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Get lost? Okay, where?
November 20, 2007 9:42 PM   Subscribe

Just how lost could someone get in the lower 48 states?

Assuming it's Summer, could someone conceivably get so lost, somewhere in the lower 48, that they could wander around until they perished? It doesn't count if they die of cold or heat, and let's assume they can find water.

I did some googling, and found there's an area just outside of Yellowstone that is considered the most remote spot in the US (besides Alaska) from a distance-from-roads perspective, but I'm having trouble finding out more about that.

An addendum to the question: assuming you started at point "x", and traveled in a straight line, what's the longest distance one could go before at least seeing some road or other form of civilization, again, in the lower 48.

I'm assuming nobody will be able to answer this exactly, so any insight would be greatly appreciated! Or if you can point me to a good online resource or two, that would be super as well.

Oh, and this is for something I'm writing, so it's not idle wandering wondering.
posted by Ziggurat to Science & Nature (37 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Re you kidding? People get lost and die like every day in the forests of Washington and Oregon, for example. Or am I not understanding your question?
posted by tristeza at 9:45 PM on November 20, 2007

This paper exactly answers the question of what the longest distance you can go without finding a road is. Apparently the answer is 35km:

"There are other places that are more remote from roads on islands and in Louisiana coastal swamps. The 35-km landlocked maximum distance occurs in Wyoming, near the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park."
posted by pombe at 9:45 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Does a road necessarily = civilization? There are plenty of rarely-traveled roads one could happen upon, for example.
posted by pmbuko at 9:45 PM on November 20, 2007

On rereading your question, maybe you already know that.
posted by pombe at 9:46 PM on November 20, 2007

Also, if the person is traveling in a straight line, that presupposes more skills than the average lost person possesses.
posted by pmbuko at 9:48 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Death Valley may not be the most remote location, but it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere and very large. the ecosystem is also ridiculously dangerous for the unprepared.
posted by dhammond at 9:50 PM on November 20, 2007

I'm a little puzzled as to how you envision this person dying if not from cold, heat or thirst. This would seem to leave death by accident (which I presume you would also rule out) or starvation, and I think it likely that anyone weakened enough by hunger would actually succumb to some kind of exposure before the lack of food killed them.

In addition, I'm not sure the 'straight line' premise is all that relevant - many people become 'lost' in relatively confined geographical areas and are unable to find their way out precisely because they are unable to judge, in unfamiliar wilderness surroundings, whether they are in fact walking in a straight line.
posted by Urban Hermit at 9:51 PM on November 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

I figure that there are swampy or hilly/mountainous areas that are incredibly difficult to traverse and virtually impossible to travel in a straight line. You might make a couple of miles a day in some of those places, but not in a straight line. You might wander in circles without knowing for sure. I'm sure that I've read news stories about people lost in the woods or the mountains who died of exhaustion (not from the elements).

I'd bet that one could get lost and die of exhaustion or starvation (or getting et) in a swamp no more than a dozen miles across.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 9:52 PM on November 20, 2007

Thanks everyone so far...
Sorry, a couple answers.... Yeah, getting into trouble from starvation is what I'm looking for.
And I should have added that, ideally, it wouldn't be difficult terrain that would hamper them. It would be purely distance/remoteness. So yeah, while folks get into deep trouble in the woods of the Northwest, I *think* that's mainly due to difficult terrain, bad weather or a combination thereof, rather than purely distance. But maybe I'm wrong.
posted by Ziggurat at 10:02 PM on November 20, 2007

"There are plenty of rarely-traveled roads one could happen upon, for example."

... and you could go the wrong way when you found one.

I have been places in the southwestern deserts where I was glad to have a compass and a map or I might be there still.
posted by foobario at 10:10 PM on November 20, 2007

But if you're on foot, distance is meaningless. If civilization is 5 miles away and it takes you two days to travel one mile, you're still screwed. Terrain makes a huge difference. Fixing it to distance makes it sound like you've already answered the question (that spot outside yellowstone).
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:15 PM on November 20, 2007

Well, if starvation is your only limit, you've got at least a week or so before you're in real trouble (assuming you start off normal / healthy / well-fed), and probably a lot longer than that before you actually need to stop walking, and longer still before you die. (For some reason I have a figure stuck in my head of about 30 days to starve to death, but I don't know what activity level that might be assuming.)

