For many of us, hiking and spending time in the mountains is a great activity to relax, exercise, and enjoy the great outdoors. Having a problem and getting lost is not something we hope to experience, but it raises an important question, “What do I do when I think I might be lost in the backcountry?“
The acronym STOP is commonly used to guide your decision making in the first key moments when you realize you may be lost.
The “S” is for STOP. Don’t continue to hike if you are not sure where you are or where you need to go. Continuing to move will make it difficult to find you, increase your chances of injury, fatigue, and stress levels, and decrease your ability to think critically. Do not keep moving unless it is necessary.
This is the time to engage your brain and THINK (the “T” in STOP). Self-care is of primary importance. Have a snack and hydrate. Hypothermia can occur in 50°F temperatures so we recommend adding a layer.
“O” is for OBSERVE. Stay calm. Take stock of your situation. What landmarks are visible? Are you still on the trail? Are weather or trail conditions deteriorating? Is it close to sunset?
All of your observations serve as inputs into the next step, “P” or PLAN. Take an inventory of your supplies. Are you equipped for potentially spending a night out? Do you need to find shelter or get out of a location where you may be at risk of injury? Do you have an emergency signaling device like a PLB or 2-way satellite messenger device? If yes, your best option may be to trigger the emergency signaling device, find a safe location, and wait for assistance.
While many people carry satellite messenger devices, almost everyone is carrying a cell phone. Is your phone with you and is it charged? How much battery life does it have? Do not waste battery power on flashlight use. Instead, save it for communication. Even if you do not have cell signal, dialing or texting 911 may help initiate rescue by allowing Search and Rescue to triangulate your position within a mile or two, which narrows the search effort considerably.
Report the following when you make your 911 call:
– Any relevant medical condition or injury you may have
– Where you parked your car and its description
– What time of day you started and how long you’ve been moving
– The direction you took from the car, trail signs, and your hiking objective
– Describe yourself: age, height, weight, what you’re wearing, and what equipment you have with you. Search and Rescue personnel are trained in searching and tracking, so describe your footwear and size.
You may feel reluctant to dial 911, but reaching out early, before the weather turns nasty or run out of daylight, is the smart thing to do. Limit phone use to emergency personnel only and ask them to use text to save battery power. Turn on “location” information on your phone, take a photo, and try to send it out so we can grab the GPS coordinates encoded in it. Do not use Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat, or any other app that will time out.
If you hear shouts, answer them. If you have a whistle, use it. If you’re carrying a backpack, check the sternum strap, as most packs have an incorporated whistle. Three whistle blasts is the universal distress signal.
If you hear a helicopter approaching, gather your belongings quickly and make yourself noticeable by standing in the open, waving your jacket or colorful clothing item, or flashing a reflective object such as a mirror. Wear your sunglasses to protect your eyes from debris kicked up by helicopter rotor wash.
After the rescue, ask Search and Rescue personnel about what you could have done better, and avoid any future rescues with good preparation!