Two Basic Survival Strategies
By Steve Gillman
What do you do when you are lost in the woods or face some
other type of wilderness emergency? There are two essentially
different survival strategies. One is to stay where you are and
wait for rescuers to find you. This is what most experts recommend,
and it certainly makes life easier for search-and-rescue volunteers.
It is not uncommon for them to find previous campsites of lost
hikers and hunters who have unwisely moved on.
The other strategy is to find your own way out to civilization.
This too can be a good idea in the right context. We're going
to look at which survival strategy you might choose based on
a variety of different circumstances. We'll also look at some
other possible options.
Survival Strategy: Stay Where You Are
If you are injured in a way that limits your mobility you
generally won't have much of a choice except to stay where you
are while awaiting rescue. Of course, even in a case like that,
if you are with others, they have to decide whether to go for
help or stay with you. Going for help makes sense if moving will
not make your injury worse, and if you know where you are. If
one person is immobile, and you know where you are, and
if there are at least three in the group, the best option is
normally for one person to stay with the injured person while
the other goes for help.
In general, it is best to stay in one place if you are lost
and there are rescuers looking for you. Years ago a hunter was
lost in northern Michigan, and he kept trying to find his way
out of the woods each day as he got weaker and hungrier. Meanwhile,
the people looking for him kept coming upon his campsites from
the night before day after day. In other words they would have
found him quickly if he had just stayed in one place. Fortunately,
despite being old and hungry and cold, the man did survive long
enough for the rescuers to catch up to him. But rescuers chasing
after empty campsites is not an uncommon story, and does not
always have a happy ending.
If you do choose to stay put, the next step is to prepare
to help the rescuers locate you. This can mean getting something
reflective ready to signal planes. A CD will work if you don't
have a mirror. The page on Signaling
Techniques in our Wilderness Survival Guide has
more on this. Preserve those flashlight batteries for signaling
at night as well.
You might also look for a way to make a loud noise repeatedly.
A gun is an obvious choice if you have one, but don't fire it
endlessly. Use when you think rescuers are in the area, and make
your noises three at a time. Three is the universal symbol or
indication that you need help. A large hollow tree that you can
thump with a log might make a sound that carries well in mountains.
One of the most common ways to signal rescuers is with fire
and smoke. If you have an open area and suspect a search from
the sky, prepare three fires in a triangle, and light them when
you hear planes or helicopters. If you have a car tire or other
large piece of rubber, you can burn this to create a black column
of smoke. If your fuel is limited wait for times when searchers
are most likely around, times when the wind is not to strong
(it will disperse the smoke), and times when you are cold and
need some warmth.
Survival Strategy: Get Moving
When should you try to get out on your own? To start with,
it makes sense if you have only a minor problem and you know
roughly where you are. For example, if you dropped your backpack
in a river and you have no food or shelter, you need to get back
to civilization. If you also happen to be lost, but you know
that you are less than a day's hike west of a highway that runs
north and south, you can simply head east carefully until you
find the road.
The other time when it makes sense to start moving is when
you are lost but you neglected to tell anyone where you were
in the first place. Of course you should always tell someone
where you will be hiking or otherwise venturing into the wilderness,
but perhaps you changed your mind on the way to the trail head.
Or maybe you left a message telling a friend where you would
be, and later realize that your friend was going to Europe for
a month and so wouldn't get the message or tell anyone where
In cases like these it still makes sense to prepare to signal
rescuers. After all, a pilot flying over might investigate more
closely if you use a CD to flash sunlight at him. But if there
is no reasonable expectation of a search where you are, it is
also time to get traveling.
If you find a creek or river you can follow that downstream.
Follow any larger rivers it runs into and eventually you should
arrive at some town or farm. This is true in most parts of the
world other than the far north.
If you know that the area you are in is framed by several
roads, aim for whichever you suspect is the closest and hike
in as straight a line as you can using a compass or natural direction
signals like the sun. If you get too confused about direction,
do most of your traveling in the mornings and evenings when the
sun is closest to east and west.
There is another time when you may have to move. It's when
you don't expect a search to begin for a while and you have no
water supply near you. In that case you may have to move until
you find a pond, pool, puddle or lake. You can always set up
camp there and wait to wait for rescuers.
Using Both Survival Strategies
There might be a time when you are lost and perhaps injured
and when it really isn't clear whether you should stay put or
get moving. In these cases it might make sense to stay put for
a while and then start hiking out on your own. For example, if
you are in a well-traveled wilderness and you are hurt, someone
might find you within a few days. If you have food and a way
to stay warm it can make sense to stay and wait for this kind
On the other hand, if nobody arrives and you run out of food
and you suspect there will be no search for another week or more
(maybe you planned to resupply, and only told your family the
date you would be completely done with the hike), you might have
to start moving. In the meantime, while you are staying in one
place for the first few days, you can prepare whatever you'll
need for getting out. This could mean making a splint for a broken
bone, or carving a crutch out of a tree branch and so on.
The bottom line with any survival strategies is to use them
as they make sense. In other words, you have to think. No rule
about what you should do can think for you. There are good general
ideas and guidelines about these things, but there are no absolute
rules for this or any other area of life.