How Not to Get Lost in The Woods

Outdoors - Colorado Parks Wildlife Mountains Baca National Wildlife Refuge - USFWS
Published Sunday, August 21, 2016

By Chris Parmeter, District Wildlife Manager

Colorado Parks and Wildlife

In the 1980 movie classic, "The Mountain Men", the character Henry Frapp is

questioned by a young green horn: "Haven't you ever been lost?" Frapp scratches

his whiskers and after a recollecting pause, replies, "A fearsome confused for a

month or two... but I ain't ever been lost!"

For the fur trappers, wandering through a vast and unexplored country, "lost"

would have been something of an oxymoron. Not knowing where you were was a

necessary part of the mountain man business. The blank space on the map was as

much "home" as it was wilderness, and "lost" was more a state of mind than a

physical dilemma.

When the mountain men plunged head-long into the unknown, they knew that

where they were going there would be no restaurants or hotels. So they planned

accordingly. They learned quickly where to find food and how to get it; how to

mend equipment, to make new or make do; they could sleep in a log, a cave, or just

plain under the stars-and survive! How did they accomplish this incredible feat?

Simply, they were prepared--mentally and physically.

Today, the same principles apply. When you head out into the woods, be prepared:

for cold, rain or snow; to tend an injury; or to stay the night in the woods. It's not as

difficult as it sounds. Here are a few nuggets of Mountain Man wisdom to help you


Staying Found

The old timers relied on "Dead Reckoning" for navigation: utilizing a compass to

guide them in the general direction they wished to go. Sometimes in the absence of

a compass, they relied only on "reckoning": as in "I reckon camp is back that way."

The contemporary woodsman may have the handiness of a GPS, but owning one of

these high-tech gizmos is not an adequate substitute for map and compass skills.

Just as with other conveniences (cell phones, cameras, flash lights), the batteries

will invariable go dead just when you need them the most.

Learning how to read a map is not that difficult; up is north, left is west and so on.

The closer the lines are together the steeper the country. Water is shown as blue,

while man made objects are black. It is simply a two dimensional rendition of a

three dimensional world. Using a map and a compass to show you which way is

north, you'd be hard pressed to get seriously lost. Sure, some practice is required,

but that's all part of the preparedness thing.

Paying attention to where you're going can also be a big help to staying found. As

you pursue your quarry, notice which way the shadows are falling. Have you been

mostly climbing, or descending? Look for landmarks as you go. Not stumps and

rocks, but BIG landmarks that give your relative position to the valley below, or

that craggy peak to the west. Turn around and look behind you, what would it look

like if you were going that way - back to camp or the truck?

The Essentials

Unless your trip is taking you across the Gobi or the Brooks Range, you probably

don't need to carry 50 feet of copper wire or spare fishing line and hooks. The

largest wilderness area in Colorado can be traversed in a day or two. So what are

the essential essentials you need when you're on your own hook?

- Water. Without it, you're dead in three days. Without it for a few hours,

at 9,000 feet above sea level, you're not dead, but you may wish you

were. Dehydration can lead to altitude sickness and hypothermia. But

even worse, it can impair your judgment, induce panic, and result in a

fatal case of Lost.

- Fire good... Fire friend... Fire number two in importance. Learn how to

build one, WITHOUT toilet paper and gasoline. It's as easy as one two

three: One, you need dry tender. Scratch around under grass tussocks for

the driest stuff. Get lots of it, about a volley ball sized bunch; two,

kindling. You want about twice as much as the tender you gathered.

- Kindling is small stuff - matchstick sized. Three is the fuel itself. Gather

up plenty if it looks like you may have to spend the night. Pick dry

branches one to two inches in diameter--these burn without difficulty and

make it easy to control the heat. Of course we can't overlook the match.

You don't need to be proficient with a flint and steel, but you should have

at least a couple of ways to start fire; it doesn't matter if it's a lighter or a

fire plow, as long as you can get it lit.

- Shelter. Now don't jump right into bivy sacks and backpacking tents.

Let's take a step back and start at the beginning. Shelter starts with your

clothing. Dress for the worst. And in a Colorado autumn, the worst can

be pretty harsh. Pick synthetics - like fleece or polyester blends - but

wool is best. Dress in layers: long handle union suit, light mid layer(s),

and warmer outer layer. Dressing appropriately when you leave camp

will find you well on your way to surviving a night in the outback even

without a buffalo robe.

- Make a plan and let someone know what it is. Leave a map open on the

dashboard of the truck. You don't have to give up your secret spot with

an "I AM HERE" arrow, just circle a square mile or two. When you leave

camp, a plain old "I'm gonna work this ridge out and come back down the

crick" is enough to give your buddies a place to start looking for you if

you should become "a fearsome confused." The important thing is to

stick to your plan.

As you head into the high country this fall, see yourself as one of the Lewis &

Clark Expedition; be prepared, both mentally and physically for the challenges of

the unknown. Keep your powder dry and your eyes on the horizon and you'll know

that "lost" is, by and large, just a state of mind.

Chris Parmeter is a District Wildlife Manager in the Gunnison/Crested Butte area.