It is estimated that more than 140 million Americans make outdoor recreation a priority in their daily lives. These outdoor enthusiasts view outdoor activity as an essential part of their lives, and they show it by garages filled with bicycles, dirt bikes, backpacks, boats, skis, tenting, hunting and fishing gear. Each year over $646 billion is spent on outdoor recreation, of that $120 billion is directly for outdoor gear, and $524 billion is trip and travel related costs. On average a person spends more on outdoor recreation than they do on vehicles and parts, gasoline, or household utilities, each year. Gear purchases include anything for outdoor recreation, including apparel and footwear, bicycles, skis, fishing rods and reels, guns, tents, or backpacks. Between 2005-2015 the outdoor recreation economy grew approximately 7 percent annually, this even during a recession when most all other sectors contracted.
The UK reported that between March 2014 and February 2015, there was a record 3 Billion visits by people made to England’s great outdoors! It was estimated that 43 million adults living in England made a total of 3.12 billion visits to the outdoors. 8 out of 10 people agreed that being outdoors contributed to their health and well-being by making them feel “calm and relaxed” and “refreshed and revitalized”.
This demonstrates the sheer number of people that visit the outdoors annually for one form of outdoor recreation or another. With those numbers come the reality of the numbers of lost-hikers, medical accidents, and other wilderness rescues. Thankfully, SAR Statistician Robert Koester, has been tracking these numbers for many years. Koester, a 51-year-old from Charlottesville, Virginia, has spent the last 13 years creating the International Search and Rescue Database. With 10’s of thousands of documented incidents, it is the largest, and first, compendium of its kind in the world. Robert Koester also published a ground breaking book entitled “Lost Person Behavior”, which is now regarded as the cornerstone of search and rescue efforts. It is the definitive guide to solving the puzzle of where a lost person might be found. (https://www.dbs-sar.com/LPB/lpb.htm)
The most typical profile of the average lost person according to Mr. Koester’s research is; male, age 20-50, and 58 percent are solo hikers. The typical lost hiker also hasn’t packed any survival equipment, not even the most basic of items. The highest rate of reasons that the hiker becomes lost, or more lost than he was, is that most males will just keep plowing ahead in the direction they were going, usually in hopes that maybe just around that next corner they will see something they recognize, but it rarely happens. One of the biggest mistakes that a lost person does that dramatically decreases their chances of survival is they ditch their gear when they get in trouble! Now you would wonder, why on earth would they do that, they will need that tent, food, or even water later. But in a state of panic they feel that they need to lighten the load so that they can hurry faster. But it is the absolute worst thing that you can do!
During 2003-2006, in the United States National Parks, a reported 12,337 Search and Rescue (SAR) operations took place involving 15,537 people. These operations ended in 522 fatalities, 4,860 ill or injured persons, and 2,285 saves. Almost 40% occurred on either a Saturday or a Sunday, and persons between the ages of 20-29 were involved in 23% of the incidents. Males accounted for 66.3% of the people requiring SAR assistance. An error in judgement, fatigue and physical condition, and insufficient equipment, clothing, and experience were the most common factors.
The realization that one is lost invokes a highly emotional state. Fear causes the sympathetic nervous system to activate, initiating the release of adrenaline into the blood stream, an increased heart rate, and dilated pupils
among other physiological responses. This state of high arousal causes one’s thoughts to scatter and “reduce [s] the number of environmental cues a person can perceive” (Hill 1999), specifically sights and sounds with which the victim has become familiar (Kelley 1973). A feeling of claustrophobia may set in and a person may get the urge to run so that they can find the “right place” causing the person to become even more lost (Syrotuck 1999). Some have even been known to hallucinate and have visions or dreams. This heightened state, generally referred to as “woods shock,” can be detrimental to a lost person’s overall well-being (Hill 1999).
