map and compass work at home, writing down everything I plan on doing, including line of travel, distance, degree I'm traveling at, waypoints, turns, etc...

If I'm going to bushwack in, and out, on the same path, I will bring orange surveyors tape, and mark my trail in, and remove my flags on the way out. This is good practice. If you get lost (which is almost impossible on a flagged trail)... or if you get hurt, the person who has your written directions can give them to the DEC, and they can follow your trail right to you.

Just be sure to remove your flags on the way out. If you don't, you can create problems for other hikers who might blindly follow your trail, and get lost, and it violates leave no trace practices.
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Old 06-27-2006, 07:38 PM   #9
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after reading the first post, I realized my previous post had more to do with how NOT to get lost, then what to do if you do get lost...

That can be a very complicated question. Survival is priority one. Your survival is dependent on many factors: health, weather, equipment you have with you, woodsman’s skills, intestinal fortitude (will to survive) and other factors. I could write a book on this subject.


There are many levels of knowledge and ability out there. If you have no gear with you, do you have the knowledge and skills to make the tools you need to survive? if you don't, you better have the tools with you before you leave the trailhead. The more knowledge you can gain, the better your chances of survival...

To make just one point:
Two tools I carry are an ax, and a whittling knife. With those two tools, I can make many of the things I might need from the raw materials all around me. I can cut firewood, build shelters, whittle utensils, build rafts, make fishtraps, snares, digging tools, spears, and almost anything else I might need. I could open a hole in the forest big enough to be spotted by a plane, and 101 other uses. Those tools, like the compass and map mentioned above, and things like primitive fire starter, are not very practical, if you don’t have the knowledge, and skills to use them. So tools, and the knowledge of how to use them is important.

There are some good sites out there to teach bushcraft skills:

Wildwood survival
BushcraftUK
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Old 06-27-2006, 10:13 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Wildernessphoto
One thing I do on my maps is to take a straight edge, and draw a line across the whole map showing magnetic north. That line helps me orient the map later, at home, or in the field.
All of my maps are prepared with not just a single magnetic north line, but many of them, spaced about an inch and a half apart (a yard stick's width), covering the complete area of interest. I use these with my compass to measure azimuth on the map between any two points. With this method no declination math is required in the field, whether going from map to field or field to map. All measurements are referenced to magnetic north. Orienting the map to earth is not necessary when you navigate with this method, but may be instructional and handy if you have vistas.

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If I'm going to bushwack in, and out, on the same path, I will bring orange surveyors tape, and mark my trail in, and remove my flags on the way out. ... Just be sure to remove your flags on the way out. If you don't, you can create problems for other hikers who might blindly follow your trail, and get lost, and it violates leave no trace practices.
I wouldn't always trust that your flags will be there. People have been known to remove them if not known to have been placed by DEC. There is just no substitute for proper terrain observation navigation and independently always knowing where you are.
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Old 06-28-2006, 05:45 AM   #11
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Originally Posted by Wldrns
All of my maps are prepared with not just a single magnetic north line, but many of them, spaced about an inch and a half apart (a yard stick's width), covering the complete area of interest. I use these with my compass to measure azimuth on the map between any two points. With this method no declination math is required in the field, whether going from map to field or field to map. All measurements are referenced to magnetic north. Orienting the map to earth is not necessary when you navigate with this method, but may be instructional and handy if you have vistas.
interesting concept Wldns...Mine are 4" apart. I see where closer would be easier in the field.
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I wouldn't always trust that your flags will be there. People have been known to remove them if not known to have been placed by DEC. There is just no substitute for proper terrain observation navigation and independently always knowing where you are.
Your right. this is a good argument for leaving ribbon if you find it, someone may be using it. Marking a bushwack trail is no substitute for knowing where you are, but if you do have a navigational issue, it's good to know the trail leads back to the road.
And ribbon works better then bread crumbs...
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Old 06-28-2006, 12:32 PM   #12
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I agree with all the ideas and suggestions - I wouls also include a deck of cards - settle down - start playing some solitaire - before you know it - some goober will be standing over your shoulder telling you that you missed a move..........
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Old 09-02-2006, 02:17 PM   #13
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All this is very nice but if you do get lost, and it has happened to experianced people as well, we have all seen what to do and know the priorities but.... as a 40 year experianced hiker/backpacker, I'd like to know exactly what I can expect my rescuers are doing so I can make it easier to be found. Maybe hiker/backpackers should be trained in SAR, or at least a basic knowlege of what they do.

