Summit Safety

What To Do If You Find Yourself Lost In The Mountains

Man and woman happy couple hikers trekking in yellow autumn woods and mountains. Young people walking on trek trail with backpacks healthy lifestyle adventure camping on hiking trip Poland.

In the beautiful Heber Valley, we have the good fortune of looking out the door and viewing some of the greatest mountains in our part of the state. Looking southwest, we can see the great Mount Timpanogos, named for a Ute princess who fell asleep on top of the range. Looking west up the Snake Creek drainage, we can see the white rocks that make up the backside of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. And to the east, we’ll find the behemoth mountains of the Uintas.

Living in this illdylic valley of ours, we have all heard the call of the mountains. When they beckon, we happily heed their call.

Worse Case Scenario

Imagine this scenario: You and a friend make a plan to hike some new trails and head out with a general idea of where you’re going. You’ve been on the trail for a few hours and the wide path you were on has consistently narrowed – then suddenly disappears. You struggle to connect the landmarks around you to those on your map. After trying to retrace your steps, you realize that you’re on a maze of game trails. It is now 7:30 p.m. and you were expected home two hours ago.

You believe the trail is about two miles back up the hill but you aren’t certain. It’s fall and the sun will set soon. The air is getting cooler and the evening lows will hover around 40° F. With no idea where you are, you try to make a phone call but have no service.

At this point, you realize you may be spending the night in the woods under the starry skies of the Wasatch Back. And you’re completely unprepared.

Have a Plan and Stick to It

It’s easy to feel comfortable hiking new terrain in the surrounding mountains – it feels familiar because we see it every day from our homes and as we go about our daily lives in the Heber Valley. Once you’re out there, though, and the terrain takes on new shapes, pitches or unpredictable conditions, you may not recognize where you are. That is why route planning is so critical when it comes to safely exploring the outdoors.

In your plan, you should always include a specific trail or series of trails, expected start and finish times, where your vehicle will be parked and any other details that can help pinpoint your location if necessary. This information should be left with a responsible party who will not be with you on the trail. Also, never leave home without a map of the area and a compass – or even a portable GPS, if you have one.

Ultimately, detailed plans create a foundation for Search and Rescue, giving them a place to start if you’re in need of saving.

Don’t Panic

Kam Kohler, the captain of Wasatch County Search and Rescue, says that the main reason hikers get into trouble and are found so far off trail is because they panic. In a frantic attempt to find their way back to the trail, distoriented hikers inadvertently wander further from it.

So, what should you do if you find yourself in a rescue situation? Sit down and hug a tree.

Kholer’s advice may seem strange at first, but it makes perfect sense. By sitting down and hugging a tree, you immobilize your feet, preventing you from wandering further. It also gives you time to take a deep breath and calm yourself enough to think clearly.

Once you’ve collected yourself, you should make an assessment of your surroundings. What you see? What can you hear? Are there any visual or auditory markers that will help lead you to safety? For example, do you see smoke from a fire or hear a generator from a nearby camper? Can you hear any nearby hikers or see trail signs you may have missed? These types of observations are impossible to make or process if you are in a state of panic.

As day turns into night, you will want to seek shelter. Before you tuck yourself away, however, it’s important to leave an obvious sign of your presence out in the open. This can greatly help searchers find you when they comb the area.

Moral of the story? If you have no idea where you are and no indication of how to return to safety, it’s best to stay put and remain calm. If you planned your trip and shared that information with a friend or family member, Search and Rescue Units will find you – it’s what they’re trained to do.