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A well-managed bushwalking group is unlikely to get lost.
The availability and convenience of GPS either on a mobile phone or handheld device is invaluable for resolving uncertainties about location.
Several mobile phones in the group should have offline copies of a map of the area of the trip (e.g. Google maps terrain view or similar app.) that can be used to determine location.
However, members of a group can sometimes get separated and then lost. This is potentially very serious, especially if the members are inexperienced, unfamiliar with the terrain and location and not carrying emergency communication equipment.
Major searches have resulted when people have become separated from their group.
How can group members get separated?
During the day’s walking
Leaders should be alert for the following factors which can lead to the group separating:
- The group is too spread out for the terrain, weather and conditions
- Indistinct tracks, e.g.:
- track enters an overgrown section
- track becomes ill defined
- track is intersected by animal pads (feral animals such as horses and goats create pads that look exactly like walking tracks)
- Fog or rain
- Someone takes a wrong turn at a track junction or change of direction
- Overconfidence in individual group members’ awareness of the terrain and ability to navigate independently
- Members leaving the track for a “side trip” for a view, photo or toilet break.
Missing members may not be noticed until the next rest spot.
What to do next depends greatly on the circumstances: the experience of the missing members, the capabilities of the group, the terrain, the weather and the time of day.
Lost from camp
While on the move, a well managed bushwalking group will have routines to ensure the group keeps together and everyone has their pack.
However, when in camp individuals or tent/food groups usually “do their own thing” including collecting water or firewood, going for a stroll to nearby viewpoints; photographing landscapes, wildflowers and the sunset, or taking a call of nature.
Any of these activities can result in a person getting lost.
People who leave the campsite on a short task or side trip won’t have their pack and may not have a map, compass, communication device, torch, warm clothes, shelter, matches, whistle or water.
Some people may not be familiar with the area and terrain and may have not paid much attention to the surroundings when coming to the camp.
Some campsites may have a “catching feature” such as a coastline, river track or ridge that makes it easy to find for those that wander off.
However, other campsites may not be so easy to find again.
Some examples of how people might get disoriented around campsites:
- Water may be further down the gully than expected or in a different gully
- Firewood may be distant
- Scrub might be thick
- The summit may be further than it looked, or a wildflower elusive
- Fog might roll in.
And soon it will be dark . . .
An absence might not be noticed for a while.
Once noticed, does anyone know where the person went?
“Let someone know before you go” may be overlooked when at campsites.
This can also happen to a solo walker leaving a campsite or their pack. There is no-one to look for them or to raise the alarm and they will be without some or all of their gear.
Avoid losing a group member when in camp
Actions that can be taken in camp to reduce the chance of someone wandering off and getting lost include (especially for less experienced members):
- Brief the group on the surrounding terrain (features, tracks, hazards etc.)
- Inform the group where water is available
For excursions from camp:
- Group members should advise others before leaving the camp area
- Consider going in a pairs
- Carry basic equipment, e.g. mobile phone, GPS, map and compass, whistle, matches, torch, water, jacket.
Avoid losing a group member while walking
A well-managed bushwalking group can minimise the likelihood of members separating from the group during the day’s walking by considering the following:
- Appropriate group size for the trip (planning)
- Brief the group on the day’s route and routines such as frequency of rest stops
- The group sets off together and stops to regroup at all track junctions, changes of direction, etc.
- Group members accept and are familiar with the pace of the group (determined by the slowest member)
- Group members stay reasonably together in keeping with terrain and conditions, monitoring behind as well as in front
- Group members respond to changing conditions, e.g. bunch up in fog, scrub, off track
- Group members know who is at the front and navigating and who the whip bringing up the rear is (for larger groups), at each stage.
When a group is uncertain of its position
Stop, bring the group together, have a rest and a snack, assess the situation and discuss what to do with other leaders and capable navigators in the group.
Steps to take:
- Align the map with north.
- Identify last known position on the map, and the time elapsed since the group was there.
- Calculate approximate distance travelled by estimating the group’s speed taking into account the terrain traversed.
- Determine approximate direction of travel since last known point.
- Note the shape of the land around and any surrounding features.
- Send a couple of experienced members to a nearby high point or open ground for a better perspective.
- In good visibility a compass back bearing taken off identifiable features will confirm location.
It should be possible to at least narrow down, and perhaps identify with certainty, the current location.
The section on navigation in difficult conditions also covers how to resolve uncertainty of location using map and compass.
These steps can be very difficult or impossible in poor visibility (fog, driving rain, whiteout) or in thick scrub. A GPS is invaluable in this situation, either on a mobile phone or handheld unit.
When someone gets lost
There are no hard and fast rules. How experienced is the missing person? What gear do they have with them? How far away are they likely to be? What were they doing? How large is the remainder of the group? Is the group capable of searching? Is it dark? Is weather a factor?
On many occasions the person thought to be missing may return without assistance after resolving the situation themselves.
However, a missing person may have had an accident, medical episode or other problem that prevents their return.
An emergency call should be made when it is apparent that a missing person is lost.
When you get lost
The following steps are important to discuss and emphasise with less experienced group members:
- Stop. Sit down and think.
- Prepare shelter if the weather is poor or nightfall is approaching, or you are too hot or cold and tired.
- Do you have a mobile phone? Try to contact the group. This may involve moving to higher ground to get reception. A text message may get through when a voice call will not. Can Google maps be used to determine your location?
- Think carefully about how the situation arose: Too far uphill? Too far downhill? Location of the campsite or the track: on a ridge or in a valley? Rough direction using the sun?
- Can you retrace your steps with a degree of confidence to a significant point such as the track you were supposed to be following or where you last saw the group? If so, mark your progress by leaving toilet paper squares, broken branches, scratches on the track surface, etc.
- Make noise. Blow a whistle (3 blasts) and/or call out three times at regular intervals.
Find shelter before you get too hot or cold and tired, or it gets dark
- Minimise movements to conserve energy
- Keep under shelter (e.g. in shade, out of the wind and rain, off snow)
- Mark the location of your shelter in some way (e.g. item of bright clothing or equipment).
- Light a fire if you have the means and it is safe to do so. Green leaves will create smoke.
- Listen carefully for voices, shouts, whistles, engine noises, etc.
- Give audible or visible distress signals – three consecutive signals regularly spaced and at regular intervals (e.g. shouts, whistles, flashes of a torch, waving bright clothing).
- Listen for searchers and respond to any calls.
NOTE: help may take some time to arrive.