Under those conditions, there probably aren't any places in the lower 48 where you could walk in a straight line and not hit some evidence of civilization. (If 38km is really the maximum "roadlocked" distance, that's feasible for someone to cover in a week, even at a fairly relaxed pace.)

Of course, whether finding a road would save you is an open question. There are big swaths of 'civilization' that are basically unoccupied for long stretches of time. Most of Yellowstone's road network, for instance, is closed in the winter (they only provide over-the-snow vehicle service to critical parts that remain open). So even if you did walk to what's marked on the map as a road, you'd still be a long way from help.

But really, I think by ignoring environmental concerns you're making the question totally unrealistic. There are lots of places you couldn't walk out of under your own power before the elements would kill you; the desert is one (where you couldn't carry enough water to last you the trip out), very cold regions in winter + bad weather, or some of the coastal swamps, would probably also do it. People die in sight of the trappings of civilization all the time; a dozen miles might as well be a thousand if you can't cross it because the environment is too harsh and you lack the correct equipment.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:18 PM on November 20, 2007

Somewhere in the Great Basin region (Utah, Nevada), perhaps. If you stayed near the Humboldt River, you'd have access to water - not very good water, but still. If you could catch frogs, or rats, you'd have a little food. But people traveling from the east on their way to California for the Gold Rush often fell victim to starvation in this region. (Of course, they'd walked and ridden more than 1,000 miles at this point, and so were already potentially quite debilitated.) Read Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail for more.
posted by rtha at 10:28 PM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

I agree with the posters above that merely finding a road might not lead to salvation, but you might want to check out these Roadless Area Profiles for some ideas, or look elsewhere on the site for relevant maps. According to one study, the most 'roadless' county per capita in the lower 48 is Hinsdale, Co.
posted by Urban Hermit at 10:42 PM on November 20, 2007

This reminds me of the part in the Blair Witch Project when the one character defends throwing away the map because it's "hard to get lost in America these days, and even harder to stay lost." Which is sadly proven false on a regular basis, but usually from exposure to the elements.

35 km can easily be covered in one day, so there's no chance of starvation there. (Kadin2048: Take a look at the walking distances on the Camino de Santiago to see what's easily done in a day by normal folks) In fact, I've walked 50 km in one day and continued walking, albeit painfully, the next day. Assuming someone could go that far each day and further assuming they have an adequate supply of water and only lack food, they are going to be able to travel at least a week before dying. Which gives a 350 km radius that can be covered on the conservative side.

I don't think you're going to find any area that size in the lower 48 states that is devoid of civilization.

Of course, after not eating for a while a character will start fainting and then even a grid bug could kill them.
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 10:57 PM on November 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

I would think you might could accomplish this feat in the more remote part of the Boundary Waters in Minnesota. If you were remote enough and lost your map, you could end up in miles of dead-end waterways. I know you said cold shouldn't be a factor, but the temperature it takes to become dangerously hypothermic (and therefore even more confused) when wet is pretty high--in the mid 60's.

Perhaps I am thinking of my easily-lost self when I read this question. What is the level of experience of your victim? Getting lost and starving to death for me wouldn't be that difficult as I have few outdoors skills. Someone with a modicum of sense would be in much better shape than I would anywhere in the US. (True story: I have MORE THAN ONCE gotten lost driving home from work in my small town.)
posted by thebrokedown at 11:16 PM on November 20, 2007

I once actually lost a car. But that was in Munich. But I was lost, for more than a couple of summers, in the Trinity Alps of Northern California. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and wandering off course can find you in places where not even pot growers and bow hunters go and further if you are really for it. I suggest a long summer hike from the Marble Mountains to Big Marshy and then wander over to Mosquito Lake. There is a great camp there I used to attend called Camp Unalayee and if you go on the right day in July or August, visiting hikers always get a big bowl of spicy chili, cornbread, and a fat slice of chocolate cake.
posted by parmanparman at 11:38 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Jon Krakauer grapples with similar questions in his book Into the Wild (recently awkwardly adapted into a film by Sean Penn).

