Lost in the Woods
Here's advice for staying on track in the backcountry—and surviving if you don't.
By Cary Griffith
No one enters wilderness expecting to get lost. And yet every year dozens of people do get lost, hurt, or stranded in Minnesota's woods. The state doesn't keep an official count, but according to Wayne Erickson, chief pilot for Superior National Forest, his pilots flew 20 search and rescue missions into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 2002, a typical year. Captain Mike Trenholm, chief pilot for the Department of Natural Resources, says that of 19 search and rescue missions flown by DNR Enforcement aircraft, more than half were for people lost in the woods.
Most lost people walk out alive. Some are not so lucky.
Oct. 15, 1992, Jim Tennison, his 18-year-old son, Jamie, and a friend went grouse hunting near Savannah Portage State Park in Aitkin County. The three started out before midday. Jim Tennison and his friend decided to hunt in one direction, while Jamie Tennison took off on his own. They agreed to meet back at the truck by 4 p.m.
Jamie Tennison was an experienced woodsman. He'd spent several nights in the woods by himself, and knew how to survive alone. He usually carried a compass, and he knew how to use it. But on this day, with temperatures in the 50s, he was dressed lightly for a long walk in the woods with his 12-gauge but no compass or survival gear.
By 4 o'clock the weather had started to turn colder. The two older men waited at the truck until dark, but Jamie Tennison never appeared. Jim Tennison notified the county sheriff and gathered friends and family to search.
The temperature continued to drop, and rain began to fall. Later that night the rain turned to snow. By morning snow covered the ground, and it was 25 degrees.
For the next several days, a large search and rescue effort, including DNR conservation officers on the ground and in the air, produced no sign of Jamie Tennison. He had simply walked into the woods and disappeared. He has never been seen again.
Wilderness travelers usually enter woods expecting a safe journey. But even experienced hikers and hunters can get much more than they expected. When you go into wilderness, remember Murphy's Law: What can go wrong, will go wrong. By preparing for what will go wrong, you can live to travel another day.
Rules to Follow
When you enter Minnesota wilderness-even if you're a seasoned woodsperson-expect the unexpected. Follow these rules.
- Know where you are going. (Use your map and compass.)
- Tell someone where you're going.
- Stay together (and don't go alone if you lack experience).
- Always carry the essentials.
- If you do get lost, stay put.
- Make yourself seen and heard.
These precautions can significantly diminish your chances of getting lost. If you do get lost, they can help you survive.
1. Know where you are going. (Use your map and compass.)
The best way to survive in the backcountry is to not get lost in the first place. Always know where you're going and how to get there. In many instances a simple trail map and compass are all you need-if you have the knowledge and discipline to use them.
In mid-December 1999, Neil Olson and his 19-year-old son, Justin, backpacked into the BWCAW to camp overnight. Light snow covered the ground, and the temperature never dropped below a balmy zero.
They followed the Pow Wow Trail into an area Neil Olson felt pretty sure was not affected by the July 4, 1999, blowdown. After a few miles, the Olsons ran into a huge area of fallen trees.
That's when they discovered they didn't have a map. Both men had thought the other was bringing it.
The fallen trees made hiking difficult and obscured the trail. Their packs grew heavy and cumbersome as they continually pulled them off and on to scramble over and around deadfall. Within a few hours, the Olsons were lost and exhausted. As evening approached, they found a level spot to camp, built a fire, and tried to get some sleep.
The next morning they continued looking for the trail. But by afternoon, the men were running out of energy and supplies. They decided to use their cell phone to call the St. Louis County sheriff's office. Sometime after dark, a helicopter from the National Park Service's search and rescue picked them up and flew them to safety.
As Trenholm points out, the county sheriff is the first person to call for help. The sheriff rounds up the nearest state or federal aircraft to search.
When asked what they could have done differently, Neil Olson didn't hesitate to say: "We should have had a map."
2. Tell someone where you're going.
Whenever entering wilderness, make sure you tell someone where you're going, how you plan to get there, and when to expect your return. Going so far as detailing your route on a map is an excellent way to ensure your rescue if things go awry.
Oct. 22, 2001, Jason Rasmussen backpacked into the Boundary Waters along the opposite end of the Pow Wow Trail from where the Olsons entered. Rasmussen had maps and a compass and was well-versed in their use. However, this part of the trail was wide and easy to follow, so he didn't think he'd need to consult a map.
After a few hours of hiking, Rasmussen took a wrong turn. What he thought was the path petered out into dense brush. After bushwhacking for a few hours, he knew he was lost.
He found a comfortable place to camp by a lake, pitched his tent, had dinner, and fell asleep.
In the morning a cold rain kept him inside, where he spent a couple of hours poring over his map, trying to find the long, narrow lake beside which he'd camped. He found it, or thought he did, farther west than his actual location.
He reckoned he'd recover the trail if he followed the lake on the map to its southern end and walked a mile beyond it. Because bushwhacking with his pack was so grueling, he decided to first locate the trail, then return for his things.
That was when "I made my biggest mistake of all," Rasmussen said. He left nearly everything behind, even matches. He walked to the end of the lake, struck off into the woods, hiked for about a mile, walked around, and couldn't find the trail. He started back to camp.
But when walking around, "I had managed to move over a little to the west, so I walked north right past the lake." The forest was dense, and at one point he was only 100 yards from his bright red-orange tent but didn't see it. He kept walking.
