North America’s National Parks, forests and wilderness areas are popular tourist destinations for tens-of-millions of visitors each year.

For many, these trips are simply an opportunity to get closer to nature — but an unlucky few find themselves stuck after straying away from the trail, enduring poor weather conditions, or becoming injured.

To understand more about how hikers survived such dangerous situations and ultimately made it out alive, SmokyMountains.com analyzed over 100 news reports to discover how survivors got lost in the first place; if and how they found warmth, shelter, food, and water; whether they stayed put or kept moving; and whether they found their own way out or were rescued.

The most common way that hikers got lost was by wandering off the trail (41%). In 17% of cases, bad weather was to blame, while 16% of news reports analysed cited falling off the trail as the cause.

Smoky Mountains National Park

How Hikers Get Lost

Reason for getting lost

% that got lost this way

Wandered off trail

41%

Bad weather

17%

Fell off trail

16%

Got separated from group

8%

Injury

7%

Darkness

6%

Loss or failure of equipment

5%

Other

1%

In order to stay warm, 12% relied on clothes, while 10% built fires and a further 10% used camping gear. Other methods of keeping warm that were named included the body heat of fellow hikers (inc. dogs), hikers covering themselves, exercise and digging in.

For shelter, 11% of survivors used camping gear. Some 9% were able to discover caves and other existing shelters, while 8% took shelter beneath trees. A selection of other shelters were named, such as self-made caves and shelters, and taking shelter in rocks, inside fallen trees and in the ground.

In order to stay hydrated, survivors needed a reliable source of water. Almost a quarter found a natural body of water (24%), 16% used snow, rain or puddles and 13% rationed their own water (13%). Other sources of water that were named included drinking urine, going without water or licking leaves, moss and grass for hydration.

Survivors also needed to find food. Over a third were able to ration their own supplies (35%), 17% went without food entirely, and 9% ate berries and fruit. A number of hikers also ate plants and insects, while others foraged and hunted for food.

To find a way back to safety, survivors were faced with an important decision: whether they should stay put and wait to be rescued, or if they should keep moving in order to find their own way out. The research found that two thirds decided to keep moving (65%), while just a third chose to stay put (35%).

And when it came to making it out, just under a quarter found a way out themselves (23%) and the remaining 77% were rescued.

Andrew Herrington, a survival instructor, search and rescue team leader, and Wildlife Ranger in the Smokies, shared his top hiking advice with SmokyMountains.com:

Preparation

  1. Carry the Ten Essentials

  2. Leave a trip plan and check in time with two trusted people

  1. Study your maps and identify a “bailout” direction in the area you’re exploring

  2. Check the weather forecast (including overnight in case you’re forced to stay out)

  3. Always use high quality clothing: Merino or synthetic base layers, mid layers, synthetic or dri-down puffy jackets and Gore-Tex shells

  4. Practice lightweight tarp shelter building at home

  5. Print off free maps at sartopo.com

  6. Download a backup GPS app, like Avenza

  7. Practice firemaking and carry the gear (including petroleum jelly soaked cotton balls and fatwood sticks)

  8. Look into Personal Locator Beacons and Satellite Messengers for cutting edge signalling options

Avoid getting lost

  • Identify features on the ground and find them on the map as you go

  • If you’re off-trail, work out how to reach a linear trail, road or creek

  • If you’re unsure of your location, start breaking branches in the direction you’re travelling, or skin a 6 inch cut on a sapling with your knife. The inner bark shows white and is easy to follow

Stay warm

  • Avoid sweating into your clothes in cold weather

  • Stay cool when you’re active and warm at rest

  • Monitor for hypothermia signals in the group

  • Warm up with sugary foods, exercise, or a big fire

Shelter

  • Use your tarp, puffy jacket and quilt to create a warm cozy shelter

  • Keep a 55 gallon trash bag in your pocket in case you’re separated from your pack

  • If you have no other option, build a lean-to shelter (framework of sticks, covered with leaf litter, evergreen branches, or bark – whichever is most available) and heat it with a 6 foot long fire

  • Build a bed out of leaves, grass, or pine needles, at least 8 inches thick

Water

  • Use a lightweight filter, Chlorine dioxide tablets, or a steel canteen to boil and purify water

  • In the worst case scenario, just drink the water – statistically in the US, you will be rescued within 24 hours – death from dehydration is a bigger risk than infection

Food

  • Pack high calorie foods like almond butter and coconut oil packs

  • If you have no food, don’t try to hunt, trap, or forage – it just exposes you to potential injury

  • Instead, fast: the average person has over 30 days of calories to survive on

  • Prioritise building a camp, staying warm, and hydrated

Move or stay put?

  • If you left a trip plan and someone knows you are missing, or if you’re stranded in a vehicle or on a trail, old road, or creek – stay where you are

  • Consider “self-rescue” if you didn’t tell anybody where you were going, and have no way to signal

  • Navigate to an open area, high ground for cell signal, or your “bailout” direction, leaving a trail as you go

Getting rescued

  • Use brightly colored tarps and clothing

  • Call 911 on your cell phone, even if you don’t have service. By law, any tower that you can connect with will transmit that call

  • Use signal mirrors or three blasts on your whistle to attract attention

  • Add green plants to your fire to create a smoke signal

  • Movement and contrast are the key to being seen if you hear a rescue plane or helicopter

    Expert Andrew Herrington Photo Vicke Cheung

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