I think it would be nice to know what the rescuers are doing and in what order. What radio channels they use n monitor. Do they scan family radio, walkietalkies, CBs, are they broadcasting anything I might recieve on my AM or FM radio? What are they physically looking for, when, and in any particular pattern. How much time do I have to wait before their search begins and for how long will they look? I'd like to know how much time I have to get ready for a search and exactly what order to prepare for each type of search. Do they have priorities such as where they will most likely look first, perhaps by streams or mtn tops, then low lands and wooded areas next?... circular patterns and how wide and how long each sweep generally lasts? Do they backtrack their searches or just sweep once? WIll they be using air search or just ground search and what determines when each will be used, in what order, after how much time and for how long?

Yes that smoky fire and blowing my whistle for 3 days is great but if the search wasn't started for the first 2 days I wasted plenty of wood and by day 3 I'm giving up on a fire thinking they have done a search by now. I set up a huge X and all the bright colored flags but SAR is still on the ground doing a circular pattern radiating only 1/2 mile from my expected route I am laying 2 miles out of the radius, it's now day 4 or 5 for me but day 2 to them. So unless it is all done at the right time, it's for naught but if we knew what SAR is doing we can know what to expect of eachother.
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Old 09-02-2006, 03:15 PM   #14
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All excellent question Paul ron.

Pete Fish once gave this advice (if lost) at a presentation he gave:
1) DEC will check in this order: trails, creeks and then ridges
2) break branches to hang down at eye level as you walk (they will catch the attention of a searcher)
3) clear debris from ground and leave a clear imprint of your boot
4) drink water! worry about beaver fever later

The average hiker does not expect to get lost and what they do in response to their predicament will have a tremendous impact on any SAR.

So again, good and fair questions.
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Old 09-02-2006, 09:10 PM   #15
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As quoted by Redhawk

I don't think that it is stressed enough to stop and look around frequently, and especially after taking or passing a fork or a junction in the trail. Always look back when you pass it as it will probably look much different from the other direction

On a hike that my husband and I took early this summer, we became "lost". This was the result of having multiple unmarked trails criss crossing each other which led to some uncertainty as to which trails to take on our way back out to our car. As Redhawk mentioned, I do make it a point to look around and especially look back from where we have just hiked from, but on this particular hike the numerous trails and the terrain made this very confusing on our return trip.

We had GPS and map in hand and lots of water, gatorade and munchies, but our first mistake was that we were not fully prepared for a short hike in the woods. Being only about 5 miles from our home, we left unprepared for the possibility of an overnight stay in the woods.

The problem on this particular day was that it was about 94 degrees outside with maximum humidity. I became ill from the heat and did not have the time to make any more mistakes getting out of the woods. So not only did we become lost, but the fact that I was not feeling well was having its affects on my judgement and behavior. I just wanted to quit. So after a very comical scene in which I threw my body over a big boulder and cursed my poor husband out, telling him that I was not going to hike another minute or bushwhack around looking for the right trail, I decided that I had better listen to him and get my composure back before I made myself worse.

My husband wanted to continue on trying to find the trail, but I convinced him that I was not well enough to do that and that we should hike out via the power lines that we had crossed earlier while hiking into our destination. We could see the power lines between the trees and they were the only visual clue that we had as to where we were. To hike out this way would mean hiking in direct sunlight (not so good for one already suffering from the effects of the heat), but it would prove to be better than trying to hike the 2-3 plus miles back to our car on trails that we were uncertain of. My husband agreed and we hiked out to civilization where we were able to call my daughter for a ride back to our car.

