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Lost in the Wild by Dan Aspel

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Lost in the Wild by Dan Aspel

Of all the things to fear from the outdoors - which include (but aren’t limited to) falling off things, getting struck by lightning, being attacked by unfriendly animals and freezing to death - it’s getting lost that’s one of the most intimidating. That might be because of the possibility of it leading to… falling off things, being struck by lightning, being attacked by unfriendly animals and freezing to death (and more). Essentially, if you don’t know where you are and you can’t get back from the wilderness and into the relative safety of a car or cafe or warm, cosy inn, you’re going to be spending an unspecified amount of time in a potentially hazardous environment. Usually in the dark. And that’s a bad thing. Particularly if you’re not properly prepared.

So let’s imagine you’re out in the British hills and wilds and you’ve suddenly realised, with a clenching of the gut, a panicky feeling in the chest and possibly even a biting of the lower lip, that you’re lost. Hopelessly, utterly lost. What do you do?

Beware ‘social proof’. There are footprints leading this way… but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe or sensible to follow.

Let’s start with the obvious point: we’re going to assume you don’t have a GPS device. And that’s actually quite a big assumption in 2016, because the chances are that actually you do. And I’m not talking about a chunky, military-grade, bespoke navigation unit. I mean your smartphone. That’s because every modern mobile with an unimpeded view of the sky, especially when combined with pay-on-demand mapping apps such as Viewranger, can give you extremely accurate location data. Even basic, free apps such as the excellent OS Locate can give you an immediate grid reference for emergency relocation.

But let’s make that assumption: you either have no such devices with you, their batteries are dead (a modern scourge only solvable by carrying spare power packs), or you avoid GPS systems altogether because you fear potentially being tracked and monitored by the US government (I won’t ask your reasons, it’s a free country).

A compass is an absolute necessity on any trip to the hills. Following a bearing could save your life.

The first thing you want to do is this: calm down. Just continuing on blindly in an unknown direction is highly likely to make the problem worse - particularly in sheer, mountainous terrain. Yes, you may have lost your original route, but remaining calm will give you your best chance of finding your way back to civilisation. Then, whether you’re in a group or not, just start saying out loud what you can see. This may feel silly, but it will force you to focus on the surrounding area, and not on your map. You’re trying to collect data and then find it on the map*, not find where you hope you are on the map and selectively notice features in the landscape that support the theory.

*(by the way, I’m assuming you have a map with you. You really, really, really should always take a map and compass with you. Ordnance Survey and Harvey Maps are the best place to look for these).

Planning any trip to the outdoors is the first step to avoid being lost. If you know your route, have informed a friend of your plans and timings and are carrying the right navigation tools you stand an excellent chance of either making it back at the end of the day, or attracting the right help as soon as it’s needed.

Once you’ve armed yourself with this knowledge, here are some key questions to ask yourself:

  • How much time has passed since I last knew where I was?
  • At that point was I certain of my location?
  • Can I see any linear features such as walls or streams, particularly those with dramatic and sudden changes of direction, from which I could take an obvious compass bearing and compare it to my map?
  • Am I on an obvious slope? Which direction is it heading?
  • Can I explore the area around my current location without becoming further lost or wandering onto any potentially dangerous terrain?

If none of these techniques prove fruitful, you’re anxious that physical harm is a real possibility, and you have a working phone (which is why a spare, non-smart phone like a trusty old Nokia 3210 or something equally archaic is worth carrying into remote places) then the last resort is to call mountain rescue. To do so, dial 999 and ask for the police, then ask for mountain rescue. You may have noticed your phone saying “emergency calls only” when it’s not registering any reception. That’s because although you’re out of reach of your particular provider, the phone is still able to detect and use alternative networks for emergency situations. And even if you’re calling from a non-GPS-equipped phone Mountain Rescue will be able to triangulate your position based on your location relative to the signal towers being used to make the call. It’s an expensive process, but one that may just save your life.

When night is falling and you’re unsure of your location, a headtorch is an essential tool.

There are, of course, many excellent solo and group techniques used to explore unfamiliar terrain - especially in poor visibility caused by cloud, fog or lack of available light. These include using ‘resection’ to find your location relative to two visible, established landmarks, and probing into nearby land via ‘spiral’ and ‘sweep’ searches. If you’d like to learn more about them I’d highly recommend going on a Mountain Training approved navigation course or buying this book. If you intend to visit areas in which becoming lost is a real possibility, then forearming yourself with this knowledge is a true necessity.

Oh, and one final point that I’d long wondered about until I discovered the nasty truth…

… absolutely, positively never drink your own urine to survive....

… but do consider buying a Lifesystems torch, headtorch or emergency strobe in case you’re benighted in the wild. That’s a much more sensible idea.

Stay safe out there.


Dan Aspel is a journalist and Mountain Leader. You can find him at

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