I’ve been involved in wilderness search and rescue (SAR) for about 9 years, and I’ve been teaching that and wilderness and cold weather survival for around 7. In that time many, many things have changed in the SAR world.
Search techniques are more of less static, but technology advances ever faster and has alleviated some searches, but not as many as it could. SAR would almost be a thing of the past if everyone that ventured into the woods carried a SPOT or a PLB, but strangely, or maybe not strangely, it is only the serious outdoorsman, hiker, hunter, whatever, that does. Both of those things are serious investments and either don’t last forever (the PLB’s) or require a monthly fee (SPOT’s) and so are not carried by most adventurers.
The serious outdoorsman is rarely caught in a situation where they need rescue. In fact, one of the questions that will be asked when reporting a missing person is almost always what is their experience level. Obviously this is important. If I go missing, it isn’t very likely that the Maine Warden Service is going to roll much in the way of resources immediately after I’m reported AWOL. Even less likely in the short term are they likely to activate other resources such as Civil Air Patrol or MASAR.
It is just assumed that a person with a certain level of experience is unlikely to require assistance in the short term, as opposed to the elderly, children, despondent’s or some asshole up from Boston for the weekend.
There is merit to that, and I think aside from possessing certain skills, the idea is a person of a certain skill level is going to resist what is known as “woods shock”.
Woods shock is, basically what it sounds like. It occurs when a person realizes they are lost. Contrary to popular belief, exposure, injury and so forth are not the big killers, panic is. It’s panic that almost always leads to poor decisions. I’ll outline the concept here.
Level 1: Disorientation. You realize that you have no idea where you are, or better yet, you realize you don’t know where you aren’t. Even experienced people hit this stage. Imagine if you were pulled over by the police and can’t find your proof of insurance or your license. You search for it, you are a bit panicked, but you don’t really have a feeling of impending doom or anything. You can still reason. That is the kind of thing we are talking about here, a little panic, but not too bad. Panic begets panic.
Level 2: Panic. This is where the first big mistakes are made. In your panic, you lose the ability to reason properly. Think about it, they used to tell kids if they get lost, to hug a tree right? The reason for this is searches are begun at the LKP or Last Known Position. The more you move about and run, you not only increase your chances of injury, but you are almost always going to move further from the LKP. It might be where they find your car, or a trailhead you signed in at, or maybe your dropped cell phone or other personal item. The name of the game is to stay where you are if there is any hope of rescue.
People also toss shit at this level. People leave their heavy pack because they can move faster without it and they ‘know’ where they are going, people stop being careful with the items they choose to retain. Frustration leads to more bad choices, throwing their cell phone because it has no signal, or continuing on moving into the night.
This level is where the woods monsters come into play. They ARE real, don’t make a mistake here. Humans are not creatures of the night. We have fears embedded within ourselves to keep us from doing stupid shit, running around at night when you don’t see well for example. The monsters are real. If you haven’t read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and you spend any amount of time in the woods, you are missing one of the best examples of these real monsters. The book is a fabulous illustration of what woods shock really is, it’s probably one of the most detailed looks at the psychology of being lost.
Level 3: Loss of Hope/Despondency. Death is right around the corner. Some people found at this stage recount how they felt deaths icy grip closing on them. They recount the feeling of complete powerlessness, shame at their idiocy for leaving gear behind or ever leaving the trail. This stage may come on suddenly after sustaining an injury or slowly as exhaustion sets in. If they have kept moving after dark, this is where they decide to finally stop, why go on?
Avoidance. It’s easy to avoid this. Know where you are going and stay on the trail. Take a charged cell phone with you. Most of all, don’t just romp off like you are fucking rambo without telling anyone where you are going. Call your mother, a friend, whomever and let them know roughly where you will be going, what you’ll have with you, who will be with you and when you expect to be back. It’s hard to expect rescue if no one knows you are missing.
Most importantly, have a way to make fire and stay put if you get lost. It would behoove you to learn to make a fire without tools, it really isn’t difficult, but it does take practice and always carry flint and steel. A lighter is a great idea until it gets smashed in your pocket, or gets wet and doesn’t work well until it dries, matches are great until they get smashed or too wet to ever work again.
A few primitive skills are useful, even for those who only see a tree once in a while. If I never have to go on another search in the middle of the damn night again, I’d be happy, but when I do, I suppose I’ll get up and go so we can begin at first light.