How to avoid getting lost in the wilderness

Posted: Thursday, August 02, 2001

Most people who get lost around Juneau aren't far from home. They just did something stupid in our big backyard. "Primarily it's local people," said Bruce Bowler, head of Southeast Alaska Dogs for Organized Ground Search (SEADOGS). "The conventional wisdom says it's all those tourists going up there, but if you look at the statistics the greatest majority of search and rescues are locals who get complacent."

Occasionally someone gets injured, but more often they just get lost, Bowler said. He'd like to tell Juneau residents to stay on the trails and standard routes, "but people aren't going to do that. They're adventuresome," Bowler said.

Even if they did, Juneau trails are sometimes little more than routes and the routes are barely marked. When the clouds come and hide the peaks there may be nothing to show the way down, said Steve Lewis, director of Juneau Mountain Rescue.

"A lot of people don't think they can get lost around here," Lewis said. "It's really easy to drop over the back side (of a mountain) when you don't have the references you think you're going to have."

Bowler keeps track of where and when most of the searches occur in Juneau.

"It's primarily where the trails are, Eaglescrest, North Douglas," Bowler said. "We used to say that the summer and fall was the most active time, because of hunters and such like that. That's proven to not be the case, because of people who go hiking in the spring time, when the sun comes out."

People also get stuck in the mountains behind Juneau, especially around the Perseverance and Granite Creek basins, Lewis said. They can see Juneau, but don't know how to get down.

Most searches could be prevented, if people took more care before going into the woods, the searchers agreed.

"The main reason is often times foolishness and people being unprepared," said Boyce Bingham, Civil Air Patrol commander for Juneau. "We take our environment very much for granted and in doing so we put ourselves at risk."

Take a friend

The biggest mistake is going alone, or separating in the woods. Often two hunters start out together, then decide to take different routes.

"They'll say 'Well I'm going to go over there and we'll meet,'" said Trooper Chris Umbs said. "It never works out that way."

Instead, one hunter gets hurt or turned around. He doesn't make it to the meeting spot and the searchers are called in.

"If you're going to hunt together, stay together," Umbs said. "That way if you do get hurt your hunting partner can go back and get help and he knows where you are."

Two heads really are better than one in the woods, "and they are warmer," Bowler said. About 90 percent of the searches are for people who went out alone, he said.

"If you've got somebody with you it's so much easier to make the right decision, to cuddle up with somebody to keep warm at night, to keep from taking a shortcut over a cliff," Bowler said. "We don't tend to panic when we're with someone."

Tell somebody

Almost as important as taking a buddy is leaving somebody behind, somebody who knows where you're going and when to worry if you don't come back. Otherwise, nobody will know to start looking.

"We're very lucky with Josh (Shrader) that he'd e-mailed a friend and said 'I'm going to go up Mt. Roberts trail and come back out Sheep Creek,'" Bowler said. Otherwise the searchers wouldn't have known where to start.

"Juneau's a big area," Umbs said. "The state won't invest its time until we know a direction you headed."

Both the Alaska State Troopers and the Juneau Police Department have forms people can fill out before going into the backcountry. The forms can also be printed from or picked up at one of the outdoor stores in town and left with a friend.

Just remember to call when you get back or if plans change. Otherwise you might be enjoying a post-hike dinner while the searchers are looking for you.

"A lot of times people get back and they'll forget to call and say, 'Oh, I'm back,'" Umbs said.

Stay in touch

Communication is as important in the backwoods as it is in relationships. Being able to contact or signal searchers makes it easier for them to find you.

A VHF radio is most reliable, but cell phones are becoming more common. There's some disagreement among the search and rescue forces about cell phones. Lewis and Umbs warn that cell phones, and even some radios, are useless on the backsides of the mountains.

"Cell phones are really bad here because coverage goes in and out," Umbs said. "All throughout Juneau, cell phone is terrible."

But Bingham and Bowler have rescued people who were able to call in their coordinates on a cell phone. Three years ago a hunter called for a helicopter after being mauled by a bear on Admiralty Island, Bingham said. Just last summer a woman called after getting stuck above Amalga Harbor. A helicopter was able to pick her up within 20 minutes, Bowler said.