What I learned from this is to always be prepared for the worse case scenario when out hiking, one being that you may get lost or temporarily displaced as my husband likes to say. Another thing is that it does not take long for some people to mentally loose it when realizing that they are lost, especially when faced with other compromising factors. I'm a good example of that. Another thing is that you don't alway get lost far from the proximity of home. We were only 5 or so miles from where we lived.

Even though it was a bit embarrassing to hike out to a highway via power lines and to have to make that phone call for help from a public place with sweat dripping down our bodies and looking like we had just stepped out of hell, it was the right decision considering the fact that I became very ill once safely back at home. And it is so important to let others know exactly where you are going. I told my daughter that we were going on a hike not far from home and never mentioned the location. She never would have known where to send help to if we had not made it back home that night.

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Old 09-02-2006, 10:01 PM   #16
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Originally Posted by Boreal Chickadee
All excellent question Paul ron.

Pete Fish once gave this advice (if lost) at a presentation he gave:
1) DEC will check in this order: trails, creeks and then ridges
2) break branches to hang down at eye level as you walk (they will catch the attention of a searcher)
3) clear debris from ground and leave a clear imprint of your boot
4) drink water! worry about beaver fever later

The average hiker does not expect to get lost and what they do in response to their predicament will have a tremendous impact on any SAR.

So again, good and fair questions.
Good answers BC. Pete is veteran of many searches and an excellent source of information. I have been on a number of formal DEC searches myself, 4 in the past 9 months. Each search is an individual event with different circumstances of course, but once the machinery gets into full gear the procedures are very common from one search to another.

Implied but not stated in paul ron's questions is the idea that notification of a missing person is made to the authorities. It is therefore most important that someone responsible know your exact itinerary with route and daily timing, and when to call for help according to your instructions if you do not make outside contact. The missing person call will likely be made to the local or state police first, or perhaps the DEC if familiar with them. I tell my wife to call one of my DEC Ranger friends rather than the police first.

Unfortunately at this point all too often a bit of gaming sometimes occurs. Whatever agency gets the call wants to claim credit for a quick find. While a person's life may be at stake, so is the reputation and funding for the finding agency. However, if it is truly a backcountry missing person, the DEC will quickly get involved.

As a volunteer member of an organized SAR squad, for a "routine" search my unit may not be called until after the first search "period". This means the DEC and state police may run as long as one 24 hour search first before notifying the SAR Federation (the NYS top level organization of SAR teams). For more critical cases of a lost child, old or ill person, or harsh weather conditions operations may move faster but don't count on it.

Rangers and state police will begin by gathering facts from family or those close to the missing person, review expected itinerary and possible deviations. Place Last Seen (PLS) and Last Known Place (LKP) are critical points to identify before any search is begun. Is the person actually in the area... is the person's vehicle where is is expected to be?

A Type I Search is usually done first during the initial shift, day 1. Experienced DEC rangers or police searchers will from PLS or LKP quickly go to search obvious places such as along roads and trails, inside buildings, campsites/leantos, bottom of cliffs, known points of interest, hiding places or natural sheltered places, etc. ATVs will run the roads looking for obvious evidence or someone walking. By the next day the Incident Command Team has been busy continuing to gather information and figuring out the next most obvious places to search, dividing the area map up into bite size searchable blocks defined by landscape and manmade features.

The first arriving experienced volunteer SAR teams may begin Type II searching on day 2. In Type II searches a line of 6-8 searchers spread out in a search block separated by some distance, walking fairly quickly looking for an injured person or evidence of passage. Ideally each will have a GPS to follow a designated course, and a radio tuned to standard DEC or SAR frequencies.

As the usual crowd of dozens of other SAR teams arrive, they will be divided into teams of 6-8 to begin Type III searches. These are very thorough searches, looking for evidence, assuming the victim is nonresponsive. On one end of the line a searcher follows parallel to a "handrail", such as a road or stream. The next searcher in line stays close enough to see the first's feet and everything on the ground between, including gum wrappers and cigarette butts. As the terrain and vegetation change, the line tightens or loosens depending on visiblity. The end person plays out cotton line from a large spool until the line reaches our "bump line" at the end of our search block. At the bump line we shift over, making the cotton line the new handrail to follow back on the next pass.