"Then I fell into a bog. I was soaking wet," Rasmussen recalled. "It's getting cold. I have nothing-no hat, gloves, matches, very little food. And that's when I came across this giant fallen tree." That hollow tree, lined with evergreen boughs he cut with a pocketknife, served as Rasmussen's shelter for the next seven days.
Fortunately, before he'd left home he'd told his parents where he was going. He gave his mother a detailed description of where he planned to camp each night and when he would be home. And on this point he was firm: If he didn't come home by a certain day and time, she should call the Lake County sheriff's office. Fortunately, she did.
3. Stay together (and don't go alone if you lack experience).
Solitary hikes in the woods can be among life's true pleasures. But if you're contemplating anything longer than a half-hour jaunt on well-marked trails, avoid hiking alone. Hiking with friends, and staying together when you do hike, can ensure your safety. If you get lost or hurt, friends can offer both physical and psychological comfort. Staying together conserves energy and warmth, and pools mental resources.
Around noon, Aug. 5, 1998, Dan Stephens, a leader for the Charles L. Sommers Canoe Base near Ely, left his group of Boy Scouts and hiked out alone to search for a portage trail near Bell Lake in the Quetico wilderness. En route he slipped on a mossy ridge, fell, struck his head, and blacked out. When he didn't return to camp, the scouts he was leading went looking for him. But they were unfamiliar with the territory; and because he was unconscious, Stephens didn't respond to their calls.
A few hours later he awakened, but he was disoriented for at least another day. Meanwhile, his group had become frightened and decided to break camp and try to find their own way out.
The scouts had a radio for contacting base camp, but their first attempts failed. After a day of travel, they finally connected. At 5:19 p.m. Thursday, a little over 24 hours since Stephen's disappearance, the Sommers base camp sent out a search and rescue party.
An experienced guide and Eagle Scout, Stephens used the sun and stars to guide himself south to a well-traveled canoe route. Three days and a diet of grasshoppers and berries later, he was found. Had he taken a couple of scouts with him on his search for the portage trail, or had the group waited for at least one more day, part of the ordeal might have been avoided.
4. Always carry the essentials.
Before hiking into backcountry, ask: "If I got lost, what would I need to survive?" Compile a list. Stow the items in a small pack, and never walk into the woods without carrying that pack because you never know when you might need it.
And make sure everyone in your group carries the essentials, because you never know when you might get separated.
"In the fall of 2002," said Steve Peterson, Lake County sheriff and former DNR conservation officer, "we had an individual from central Minnesota who was up hunting, shot and wounded a deer, and ended up following it." Tracking the deer through woods, he got completely turned around. Just before dark, he came upon lakeshore he thought he recognized, and started to follow it. But it was the wrong lake.
The man had matches, but little else. "He ended up breaking into a remote hunting cabin to get dried off," Peterson said.
The hunter's friend reported him missing. The sheriff's search and rescue team found him hungry, tired, and cold after almost two nights in the woods. Another few days alone in the woods without the essentials, and the man might have had a different end to his story.
Always pack these essentials when you walk into the wild:
- Water or a purifying system
- Matches and fire starter
- Extra clothing
- Extra food
- Signal flag and whistle
- Compass and area map
- Flashlight with extra bulb and batteries
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
- First-aid kit
5. If you do get lost, stay put.
All wilderness experts agree on one thing: As counterintuitive as it might seem at the time, if you're lost in the woods, stay put. Trying to hike out, a person often gets into deeper woods and trouble.
March 20, 1995, Travis Hatzenbuehler and two companions set out on a midday hike in Gooseberry Falls State Park along the North Shore of Lake Superior. Judging from what the three carried with them-little more than a lighter-they didn't plan to spend the night. Being unprepared for the unexpected was their first mistake. Other mistakes along the way would cost one of them his life.
After a couple of hours hiking, they were in deep woods. They made several strikes on trails they thought would return them to the road. After more hiking, and as dusk fell, they realized they were lost.
The first night they huddled around a fire. The next day they disagreed about which way to hike. Hatzenbuehler struck out on his own and found his way to safety. He went straight to the state park manager, who immediately initiated a massive ground and air search.
His lost friends kept looking for a way out, and finally separated. After three days, a snowmobile sled carried out one of Hatzenbuehler's companions, barely breathing. He survived. The third man did not. Later that day he was found face down in the snow, having succumbed to hypothermia.
If the three had stayed put, stuck together, and kept the first night's fire burning, tragedy might have been avoided.
6. Make yourself seen and heard.
If you're lost or hurt outdoors, make yourself big and visible. If possible, make tracks in the snow or use sticks and stones to spell SOS. Build a large fire. Hang a colored garbage bag atop a bush. Do whatever you can to make your presence known, particularly from the air.
Jason Rasmussen survived in a hollow tree. "He would have been found right away if he would have had the means to build a fire," said rescue pilot Erickson.
As it happened, a whistle saved Rasmussen's life. On the seventh day of his exposure, a search plane took another pass. His hollow tree was too concealed to be seen from the air, but he'd made a practice of blowing his whistle after each plane passed. He did it again, and a quarter-mile away one person in the five-person search party heard it.
Make sure you and the members of your party carry a good whistle, available at sporting goods stores. A whistle is cheap, lightweight, and capable of extending the distance at which you're heard by at least a football field.
Cary Griffith, Rosemount, is a freelance writer and wilderness hiker.