Lost people or parties

  • If you are lost
  • Survival
  • When others are lost
  • Reporting lost persons
  • Techniques of searching

There are times when 'geographical embarrassment' turns into 'lost'. Most people who have experienced this will tell you it is not a nice feeling. If you are lost or some of your group are missing, there are actions that will shorten the process of getting to a known location, and others for reuniting the group. This chapter covers what to do, and what not to do, in these situations.

If you are lost

If you think you are lost, do not panic. Stop, sit down, make a cuppa, have a snack and calmly assess the situation. If you are the leader, it often helps to call a meal or snack break to occupy the rest of the group while you assess the situation. Other group members can be assigned tasks to look after or occupy the group if appropriate.

All leaders have their own style in dealing with pressure situations—some prefer assistance, others find ‘assistance’ distracting. Many group members are incapable of providing useful assistance, and their involvement is counterproductive. However, those with good skills can be a real asset in retrieving a lost group, and leaders need to assess early in each trip who has skills that may be useful in the various emergency situations which may arise.

The first thing to do is to get out the map, and align it with north, so it is pointing in the same direction as the features represented on the ground. Determine the spot on the map where you were last certain of your position, and estimate (or refer to your notes, if any) when you were at that point. Next, from the time elapsed, and your average speed, you can draw a circle which defines the area you must be within. Then, considering the direction you were generally following over this time, you should be able to narrow down the area in which you are now.

This should give a small- to medium-sized area within which you are most likely to be. At this point, it is often worth heading to the highest clear point within say 200–300 metres of your present position. Being higher offers a greater chance of recognising features on the ground that can be located on the map. Always take careful note of your direction, distance, time and terrain if moving to try to relocate yourself, as this will help identify the high point or clear feature on the map.

Once you get to this clear point, there will generally only be a few points on the map which are possibilities for your position. Now is the time to perform a resection— plotting back bearings from a number of prominent features, which will intersect at your position. A small scale map covering a significant distance in all directions is very useful for this, as prominent and distinct features which are off your map are of no use!

Take the bearing to the feature, apply the magnetic variation for the area, and plot the direction on the map. Counting the number of hills and valleys can assist establishing how far it is to the feature concerned. Then do the same thing for another prominent feature— ideally at 90° to the first one. A third will help confirm your position. This will provide information on where you are most likely to be.

Then comes the challenge of moving to confirm that this is correct. There are a number of options, including retracing your steps, heading for the next feature on your planned route, heading for a major, obvious or catching feature which will be easy to locate with certainty, heading for an easily found line feature, such as a ridge, river, road or similar. The decision will depend on the distance, type of country, terrain etc.

If you still cannot decide on a direction to get you out of trouble then:

  • keep the party together
  • return to your original position and make camp, but do not camp too close to running water as this may make searchers’ calls inaudible
  • light a fire close by, which is visible, especially from the air (smoky by day, flaming by night)
  • if you have to go down for water, return to your original position with the water as soon as possible
  • if you decide to move, leave a clear trail (break sticks, mark trees, etc.) and leave messages at campsites giving departure times, intentions and physical condition of the party.


Some basic survival techniques include:

  • minimise movements to conserve energy
  • keep under shelter or in the shade
  • keep the fire going
  • listen carefully for voices, shouts, whistles, engine noises, etc.
  • give audible or visible distress signals—three consecutive signals regularly spaced and at regular intervals and use shouts, whistles, bangs, flashes of a torch or mirror, distinctive waving of bright clothing or smoke signals.

When others are lost

If one or more members of your party become separated, a brief reconnaissance search should be initiated. If the missing people are not located after 3–4 hours or longer in remote areas, you should assume that they are totally lost. In this case it is unlikely your party will have the resources necessary to initiate a full-scale search and you should seek assistance as soon as possible.

If communication by mobile phone or other means proves impossible, a self-suffi-cient and preferably fast-moving subgroup should be sent out to the nearest point of civilisation to obtain help, while the others should remain near where the missing people were last seen. They should make camp and keep a visible fire going at all times as a beacon. This reference group must not move until the whereabouts of all the party are known, or until there is definitely no further value in staying in the same place.

