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.