How to get found when you get lost

Published: March 31, 2020

Man lost in the woods Photo by Ugryumov Igor/Shutterstock

Turns out people who get lost in the wilderness do predictable (and unhelpful) things. Here’s how to get found when you get lost.

By the time I got my driver’s licence, I had been going to our family cottage for 16 years, travelling the same backroads many dozens (hundreds!) of times. This routine commute, however, didn’t prevent me from getting lost the first time I drove alone to the lake. Or the second time. Lucky for me, being lost has never jeopardized my safety, unless you count the time I was looking for a hostel in London, England, on a dark, foggy February night and became convinced that the guy in a cape behind me was Jack the Ripper. “Jack” eventually gave me directions.

Ed Cornell is a behavioural scientist who has focussed his career on studying people like me. Cornell, now retired from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, was contacted three decades ago by local police, who wanted his help in the case of a missing nine-year-old boy who had left a campsite days earlier. What the police wanted was some idea of where a nine-year-old might typically go if they got lost.

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Cornell and his colleagues were chagrined that they couldn’t offer much in the way of help. In the time since, however, they have made a point of gathering more data and analyzing it to better answer the question: how do people behave when they get lost

Knowing the mistakes that people make can help those of us lost-prone to find our way—or at least make it more likely that we’ll be found. Here are his tips:

•Make it easy for searchers to know roughly where you planned to go
Before going into the wilderness, Cornell always makes a photocopy of the sole of his shoe on one side of a piece of paper, with his planned itinerary on the other side. He leaves the sheet of paper, shoe sole side up (so potential thieves don’t have a sense of how long he’ll be gone) on the passenger seat of his parked vehicle. Always let friends or family members know where you’re going or, better still, he says, take along a partner.

•If you do get lost, stay put
“The hardest task for the lost person is to stay put,” says Cornell. Our anxiety and fear spur us to move, even though we don’t particularly know where we’re going, he says. “They feel that they can find their way out…that the present attempt will be successful.” But moving around makes it harder for those searching to find us.

•Give yourself jobs to do
Just waiting to be found can be anxiety-provoking, so Cornell suggests that we give ourselves a task. “Settle down near a water source, and select a reasonable goal,” he says, such as building a shelter that is not hidden. Next up: try to build a fire. Get together enough wood to last through the night. During the day, burn greenery to produce smoke.

•Leave signs of your presence nearby
To increase the likelihood of being found, Cornell recommends that you do what you can to make your presence detected, such as walking away from camp, far enough that you can’t see it, and building some sort of marker—a pile of rocks, for instance—then returning to home base. Repeat in other directions.

•Keep warm and well
Prepare early for an evening fire, he says. Stay hydrated and rested, and do your best to remain positive and calm.

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