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Wilderness Rescue

Bob Geier

I think the notion of (Boy) Scouts being taught to "stay put" when lost is inane and dangerous. That's fine for 1st graders in a shopping mall, but not for scout-aged youth in the woods.

I expect that any of us who have been involved in backcountry S&R operations can relate exactly how difficult it is to find someone who is immobile in the woods. The mostly likely way they'll be found in many areas is next hunting season when someone blunders across the corpse.

There are a number of simple, easy-to-learn "get yourself found" options that boys should be taught along with the trite STOP acronym. They need to know techniques for Staying calm, what to consider when they Think, what to look for when they Observe, and several good strategies to consider when they Plan. In all but the worst weather and terrain, people should work to self-rescue.

Stay Calm, Think, Observe, Plan... then ACT. Which almost always means MOVE in some rational and well-considered way. Get yourself "found." Staying put is among the most dangerous and least successful options.


There's a time between when you think you're lost and when you know a search effort will begin. We teach the concept of "estimated arrival time" and "freak time." The first is when you expect to be back. The latter is when you want us to "freak out" and assume you need help. These might be the same (as in very technical terrain) or very different (a backpack trip in easy terrain where you have plenty of food might have a freak time days after your estimated return).

While you're in this "no search timezone" you should make every effort to self-rescue, unless darkness, weather, or technical terrain make such efforts imprudent.

What you choose to try depends a lot on the area (observe, think, plan). Remember that you almost always will have gone less far than you think, humans overestimate speed. Recalibrate. Consider backtracking. Move to a point where you can actually see something, don't stop and observe where there's nothing to observe. In hilly or mountainous areas, hike to higher ground where you can see more. In lake country follow a valley or river to the next lake.

The final option is always to head toward the nearest boundary. A boundary is something large, unmissable, and unmistakable. It could be a river, a good trail, a large lake, or a road. Find the nearest one and shoot compass or solar vectors straight there. Once you hit the boundary, you now know where you are, though you might be out of your way. (You'll also have put yourself into searchers' paths - see below).


Searches generally proceed from where the person was last seen, beginning with "hasty search" teams and then adding more resources as time progresses. The immediate area is searched, and then the search proceeds along natural paths. Searchers follow trails, sidecuts, etc. based on the best information they had about the person's intent. They also notify folks at the trailheads, check parking lots, etc. And they notify county and state authorities to be alert to the possibility of abduction. Things don't start as a "grid search."

You are most likely to be found at a trailhead, an area boundary (see above), or on the trail you intended. You are next most likely to be found on another trail. Then on a side-cut or an open field visible from the air in good weather, especially if you make every effort to signal as Joe suggests.

So if you're well past your freak time, you have to take into account the likely actions of the searchers, and if possible get to and stay in high "probability of detection" spots. A good first option is at least get yourself to a trail and then sit there if you must and someone will eventually run into you. But of course, if you get to a trail, you might be better off taking it in the most likely direction to a junction where your chances go up more. But then if you're at a junction, you'll probably be able to figure out where you are and head out. If there's good weather and you hear a plane buzzing around, get to an open field and signal the plane.

It's true, at some point a grid search will start on the assumption that you're off trail and incapacitated. Except for a small area close to last known location, this isn't going to get serious until day 2 or 3. It takes a huge human resource commitment to grid search a relatively small area. If you're in the more remote backcountry, it just isn't going to be done except by air (and then it will be done multiple times, so there's no strong concern about movement). Even if you're in a smaller state park, this kind of job is daunting. Yes, it's true with a ground grid search that if you move into an already-searched area from an unsearched one (without running into anyone) and then stop, you won't be found. But your chances of being found have gone pretty low at that point anyway. The benefits from any "intelligent" planned movement are still likely to outweigh the risk. Most folks who are "found" during grid searches walk out on their own to the trailhead.


Moving or searching in the dark is generally a bad idea. Even experienced folks who know an area well can have trouble navigating in the dark. When it's getting dark, make camp. Preferably in one of the "obvious search zones" like smack in the middle of a trail.

Conserving energy is rarely an issue unless injury is involved. People do just fine without food for many days. But sure, if it's a blizzard or cold rainstorm and you're without gear, bed down until it clears. Then get moving.

Conserving water is more tricky in desert environments. This might require early morning, late afternoon, or evening movement, and might require you to drop into harder-to-search areas like canyons in order to get water.

So in summary, we should be teaching boy scouts who are regular wilderness users that "stay put" is the worst good choice. It's the final fallback position when weather or terrain require it for safety, or when any other intelligent option can't be found because of the limits of their experience. But we should make sure when we instruct them that we teach them well enough that they'll have plenty of intelligent options which won't be exhausted.

Cooper Wright

According to our wilderness survival instructor, he wanted us to stay put. It all has to do with where the person was seen last being critical to the success of finding that person. I hope that some search and rescue folks chime in on this one, since I'm not the expert, but I can imagine that if you are in a pretty remote backcountry area and are good and lost, with no known landmarks like roads, rivers, etc that you can see, you are only hampering the rescue efforts to move on.

C. Scott Davis

As both an SAR team member and Wilderness Survival Instructor and MB counselor; it is my preference that one STAY PUT!! Your chances of being rescued are magnified if you are stationary and we are mobile.

H. Alan Schup

Constantly moving in the attempts to save oneself by oneself is contrary to the two most significant items in being found:

  • You have limited water, and the exertion will only speed up the onset of dehydration. Your very first concern should be drinkable water supply if you suspect help is more than a day away (that is, if your ETA is days in the future and thus nobody suspects you are missing). Drink normally and not try to self-ration the water... people have been found dead from dehydration with a half-full canteen when, if they drank normally until empty, they would have delayed the onset of dehydration and been clear-headed longer.
  • Assuming you communicated your plans/route with someone at your destination that will be expecting you, rescuers will concentrate on the route then spread out. If you are truly lost, your aimless wanderings might be leading you away from the route you told others you would be taking, thus increasing the time it will take others to find you.

If one must move for whatever reason (safety, shelter...), leave evidence of where you have been and the direction you are traveling.

Craig Gissler

If you get lost

  • As soon as you realize you are lost, stop traveling and mark your location. Backtrack the route in your mind and try to figure out where you lost the way. If you have a map, try to pinpoint your location. Do not let panic interfere with your thinking.
  • If you have been traveling along a trail, ridge or stream - or if you can follow your own tracks back the way you came - turn around and retrace your steps until you're sure of your whereabouts. Resist the temptation to push ahead while hoping to come across some familiar landmark.
  • Try to find a highpoint from which to survey the area. Look for roads, major rivers and any signs of habitation and any other clues to help determine your location.

Source: Wilderness Survival

Articles that say to reason your way out and back track, do not seem to recommend you move more than an hour from where you realize you were lost, if you can get up on a ridge, in an open area if possible, use your whistle, fire, mirror or other signalling devise...

Dr. Jack Berdeaux

SAR officals tell hiking groups, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Parents, and anyone that can listen: 1. Do not move once you realized you are lost. HUG-A-TREE Program is what we teach kids. 2. Do not separate 3. Use your emergency survival kit (what you do not have one in your fanny-pack or your pocket - get one together). 4. Always and I will repeat this "Always" let someone know where you are going, what you plan to do (even if you change your mind after getting there) and when you expect to return. Then if you don't return, tell them call the sheriff’s office immediately - even if they find you in the parking lot after calling-out SAR to look for you. Most states have delegated/legislated SAR to the county Sheriffs departments across the US.

Urban fire departments may be the default SAR for in town searches in park preserves, etc. even if the county is responsible.

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