How To Get Un-lost

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How To Get Un-lost

Words by Mr Tristan Gooley

3 June 2015

Stuck in the woods? Here’s how to use trees, clouds and even yoga to get back on the right path.

You’re lost – serious Hansel and Gretel, a witch-might-eat-you kind of lost. A nice long walk in a forest has turned into a not-so-nice very long walk and you’re in a jam that even your precious little iPhone 6 can’t get you out of. If you’re so digitally reliant that you have ventured forth without such olde worlde things as a map or compass, then there are plenty of other ways of using nature to navigate your way out of trouble.

When we get lost with no anchor point to focus on – such as a landmark in the distance – we naturally end up walking around in circles. The first thing to do is pause and make a plan. It is helpful, both practically and psychologically, as walking with purpose is a lot better for the mind than blind panic or self-defeatism. Your plan doesn’t need to be brilliant – simple is best. Here’s what to do…

Look at the lay of the land

The simplest way of holding direction is to think about gradients. Is your forest in a valley or on a hill? Did you walk up or down into the forest? Using the shape of the land around you can create a map out of nothing. This is how indigenous tribes, such as the Dayak in Borneo, find their way through the densest of jungles without any maps or instruments. If in doubt, head downhill consistently as this will often lead to a stream or river that you can then follow. Even if a river doesn’t lead to your home, nine times out of 10 it will lead to somebody else’s.

An exception to the downhill rule is that it is sometimes worth a short detour uphill if you can definitely see a spot that will offer a good view of your surroundings. (This is another trick the Dayak use – they will even shin up trees for a better view, but unless you are a seasoned climber, this could be a quick way to turn a problem into a crisis.)

Keep your head up

The sun rises in the eastern sky, sets in the western sky and in Europe, the US and anywhere else north of the tropics it is due south in the middle of the day. So your basic plan starts to look quite workable if the sun is out.

No sun? Look up through a gap in the canopy and see if you can tell which way the clouds are moving. Typically they will hold a consistent direction until there is a noticeable change in the weather. You can also read the wind from looking at the tops of the trees to identify the prevailing direction and prevent you walking aimlessly in ever-decreasing circles.

Read the trees

Trees can act as a map as well as a compass. They don’t like being blown down by storms and to prevent this they grow roots that are longer and thicker on the side that most winds come from (on the southwest side in northwestern Europe, for example). These “guy roots” can be seen without digging – notice how they spread out from the base of the trunk just above the ground. Some trees such as birches are “pioneer species”, and many people can recognise a silver birch. These species grow best in open spaces and are much more common at the edge of forests than in the middle of them. So if, after a long period of noticing the same type of tree, you suddenly notice them change and spot a few birches or other trees with relatively thin trunks, this is a good sign, because the chances are that you are nearing the edge. The number of lichens, variety of birdsong and amount of ivy also increase near the edges of forests.

Use deadwood to keep dead straight

When a storm rips through a forest it will fell a lot of trees. These trees are normally left to rot and it will take decades for them to decompose altogether. What this means is that every forest you walk through will be scattered with fallen trees mainly pointing in one direction – away from the direction that the storm’s wind blew from. (Across most of the UK, for example, there are millions of fallen trees in the woods that point close to northeast because, in 1987, there was a powerful storm that blew mainly from the southwest.) Even if you don’t know which way they are pointing, they will keep you on a straight path.

Blaze a trail

Once you’ve held a direction for a while, you’re likely to come across a path at some point. If it is heading at all close to the direction you want to go, then it is a good idea to follow it. When it reaches a junction, you will have to make a decision. It is worth studying the junction really carefully, as more often than not, you can tell from the marks and wear on the ground, which is the most popular direction that people take. This is most likely to be the direction of civilisation. Whichever plan you settle on and whichever methods you rely on most, it is a good idea to mark your route as you go. You can do this in lots of ways, but the most traditional is to mark the trees by cutting their bark or bending their smaller branches in a recognisable way. This can help you to retrace your steps if you need to, or quickly discover if you have accidentally gone in a circle. It can also help others to find you if they are searching for you.

What not to do

Avoid these wrong turns

Don’t panic. Have something to eat or drink: this will calm you. Do some breathing exercises. As ludicrous as it sounds, even a few yoga stretches can help. Some of the best plans come from slowing right down.

Don’t let yourself get too cold. Avoid getting wet unnecessarily or letting yourself get overexposed. (Can you take shelter from a rain shower? Do you really need to wade through that stream?) Cold is the most likely thing to turn this small problem into a major one.

Don’t run. Unless there is a forest fire singeing your nostril hairs, running is not a good idea. It is more likely to lead to you making stupid decisions and increases the likelihood of an injury.

Don’t follow animal trails. You can tell animal trails from human paths by the presence of droppings at intervals. Unless you know exactly what you are tracking and why, these trails are not worth following.

Don’t take unnecessary risks. Even if your plan is to head downhill, that big jump down from a rocky ledge is not an essential part of that plan. Mr Bear Grylls has a TV crew, trained medic and satellite phone as support – you don’t.

Don’t get down. Ignore the voice that says the situation is hopeless (the one in your head, or a friend’s). You can last a few days without water and several more without food, so if you avoid crazy risks and keep warm enough, you’ve got a long time to solve the problem.

Illustrations by Mr Nick Hardcastle