How to Find Lost Hikers

How to Find Lost HikersSearching for lost hikers should always be undertaken with proper organization and, ideally, the support of professionals. Trained search-and-rescue workers know wilderness navigation, survival techniques, first-aid response and the psychology of the disoriented. Knowing how to look for lost hikers means truly learning basic wilderness emergency and signaling methods, but there are a few general things to consider in any situation.


Difficulty: Challenging

Things You’ll Need:
  • Professional assistance
  • Topographic maps
  • Signaling tools
  • Communication devices
Step 1
Contact the authorities, first and foremost. Law enforcement agencies, search and rescue organizations (both governmental and volunteer) and medical personnel all have the resources, expertise and manpower to rigorously search for a lost person. Never set out alone to track a missing friend. You may end up as thoroughly lost---or more so---than the object of your search.
Step 2
Organize your search party. Never proceed without at least one companion. The Mountain Rescue Association recommends well-defined organization--splitting apart into subgroups to search the most likely areas first and ensuring working communication devices for each team.
Step 3
Gather information about the lost hiker. What were they wearing---including their footwear (and any other details about the tracks they might leave)? What sort of gear were they traveling with? What is their level of experience in wilderness recreation? How do they comport themselves in danger? What is their age and general physical condition? Try to establish the hiker's geography, especially their last known position. If that's not available, the person may have left a description of their general route--in a wilderness register, for example, or with friends or relatives. Scout the immediate terrain and identify landscape features that might funnel travel. A good topographic map of the area is essential--for considering possible routes, organizing search operations and staying aware of one's own position.
Step 4
Don't just look for the hiker on the trail where they were last seen. The Mountain Rescue Association notes that disoriented individuals often resort to a few basic strategies. They may seek a promontory to scout the countryside--so check your topo map for likely high points. Scan also for paths and roads that the hiker might strike upon after straying from their route. Keep in mind that some individuals may shun trails and march cross-country, hoping to save time and intersect a more major thoroughfare. Identify and search the area's drainages. According to the MRA, most lost hikers head downhill--and it is generally true that following a stream down its course is often a viable last-resort method to reuniting with civilization (though it may take a long time).
Step 5
Look for standard emergency signals, which anyone recreating in wild country should learn. The universal notification of duress is the most basic: a series of three signals, as in flashes of light or whistle blasts. Employ this triplicate message while searching as well. Watch for the signs of fire--smoke during the day, flames at night--and for markings on the ground--lines of stone or wood, or dug trenches, for example, representing universal plane-signaling messages.
Step 6
Check in regularly with other search teams. Place instructions for the lost hiker at trail heads and other prominent locations in the vicinity in case they chance upon them.

Article Written By Ethan Schowalter-Hay

Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.

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