Consequently, the hyper state of arousal experienced while lost can cause people to have severe difficulty in reorienting themselves, fail to make a shelter or fire, discard equipment and clothing, and feel a distinct sense of abandonment (Syrotuck 1999).
The psychological effect of being lost can also be quite traumatic. Individuals begin to realize certain fears. They fear being alone, the darkness, and animals as well as the threat of suffering and death (Syrotuck 1999). Presumably, many of these factors impact a person who is injured or has medical issues in a similar manner, especially in a wilderness environment. However, before a true analysis of any lost person behavior can be made, it is imperative to have a very clear and comprehensive understanding of the area the person is lost in, this relates to geology, climate, weather, vegetation, and potential hazards.
Lost people generally have two goals: try to find their way or try to be found (Cornell and Heth 1999). Secondary goals such as finding water or shelter may also play an import role in their decision making process, but reorientation is the paramount goal. Kenneth Hill (1999) describes ten different strategies people employ to reorient themselves:
“Totally confused, and usually experiencing high emotional arousal, the lost person moves around randomly, following the path of least resistance, with no apparent purpose other than to find something or some place that looks familiar.”
“The lost person decides to travel on some trail, path, drainage, or other travel aid. The route is unknown to these persons, and
they are uncertain regarding the direction they’re headed, but they hope that eventually they will come upon something familiar.”
“Certain that safety lies in one particular direction, the lost person moves cross-country, often ignoring trails and paths leading the “wrong” direction.”
“The person uses an intersection of trails as a base, traveling some distance down each trail in search of something familiar”.
“Similar to route sampling, except that the lost person does not have the advantage provided by an intersection of trails. Rather, these persons select some identifiable landmark as a base, such as a large tree or outcropping.”
“…the lost person attempts to gain a position of height to view landmarks in the distance. These persons attempt to enhance their view by climbing a hill, ridge or tree.”
“After getting turned around, the person reverses the track and attempts to follow the exact route back out of the woods.”
Using Folk Wisdom:
“…miscellaneous category refers to the attempt to reorient by using any of the numerous adages on how to find your way safely out of the woods…” An example includes the saying, “All streams lead to civilization”.
“staying where you are when lost…[when] the lost persons can reasonably expect a search to be organized on their behalf in the very near future.”
Not making an active decision to stay put, but rather just sitting down and doing nothing at all to reorient themselves.
Scientists have put forth many different explanations for the circular ramblings of a lost walker. Some say it is because of asymmetries in our brain set up a tendency to turn in one direction, or that one leg that’s longer or stronger than the other. However, in 2007, Jan Soulman decided to put this to the test by dropping three volunteers into the Sahara Desert and watched as they walked for several miles, attempting to walk in a straight line. Soulman also tested a group of volunteers as they walked through a thick German forest, as well as others who walked through a large field blindfolded.
It was observed that with some sort of reference point we are entirely capable of walking in a straight line, even in a desert with no features, the sun works just fine for these purposes to navigate a line. However, volunteers walking on a cloudy day all ambled in circles, many crossing their own paths without even knowing it. Volunteers walking in the desert during the day walking in almost a perfect line, and one volunteer walking at night stayed on a straight line using the moon, however once the moon disappeared behind clouds he started walking in a circle.
So without landmarks to guide them, the walkers were relying on feedback from their bodies (proprioception) and their sense of balance. These cues can help over short distances, but Souman says that they soon build up “sensory noise” that renders them inaccurate and causes the person’s trajectory to drift both increasingly and randomly.
It’s telling that the blindfolded walkers in the open field behaved in very similar ways to the ones in the cloudy forests – their jaunts included bouts of random direction interspersed with systematic circling. This may have been because of all sorts of obstacles or local landmarks in the forest, but not so in the field.
Instead, Souman suggests that people circle when their internal sense of “straight ahead” becomes corrupted by random errors in their sense of touch, balance or spatial awareness. Small errors lead to random walks, while larger errors cause circling. And that has a massive impact on their ability to get, well, anywhere.