Your hiking with a group of friends in the forest. Around 11am, Suzie wants to stop for a bathroom break. No body complains as it is a welcome break, just a fast 5 minute one. She drops her pack, takes out a zip-lock bag with TP and hand-sanitizer and hastily makes her way back down the trail the way you came, and disappears out of sight to do her business.
The rest of your group also drop their packs, pull out snacks, have a drink and take a seat.
Some time passes, and some members start to look at their watch. No one says anything as Suzie didn't mention whether she was going #1, or #2. If she was going #2; perhaps the 3 days of freeze-dried food have been bothering her digestive system, as it has been making your stomach gurgle a little too. She is also the type to take her time, as her previous breaks have been slightly longer than other group members.
Conversation breaks out, and time flies. After around 30 mins, you being the more conservative group member speak up and ask; "Perhaps we should go and see if Suzie is OK?"
Another girl in the group agrees to go in the direction of Suzie to ask her how she's doing. As you guessed, there's no trace of Suzie.
What could have happened to Suzie? What do we do now? How can we find her?
A very real back country scenario!
More often than not, those that become lost while hiking with a group tend to go missing during bathroom breaks, or other tasks that separate them from the group, and become disorientated. I myself recently experienced this when hiking at the rear with a group of guiding students in the Panamanian Jungle. The group took off down the trail, leaving myself and another student behind. We came to a fork in the trail with no sign of which way they went. We stayed put, and waited roughly 30 mins for the group to return for us. Had we have tried to close that gap, there would have been a 50% chance we went down the wrong trail, which could have turned the 30 mins into a much, much longer time frame. Never-the-less, the situation was quickly taken advantage of and turned into a lost person scenario, with an end resulting in guide trainees learning first hand the importance of pace, and keeping track of each person in the group regularly.
Right - back on track....
Here's where the 'three P's' come in - The most important aspect of any potential missing person scenario: Proper Prior Planning - Establishing protocol for what to do if you get separated from the group, making sure that each person understands what to do and what will happen. Generally this comes in the form of having a whistle (Fox40 whistles are best), and staying put while making as much noise as you can with your whistle (3 short blasts indicate distress, followed by a few seconds of silence to hear any reply).
Had Suzie have done so, it really wouldn't matter how she managed to go missing as by just staying put and blowing a whistle will greatly improve her chances of being found very early on. In this case; most likely when our female group member went out to see how she was doing.
In most cases where Ground Search and Rescue are called in, the missing person typically has become frantic at the realization of being lost or left behind and begun charging through the forest hoping to make it to safety. Those that have been lost can agree that this irrational frantic feeling is quite distressing, to say the least. In the interest of actually making it to safety or being found it is incredibly detrimental, though.
So, back to the group. At this point (remember, one went to look and came back with no trace of Suzie), the group now needs to plan their next steps as a team.
Point of importance: Getting to know each others abilities, habits, skill-sets and such make a huge difference here, along with taking note of what time of the year it is and time of day. In other words: How long do we have to find her before it gets dark and she freezes (potentially to death), and what does she have on her person to improve her situation, along with how competent she is at using them (survival skills).
The first thing the group is going to do, is take note of just that: Season, time of day, notes on Suzie and what she was wearing, and what she had with her. This is vital, as it gives us an idea of things to look for (in an organized fashion) had she have dropped anything, and an idea of how prepared she is to be on her own for a while, which in turn will dictate how long we have to locate her.
The next step is to establish a time that Suzie went missing. In this case, it would be when she went out of sight down the trail (11am). By having a start time, we can now work out how far we should actually be searching.
Note of importance: If temperatures are colder and its later in the day, waste no time in calling for help! Chances are, the search team will not begin searching until first thing the next morning, if they can reach you that quickly. Should you wait until morning to call for help, the search team will not begin searching until midday, or later. It takes them time to mobilize and arrive on scene, and temperatures plummet at night. People tend to stop moving and stay put at night, which puts them at a higher risk of becoming hypothermic. Remember: In Canada, hypothermia can easily happen in Summer too! If your unsure - call for help!