People get lost all the time, so your question is somewhat odd with unrealistic limitations. From James Kim to Steve Fossett, people go missing. In Kim's case he was on a road, just the wrong road. In Fossett's case, an army of Mechanical Turkers couldn't find hide nor hair of his small but substantial (and brightly-colored) plane anywhere in the area he could presumably have reached with it. There was even a news story around the time of the Kim family being missing where a man and woman took a cable car up a mountain in sight of, I think, Oakland, and took the wrong turn on a trail and weren't found until the next day. So even being near civilization isn't the final word.
posted by dhartung at 12:42 AM on November 21, 2007

Nobody mentioned the movie "Gerry" - either because no one's seen it (very possible) or because it's a de-railer (also very possible, if so I apologise)

There may be some background in it worthy of examination, given your question.
posted by DrtyBlvd at 2:46 AM on November 21, 2007

Your limitations are kind of odd. People get lost and die with some frequency in the national forests near to where I live, and they manage to do so year-round. Even in the summer, it gets cold at night, especially at altitude. And even if a road is only a mile away in a straight line, that doesn't help if you wander in circles or walk the opposite direction. Mostly, they die of "exposure" -- miss a couple of meals, get soaked by a rainstorm or by falling in a creek, and pretty soon you aren't doing so well. The reverse of that is that when someone is prepared, stays dry, and finds necessities like shelter, water, etc, they can last a very long time before expiring, giving rescuers more time to find them.

Just by random googling, here is happy report of a woman who was found after a week; here is a really typical and sad notice of a search being suspended just a few days ago; and if you aren't convinced that there are some big spaces out there, in which a lost person is remarkably hard to find, remember the immense and unsuccessful search for Steven Fossett (wikipedia), where they can't even find his airplane.
posted by Forktine at 3:06 AM on November 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

are you asking whether someone could get so lost that they never find civilization again untl they die a natural death?

not by accident. i think a motivated person would eventually find civilization. however, there are places where a person could probably disappear intentionally.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:27 AM on November 21, 2007

On a travel channel special about rustic lodges, a lodge in Oregon claimed to be farther from civilization than any other place in the US. (forgot the name of the place, sorry)

If you find a river, though, you should be able to follow it to civilization anywhere in the country. So for someone to be lost in America it should be a place with no rivers.
posted by cda at 5:35 AM on November 21, 2007

I'm nthing the suggestion that traveling in a straight line when lost in the wilderness (even the desert wilderness) without navigational tools is incredibly unlikely to occur. Navigating by the sun is only a surefire option when it's close enough to sunrise or sunset to be dead sure which way you're pointed.
posted by hermitosis at 6:09 AM on November 21, 2007

I live in Billings, Montana. Believe me you don't have to drive far out of town until you see vast expanses with nothing in sight. The state has an average of 6.2 people per square mile. Our neighbor state of Wyoming has 5.1 people per square mile.

Assuming you have enough water, you could live about month with no food. But, how do you carry a month's worth of water? If you need a gallon a day to avoid dehydration, and each gallon weighs about 8 pounds, that's 240 pounds of water. "Finding" water is difficult or impossible in vast expanses of wilderness.

Plus, if you want to not die of exposure, you would need to carry sleeping gear. Even in summer, nights in arid and semi-arid areas can get very cold.

Assuming it's Summer, could someone conceivably get so lost, somewhere in the lower 48, that they could wander around until they perished? It doesn't count if they die of cold or heat...

