We have all experienced the feeling at one time or another. Maybe as a child in a large store separated from our parents. Maybe on a college campus with a seemingly endless complex of paths and buildings. Maybe on a dark road in the middle of night while trying to find a hotel or friend's house. We have all been lost and we all know the feelings that well up inside when we do. For some it is panic that sickens, for others it is frustration and anger.
One of our worst traits as humans is our ability to deny to ourselves that we are lost. We wander around, we convince ourselves that it will be up ahead on the next turn, or if I go that way. The unfamiliar becomes familiar until we have lead ourselves down a path so far that we have to do the unthinkable, ask for directions.
All of this is well and good on a dark road, or a college campus or at the customer service desk of a big store, but when your in the backcountry, there is not a help desk or a gas station to ask assistance from. As soon as you become disoriented the decisions you make over the next hour, four hours, eight hours and if necessary twenty-four hours can in some cases make the difference between life and death.
The first step in not becoming a statistic is coming to the realization that you are lost. The very second that thought crosses through your head you need to stop. In the first hour the panic that can set in kills.
Panic is a very powerful force. As your body detects the fear it pumps out tremendous amounts of adrenaline and endorphins into your system. Both of these have a narcotic effect and are responsible for your increased breathing, your body feeling warm and breaking out in a sweat. There are documented cases of people becoming lost in the woods, throwing off all of their gear and even ripping off their clothing as they run panicked through the forest. When night falls, with no gear, no water and no clothing, exposure sets in and kills of the lost hiker.
You may be shaking your head and saying to yourself, "that won't happen to me," but it has happened to very skilled individuals. The most frightening thing about being lost in the woods is you will not truly know how you will react until it happens. Knowing all of this if you feel panic setting in, you need to sit down, breath deep, eat a little food, and just sit there until you are calm. The next thing you need to do is get down to the business of surviving through the night and aiding rescuers in locating you quickly.
There is a philosophy that there are four basic needs for survival in the wilderness. Warmth, water, shelter and food make up these four basic needs. The challenge is to put these needs in a priority list. If you are soaking wet on a 45 degree day, then warmth becomes your number one priority. If you are lost in the backcountry region of Painted Desert NP, then water and shelter are almost equally important. If all things were on a level playing field (70 degree days and 45 degree nights with berry bushes to your left and a stream to right) then warmth, water, shelter and food would be the order to set your priorities.
If you entered backcountry in full gear then most of these problems are all ready resolved. You have a tent, and a sleeping bag, as well as a supply of food and water. The real problem is if you went off for a day hike with a minimal amount of gear, or due to a fall or accident have become separated from your gear. Now these four basic needs become a challenge and you need to evaluate your situation.
The first rule of being lost is not to become more lost. That town on the horizon could be thirty-miles away, and there could be a gorge or river blocking your path. Moving through the woods you increase your risk of animal, insect, or snake encounters. The frustration that sets in from all of this increases the panic factor. So rule number one is very simple, hug a tree. The only time you should ever move is because your personal safety is being compromised.
Picking the right tree to hug is also very important. You should try to find a thin spot if you are in a forest, being close to a clearing is best. If an aerial search is initiated for you this will make spotting you much easier. Deep old growth pine forests are the worst for spotting people from the air. Again, don't wander looking for the perfect clearing, you are better off staying put if you don't have the option of a meadow near by.
The primary reason you should not move once you realize you are lost is historically people who are lost and continue to move, move further away from where they should be. There are numerous documented cases of people who have walked completely out of a search area because they were wandering through the woods in an attempt to find a familiar landmark or help. The idea of spending the night in the wilderness with limited or no gear is not a pleasant one, but by staying in one place, and close to your planned route, you greatly increase your odds of being found.