"That's the kind of search and rescue we really like," Bowler said. "If Josh (Shrader) had had his cell phone with him, he could have just called and we could come get him."

Even with a cell phone, it's good to have a backup. Lewis carries multiple signaling devices - smoke bombs, hand flares and a radio. Lost hikers can also make passive signals by writing "HELP" or "SOS" in the snow or on the beach in large letters with a highly contrasting material, he said.

Lewis also recommends leaving clues when you're lost, or getting there. Search crews generally follow a trail of litter to find lost hikers.

"We'll find the cigarette butts on the ground. We'll find the candy wrappers, so when you're lost, pull the stops out," Lewis said. "It's not the time to be clean."

Some hikers carry electrical tape to tie on rocks and branches, marking their route, said Bingham. That way they can retrace their steps, or searchers can find them.

People who are getting confused or lost should also stop and give searchers a chance to catch up, Lewis said.

"When they are getting lost, don't get yourself more lost," Lewis said. "Sit down until you know you're going the right direction."

Find yourself

Of course, if you knew the right direction, you wouldn't be lost. And if you had a topographical map, compass and Global Positioning System, you'd probably know the right direction.

GPS have their good and bad sides. Sometimes people go out with a GPS and get lost because they don't know how to use it or can't read a map. A woman lost above Amalga Harbor last summer had a GPS with her, but didn't know how to use the track back function to retrace her route, Bowler said. Most maps don't even have latitude and longitude lines, so they are difficult to coordinate with the GPS, Lewis said. He recommends the newest topographical map of Juneau, which does include lat/long lines. The map, called the Juneau Area Trails Guide, is available from the Forest Service for $10.

On the other hand, if you know how to use a GPS it tells you exactly where you are and where you've been, said Bowler, who makes all his searchers carry one.

Dress for success

Bowler also tells his searchers what to wear, or rather, what not to wear.

"Cotton should be forgotten," he said, reciting the phrase like a mantra.

Cotton cools people off and holds moisture, leaving them dangerously cold.

"Cotton is responsible for more lives lost than any other factor," Bowler said. "The polypropylenes, the wool, the high tech fabric, that will keep you warm even when your wet."

He'd like people to also bypass camouflage clothing, which is not only made out of cotton, but also makes it difficult for searchers to spot people lost in the woods.

"We encourage people to wear something bright and colorful," Bowler said.

Dallas Hauckkwas also wearing camouflage clothing when he went hunting near Eaglecrest. The temperatures were in the high 40s with no snow, not a bad day in Southeast, Bowler said. Hauck put on thermal long johns for insulation, but they were the waffle-knit long-johns made of cotton "which are useless," Bowler said.

When the SEAdogs found Hauck he was dead of hypothermia, laying face down in a creek. Bowler said Hauck likely got so cold he had the illusion of being too warm and stepped into the creek to cool off. He'd taken off his coat and hat.

"It's classic hypothermia, you get so cold you stop shivering," Bowler said. "The body starts shutting down and pooling the blood in the center of the body, so you lose feeling in your fingers and toes. You actually stop feeling the cold and it feels the opposite. You figure you're warm."

The search and rescue volunteers dress in polypropylene, wool and Gore-tex. They layer on Helly Hansens or wind pants.

"They don't look real pretty, but they're going to be able to spend the night out there if they need to," Bowler said.

Be prepared

Most people who get lost spend at least one night in the woods before they're found, Umbs said. Usually people aren't reported missing until it is nearly dark. By then the small planes can't fly and the searchers can't look, so the search is delayed until morning, Umbs said. He recommends always carrying enough to spend a night safely, if not comfortably, in the woods.

Have matches, a space blanket that folds to the size of your hand, high-energy food, and water, Umbs said. Road flares make good firestarter, and a signal for searchers, Umbs said. Dryer lint also burns well.

All of the search and rescue volunteers carry a small first aid kit, compass, a good knife, wilderness aerial flares, a space blanket, and fire starter.

"We can't keep things from happening to us, we can't predict when the engine will fail," Bingham said, "but we can predict the outcome with the old boyscout motto - be prepared."

Kristan Hutchison can be reached at

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