Reporting lost persons

For all persons lost or missing, the police or other authorities will require the following information:

  • full name, address and age
  • when last seen, where (map name and exact reference) and by whom
  • name, address and telephone number of next of kin
  • physical and mental condition
  • outdoors skills
  • knowledge of the area
  • clothing worn
  • equipment and food carried.

The police will also require brief personal details of the person making the report and information about the trip.

Techniques of searching

Reconnaissance search
The aim of a reconnaissance search is to reduce the likely search area to a manageable size by searching for clues indicating where the people sought might be, so most search effort is in a high probability area. Four competent searchers quickly cover the intended route, and likely alternatives, of the missing people. Other points where missing people may stop are also checked (e.g. track junctions, huts, campsites and creeks). This method may be used for track and perimeter patrols throughout a search, and may be complemented by the use of small groups camping out on key features. Four-wheel drive vehicles and trail bikes can be used for track patrolling in most bush areas.

General search
This method is used to cover all the main features in an area of probability. Teams of four or five experienced and fast-moving personnel able to stay out overnight are used. Boundaries of the search areas are best defined by topographical features and unmistakably marked on the maps used. Search party progress can be indicated by toilet paper, preferably of different colours for different days. Several teams may be deployed to search parts of an area, with clear understanding of each team’s boundaries. The method of searching within their area is a matter for each search team. Generally, it is less physically demanding to search parallel with creeks and spurs rather than across them. As in reconnaissance searching, contact within the search team is maintained by voice, using names and numbers, interspersed with listening periods.

General search, as the name implies, includes all main features (i.e. spurs, creeks, tracks, etc.) but does not eliminate lesser individual features. Should a particular feature merit special attention because of its high hazard rating, it should be searched in closed-line formation, while open areas can be searched in extended formation. Areas of doubt should be eliminated by each individual search team, as that area may not be covered again unless information suggests further attention is warranted. It is not a wise practice to allot an unrealistically large area to a team, as tired or dispirited searchers are ineffective.

Close search
This is used where intermediate coverage is required. All lesser features are searched by small parties in addition to the areas covered in the general search.

Contact search
The contact or line search is usually the concluding phase of a search operation, but it can also be utilised earlier for a saturation coverage of a high probability area. Teams of up to 10 are normal, as larger numbers become slow and unwieldy. A line search is difficult to maintain, particularly in dense bush or rough, uneven terrain, and progress is always slow if the search is thorough. Large areas should be subdivided into manageable sections by using physical features and toilet paper markers. Generally, four runs each of 250 m width will be more efficiently searched than if the same party attempted one run of 1 km width.

Using the contact or line search technique, the team forms up in line so that each member maintains sight and voice contact with the person each side and is capable of visually searching the ground between. In dense scrub the spacing may be 3 m, while in open grass it may be 50 m. The leader should be located centrally to achieve best control. The spacing is maintained from whichever flanker is following the defined boundary route. The other flanker marks the progress with toilet paper indicators, and at the end of the sweep, these become the guide for the return sweep.

The search is continued sweep by sweep, until the allotted area is eliminated. This method is time consuming and requires large numbers of searchers. The searchers must look under, over, around and through everything in their sector, and miss nothing, as a negative report on completion will eliminate the area. It is important that the team leaders confer to ensure that boundaries are properly searched to avoid any areas remaining unsearched.

Search and rescue signals may be given by smoke (i.e. blanketing a smoky fire), by shouts, whistles, flashing of a mirror or torch, or by waving distinctive garments. The chief characteristic of these signals is their regularity and any signal repeated at any regular interval should be investigated. Signals commonly used in Australia (which may differ from those used overseas) include:

  • distress signal by a lost party—three signals together, regularly spaced
  • searchers looking for a lost party—one signal at irregular intervals to indicate progress
  • acknowledgment of a distress signal—searchers give one signal
  • recall signal—two signals at short intervals, followed by a minute without signals, and then repeat, or four signals together, regularly spaced.