Also, if it's summer, there is no way to take heat out of the equation. Here in Montana, it's very dry, and the summer heat can dehydrate you very quickly. Even in moderate temperatures, the dryness and direct sun take a huge toll.

Check out Google Maps in hybrid mode, and you can see how much "nothing" there is in much of the West.
posted by The Deej at 6:37 AM on November 21, 2007

Ziggurat, if you fine tune your question a little, we may be able to help a little more. Are you writing fiction or nonfiction? Trying to get a character lost, or just musing about the great expanses of the lower 48?
posted by craven_morhead at 6:46 AM on November 21, 2007

I, too, find this question puzzling. People die all the time from getting lost in the wild. Where I live, there are several instances of this occurring every year. Rugged terrain doesn't always play a role (though it can). It's just that once you get away from the main cities and towns, even if it's just to a State Park (or, more precisely, the Federal lands that border many such parks), you're in the middle of nowhere, with no real understanding of how to obtain food that you didn't bring with you, and subject to the elements, including predatory non-human critters.
posted by jdroth at 7:40 AM on November 21, 2007

Nthing the finding of this question odd, yest compelling. Having spent a bit of time around the Montana/Idaho/Wyoming border, I can say that it would be very easy to get lost and not get found there. Many of the roads are logging roads, which wouldn't be highly trafficked at all.

But even in my native New England, where the wilderness is a lot tamer, people still get lost ridiculously close to roads all the time.
posted by lunasol at 8:24 AM on November 21, 2007

Yeah, I think you will want to consider exposure even in near-ideal circumstances. Hypothermia can set in at relatively warm temperatures (high 50s) if the humidity is right and there's a breeze. Deserts get incredibly cold at night.

Your hypothetical person would be, presumably, eating berries or could possibly catch a fish in a lot of places. Are you allowing that they can make fire?

I think there are a lot of places in the US where this could easily happen, because of the combination of:
1. inability to travel in a straight line (due to disorientation or terrain)
2. exposure
3. even if you find a road, it has a fair chance of being a logging/access road that is unused. So assuming you find the road, and assuming you turn the right direction on it, you could still be many days' walk from help.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:33 AM on November 21, 2007

Yes, you can die of exposure. It requires a lot of calories to hike in rough terrain, heavy woods, swamp, etc., With no food, you may not immediately starve, but you may not make good decisions, and will certainly not have the energy to travel far or well for very long. As noted, nights get cold and damp. In some places, there are wild animals that may harm you if you are weak or ill-prepared. Insects can drive you close to crazy.
posted by theora55 at 11:22 AM on November 21, 2007

Navigating by the sun is only a surefire option when it's close enough to sunrise or sunset to be dead sure which way you're pointed.

I got lost in a European forest (back when they had forests big enough to get lost in). Took me 6 hours to find a road by attempting to walk in a straight line, using the sun to guide me back the way I came (which I figured out by guess work). And yes, the road took me back to civilization. (I actually got down and kissed it, I was so happy.)

Anyway, doesn't answer your question except inasmuch as
1- it is incredibly hard to travel over any terrain in a straight line.
2- I don't care how many boy scout badges you have; it's hard to reckon by the sun if you're not a polynesian mariner, because the flipping thing moves for pity's sake, therefore,
3- It doesn't have to be remote to get lost in it. I was only about 10 kilometers from the road, as it turns out; but I headed in the wrong direction to start and ended up much farther from my desitination than I started.
posted by nax at 12:01 PM on November 21, 2007

getting into trouble from starvation is what I'm looking for

To be totally frank, starvation is more of a social issue -- that is, people mostly starve (as in, are "food insecure," or even die) around other people in cities and small towns. In the wild, lost hikers and hunters will usually die from exposure before they die from hunger -- you can live a long time without food, but you can't necessarily survive a lot of chilly, damp nights without warm clothes, a fire, or a good shelter. Even where there are lots of water sources, picking up a severe case of giardia will cause dehydration and weakness alarmingly quickly; away from the rainforests of the Northwest, water sources can be quite hard to find and seasonally irregular.

