As a middle school kid, I spent one of the scariest hours of my life lost in the woods. I wandered away from our family’s campsite and didn’t see another human being for the next 60 minutes. The only people more terrified than me were my parents, who split up and went in different directions calling my name until I heard them.
As my friend, Orrin M. Knutson, points out in his book, Survival 101: How to Bug Out and Survive the First 72 Hours, 150,000 people on average get lost in the woods and wilds overnight or longer annually in America. Even more are stranded or caught in natural disasters. Few are prepared and some of them don’t make it out alive.
Outdoor specialists have developed an acronym to help us remember how to react when lost. It’s “STOP,” and it stands for “sit, think, observe and plan.” The idea is that as soon as you feel that you may be lost, you probably are. You just don’t know yet how lost you might be. When that happens, stop in your tracks and do the following:
- Sit: Take a break, cool down or warm up. Relax your body and your mind. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, gather your wits and control your emotions before fear and panic set in.
- Think: Those who live in urban areas think with their watches. They have schedules to keep. But once you’re lost in the wilds, none of that stuff matters. Never chase the clock or try to beat sundown, because you’ll lose every time. After calming down, think about where you are now compared to where you started. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to get your bearings and determine the general direction back to safety. However, if the sun is going down, think about how you are going to get through a long, cold, dark night and “defend in place” (DIP). With no survival tools, you must immediately begin to improvise an adequate shelter, find safe drinking water and possibly start a fire.
- Observe: Carefully observe by taking a serious look around. Even with no map or compass, you should have some recollection of landmarks in the distance in relationship to where you began your journey. Observe details as far out as you can. If that doesn’t help, refocus and observe your nearby surroundings. You are looking for a good place to hunker down and wait for help to come to you. Look for a ready-made shelter or shelter and fire building materials not far from a water source.
- Plan: After sitting, thinking and observing, try to find your own tracks so you can plan to retrace your steps tomorrow. Once you’re certain of your return direction, make some kind of marker (a stone or log arrow) pointing back the way you came. Plan to DIP for the night and backtrack on yourself come morning, hoping that the weather doesn’t obliterate your tracks. Immediately plan for a fire and a shelter, and plan to find water. Plan to let experienced searchers find you. If you plan to bug out, be sure to leave obvious signs and markers for rescue trackers to follow.
Defend In Place
If you have to DIP, stay where you are, hunker down and wait for help to come to you. Whenever you’re lost, stranded or forced into survival mode, it is wisest to DIP whenever possible. Although this isn’t always practical due to mandatory evacuation orders, changing environments or other conditions beyond your control, it is generally your best and easiest defense for most common survival events.
The need to DIP becomes almost mandatory if someone is incapacitated with broken bones or internal injuries. The best advice here is to stay within a safe line of sight of the crash. Render first aid the best you can to yourself or others. Even if you are alone and injured, “bite the bullet” and do whatever it takes to make shelter and fire and to find water. Then, wait for help to come to you. Here is where your “will to live” and savvy are imperative.
The DIP rule also applies to weather catastrophes when you are at home, as long as your living quarters remain structurally safe. If a companion, neighbor or family member is injured, avoid the temptation to take off and go get help, leaving the injured party behind all alone, unless you determine it is absolutely necessary.
Finally, if you know in advance that you’re going to be in a situation in which getting lost in the wilderness is a possibility, take steps to protect yourself from hardship by being proactive, learning a few primitive skills and carrying basic survival gear at all times on every outdoor adventure.