Work out our Search Area...
The average person can walk 4km/hr through the forest on flat ground. If walking up a steep hill, the distance is cut in half.
(Take note of the distance you are travelling when hiking, as 4km/hr is an average speed and may not be the same as your hiking speed)
By applying the Speed X Time = Distance calculation using the time we established that Suzie has been missing (in this case we will say 30 mins - a nice round figure to keep it simple), we can establish an area in which to start looking.
Note: Even though we established with Suzie before departure that our protocol is to stay put and blow our Fox40 whistles, we must always assume that she has not followed this protocol - We don't know what frame of mind she is in; perhaps she had a bump on the head and is disorientated.
So on our topographic map (yes, we are prepared hikers - right?!) we can now draw a circle around the point that Suzie was last seen with a radius of 2km ( 4km/hr X 30mins = 2km ).
Note: If you are hiking through a deep valley, the circle would look more like an oval, as the distance traveled would be much less uphill, compared to up or down the valley. (Please also remember that the circle continuously grows as time passes - try to be quick with your calculations!)
Now, our established circle we drew on our topo map has an area of roughly 12.6km² which is huge, and it would be nice to narrow it down as much as we can (We will call the 'circle' our 'search area' from here). Look for any natural barriers within the search area such as lakes, rivers, cliffs rock formations etc that are likely to prevent Suzie from continuing in any given direction, and omit these areas from the search area.
Next, locate on our map the areas and features within our search area that Suzie is most likely to have traveled on or to, such as trails, observation points, campsites, known game trails, roads, rivers and lake edges (people are naturally attracted to bodies of water when lost) etc., as these will be the first places we begin looking for her, prioritized by the most obvious first. This is called a 'Hasty Search.' Note: If the search area is too big for you to realistically manage quickly and safely - call for help!
Before we split up and start looking, it is very important thatno one goes searching alone, that someone remains behind at the point the search begins at, and that each group going out knows exactly where they are searching to, andknow what time they must be back to the start point. It is a good idea that each group knows where every other group is searching, too. Do not send people out searching that cannot competently do so!
Note: When searching, remember to take your time, looking for clues that a person may have left (foot prints, broken foliage, dropped items etc). Take care to look either size of the trail as it is likely the person is close to the trail. In this case, Suzie went off to the side of the trail to do her business, and probably became disorientated.
The person(s) remaining behind are to set up camp (which will now become base camp for our group), and prepare for a potentially hypothermic and/or injured Suzie to return, along with thirsty and hungry searchers wanting a warm drink and a meal - Teamwork is key to efficient searching. Setting up camp also gives the person(s) remaining behind purpose, and prevents them from wandering. It is also very important that the person(s) remaining behind knows where each search group is going, and has the communication equipment with them. Should search teams not be back by designated times, base camp can now call for help.
So to reiterate: We have search teams (in groups of two or more) looking along the most obvious points of travel, out as far as the boundary of our search area. We also have a base camp being set up with preparations being made for a potentially injured Suzie, and hungry searchers.
Lastly, should Suzie not be located within the search area during your hasty search, on the most obvious routes of travel (or very close to them) - Call for help, if you haven't already. There is no reason why you could not be looking for her while you are waiting for Search and Rescue to reach you. If you locate her while they are on their way, they will be happy she is safe and sound. Searchers love happy outcomes! If you have any reason to doubt your ability to find your missing person quickly, before nightfall and in good health - Call for help first!
Our story with Suzie had a happy ending: When she finished her business to one side of the trail, she made a very common mistake of turning the wrong way, and started heading away from our group instead of towards us. When leaving the trail, it is wise to scratch into the ground (or make an arrow with sticks) the direction you need to travel in order to get back to the group...
Photographs: Ukaliq Wilderness, Ryerson Clark - www.ryersonclark.com