Don’t lose yourself in backcountry

Be prepared before leaving home, know what to do if you get lost

The weather is warming and people are starting to put away their snow gear and get out their hiking boots and packs. But that also means someone might get lost while going for a day hike or on a camping trip.

Search-and-rescue teams across the state perform 1,500 missions every year, said Joe Carter, regional assistant with the Department of Local Affairs.

Common mistakes

Hikers, mountain bikers and campers often make the mistake of not telling someone where they are going and don’t have good knowledge of the area where they are going, said Butch Knowlton, director of the La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management.

In many cases, people don’t know their friend or co-worker is lost or missing until they fail to show up for work. That’s why it is important to tell someone where you are going, where you’ll be parked and exactly what time you’ll be home, Knowlton said.

This also limits the area search-and-rescue teams have to comb through looking for lost hikers. If a person didn’t tell anyone where he or she was going, the search starts by finding the missing person’s car and trying to limit the possible areas the lost hiker is in.

Panicking is the biggest mistake people make when they realize they are lost, said MK Thompson, conservation education assistant at the San Juan Mountains Association.

If hikers lose the trail, they typically start wandering trying to find the trail, and they become only more disoriented, she said.

“The experts say if you are really lost, you should stay put and focus more on keeping yourself healthy, especially if you did tell somebody where you are,” Thompson said. “Someone is going to come find you, so better to not make yourself more lost.”

Tips for survival

The first thing a lost hiker should look for is shelter.

It needs to be as close to a natural shelter as possible, so energy isn’t wasted, Thompson said, and it won’t need to be very big, so body heat won’t be lost heating up the space.

Ideally, the shelter will be in an open space so a search-and-rescue team can find the lost hiker. Also, the shelter should be close to a water source, but not directly next to raging water, so the hiker can hear rescuers.

Large trees, like spruce, make a good shelter against the rain because the branches give protection against the moisture, Knowlton said.

Humans can live for about three weeks without food, but only three days without water, so getting water is the second priority.

Frosty Pines, a nonprofit wilderness-education group, hosts a Lost in the Woods class to teach kids and teenagers all of this and more. The kids learn how to use a map and compass, navigate using the stars and how to filter water and start a fire. They also learn about the dangers of animals in Southwest Colorado.

“We did an exercise that this is our home. It may not have four walls and a television and be cozy and warm all the time, but it is our home,” said Marcie Morgan, executive director of Frosty Pines. “If we can get across to them that the wilderness is their home, they won’t feel so lost.”

Frosty Pines will offer an advanced class for adults at the end of July.

Take precautions

Many hikers carry personal-locator devices, such as the one manufactured by SPOT, a firm that makes emergency-notification devices. The device allows a hiker to check in with family and track his or her progress. By activating a feature, it sends a GPS location to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center, which alerts authorities worldwide when emergency-notification devices are used and gives a location for the device.

Other hikers carry satellite phones, which connect to orbiting satellites rather than cell towers.

Knowlton recommends everyone buy a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card.

A card costs $3 for one year and $12 for five years, and revenue from the fees goes to the Search and Rescue Fund. If a hiker has the state’s search-and-rescue card, agencies involved in a search can seek reimbursement for their costs.

Those who have purchased a hunting or fishing license, or who have registered their boat, snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle are also covered by the fund.

Carter warns the card is not insurance, though, and will not reimburse individuals for medical transport.

A person who may need to be rescued by search-and-rescue crews is not charged unless he or she require medical transport, but rescues can be expensive for agencies.

Aircraft are used during most rescues in La Plata County, and they cost $1,200 an hour, Knowlton said.

A Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card can be purchased online at or at participating vendors. The state’s website has a list of those vendors.

Comments » Read and share your thoughts on this story