If nothing encouraging is found after several days, usually about a week, the active search is usually terminated.

Last fall, not far from Poland NY (northeast of Utica), an elderly hunter did not reach his designated meeting place after a mile walk along a dry ridge, surrounded by wet spruce swamp. He was missing Saturday morning, but the family did not call the local police until that evening. The dispatcher incorrectly told the caller that nothing could be done until morning. Sunday morning the family member called the police again, who then took several hours to get the wheels into motion, gather information, notify the DEC, and bring manpower and organizaition to the scene. Much of this could have been done starting Saturday night. By the time the first DEC searchers got to the field it was getting late on Sunday. Notification went out to the NYS SAR Federation to further get the request out to local SAR units. I took the day off on Monday to be among the first volunteer SAR unit searchers. We found nothing, 30-50 searchers in the woods. I returned Tuesday and searched all day in a wet snowfall. Back to my regular job the rest of the week, I resumed the volunteer search on Saturday. The poor man's body was found in wet spruces very close to where I was by mid-afternoon.

A couple of months ago there was a man lost between Low's Lake, Cowhorn Pond, and the Oswegatchie River. A call went out to the Federation about 12 hours after first notification to "standby". I heard about it via email on Wednesday noon. Rangers found the man's campsite at Cowhorn Pond Wednesday morning. Since it takes so long for crews to get into the area by foot, the state police began air searches fairly soon. I received a special call that afternoon to be ready to be dropped in by helicopter the next morning (Thursday) since i had experience in blowdown in that area. The man was spotted by helicopter Wednesday afternoon standing in the Oswegatchie River, 3 miles away from his camp through heavy blowdown waving his arms to the sky. My chopper ride was obviously at that point cancelled. But the man was found in good condition.
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Old 09-02-2006, 10:26 PM   #17
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Wldrns-a thorough and well thought out response

I have a question that is only now applicable since last year I boguht a Rino GPS with radio. Do all searchers have radios and are they on all the time? I ask because I wonder how much effort one should put into scanning through 15 channels hoping to find the one DEC and SAR would be using. Based upon my hiking, canoeing and kayaking habits I'm thinking that an injury would more likely be a reason for a delayed return for me, rather than becoming lost.
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Old 09-02-2006, 10:36 PM   #18
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Wldrns-a thorough and well thought out response

I have a question that is only now applicable since last year I boguht a Rino GPS with radio. Do all searchers have radios and are they on all the time? I ask because I wonder how much effort one should put into scanning through 15 channels hoping to find the one DEC and SAR would be using. Based upon my hiking, canoeing and kayaking habits I'm thinking that an injury would more likely be a reason for a delayed return for me, rather than becoming lost.
All DEC rangers and many or most SAR members have radios tuned to the official DEC and SAR frequencies. Those are not FRS frequencies, and they do require an FCC license to transmit at those frequencies. If a lost person is known to have a FRS radio, someone on the search may transmit or listen, but otherwise as far as I know it is not a general search practice to do so.
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Old 09-02-2006, 10:48 PM   #19
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Thanks. I miswrote, my radio has I believe, 22 channels. 15 just stuck in my brain since I have friends who like that particular channel. So it would behoove me in such a situation to call out on the upper channels.

Better yet, since I always call my daughter to let her know my hiking destination, I should really give her a general write-up stating that if I should become injured I would try to use channel X.
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Old 09-02-2006, 11:03 PM   #20
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The most important tool for survival is attitude when you're in a survival situation.

If you're lost but you have planned out how you might find your way to civilization, or you know that you've planned out your camping kit well enough that you'll be adequately sheltered while waiting out the night, or waiting for help to find you you will be less likely to panic. Panic is your enemy, panic will make you do stupid things compounding your problem.

If you panic, you won't properly use your excellent map and compass skills. If you're paniced you won't set up your camp, or you'll fail to do so properly, et cetera.

Plan, plan, plan to give yourself the confidence that you need to avoid panic. If you have confidence in your skills you're not as likely to panic.

Hopefully none of y'all get lost, but if you do, keep your head on.
Asael is offline   Reply With Quote
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