Focusing on raw distance ("miles from a road," or "miles from a town") is a red herring -- the issue at hand is how many miles, and over what terrain, you actually have to walk to reach help. Hence, you can easily walk thirty miles a day on European pilgrimage routes as mentioned above, where there are villages with hotels and restaurants, pilgrims' huts, and other travelers who will help you if you are in trouble. But go a few hours south and east of where you are, into the northern Cascades, or further south into the really rugged areas of Utah and Colorado, and you can easily walk in zigzags for several times thirty miles without finding much more than abandoned mines and the occasional fire or logging road that may or may not be the shortest path to civilization. Even in the heavily-settled parts of the US (such as the Northeast), the irregular terrain and cold nights make getting lost both surprisingly easy and surprisingly dangerous.
posted by Forktine at 12:18 PM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've hiked around Gannet peak in Wyoming and for the most part, the traveling there was easy compared to the trails I've hiked below the tree line in Alaska. Putting down 8 miles in a day was no big issue.

If I had gotten lost in Wyoming the plan would have been fairly straight forward. Walk to the valley, follow the invariable stream there down in altitude and continue down until I found a trail. Follow the trail down until I find the trail head, follow the dirt road out to the paved road.

In this process the 35Km alluded to earlier the thread could easily double into 65 Km, about 45 miles of travel, which would probably take me somewhere between 4 and 8 days to walk.

It really isn't distance that causes trouble in the lower 48 when traveling off road, it's the rate at which you can travel and if you know what the hell you're doing. If I was stuck in some Louisiana swamp, where putting a down a mile in travel could take me the entire day, then I could be in trouble. My only landmarks would be the rivers and trying to follow them adds miles to your travels.

Survivorman's Canadian boreal forest episode is a good example how getting lost can be handled.
posted by 517 at 12:47 PM on November 21, 2007

Thanks so much everyone!
To be honest, the answers were very helpful, even by those who found the question odd/unrealistic.
Part of what I was looking for was a guage of the perceptions of the average person, about how easy it is to get way lost.
So everyone who chimed in did help. Thanks again.
posted by Ziggurat at 1:00 PM on November 21, 2007

I was up in Nunavut (I know, it is a thousand miles or more from the forty-ninth parallel, but bare with me) this summer. The land is flat with gentle rises and falls. Most of the low areas are damp or under water. So you have two directions to add to your straight line (vertical and horizontal). And because it is generally flat (and treeless), the large hill 20 km away looked like something you walk to. But it wasn't, especially not over the land. I could picture this as a scenario, walking through flat land, seeing the tower (and civilisation), but slipping in water and not making it even though you can see it.

There's a Farley Mowat story that addresses this (snowalker, maybe?) where the character thinks he can walk 200 km but develops hypothermia and foot rot.
posted by philfromhavelock at 8:17 PM on November 21, 2007

The area outside of Eureka, Ca is very remote. It's on California's North Coast, populated only by small towns. Hwy 101 runs up the coast, and I-5 runs up the center of the state, and the area in between is all mountain, tiny towns, and the occasional reservation. One of the two main connecting roads between 101 and 5 is Hwy 36, which is gravel for a good distance (like 1 hour of driving time) and closed for the winter. It would be very easy for a person to get lost and die in this area.
posted by lisaici at 10:22 PM on November 21, 2007

Of course I meant that California's north coast is populated by small towns, not that Eureka is populated by small towns. Eureka is populated by people, obviously.
posted by lisaici at 10:24 PM on November 21, 2007

I'll pipe in that not only does the terrain and heat/cold exclusions seem bogus, so does the idea that seeing "a road" means you're okay. There are a bajillion old mining and logging roads that are no better than some random deer path for survival or even orientation (especially if you're discounting the difficulty of forward motion).

Also -- does your hypothetical person get a topo map or compass? Are there visible landmarks? Is it cloudy or can they move at night and go by the north star?

Also seconding giardia.
posted by salvia at 11:49 PM on November 24, 2007

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