Follow the safety?
May 29, 2016 9:40 AM   Subscribe

I was reading this article recently about a woman who got lost on the Appalachian trail and sadly died. It made me think about how I had always been told (at least hiking in the Northeast of the US) that if you get lost, head downhill, find a stream and follow it to a town. Is that total BS or is it good hiking wisdom?

I don't really need commentary on this poor woman who got lost and died on the trail - I'm actually more curious about whether the "head downstream to a town" concept is actually true or a hiking myth - and if this is going to be regionally specific. For example, in the Northeast this is a truism, but if you are in the Pacific Northwest, forget about it.
posted by Toddles to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Case in point: The 1972 Andes flight disaster in Chile. Two of the survivors were able to find help by following a riverbed to a river, which joined other rivers, which eventually led to civilization.
posted by mochapickle at 9:49 AM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you have to move after getting lost and you don't have a better option (e.g., map & compass navigation), following a stream is a pretty decent approach. It will keep you from wandering in circles. You'll have a supply of water. You can always backtrack by walking back upstream if you have to (for instance, if your stream leads to an impassable waterfall/cliff). You can leave indications for search and rescue so that they know exactly where to look for you if they find evidence of your passing.

It also has the advantage of simply being A Plan, which is more important than it might seem; people do weird things when they're lost, up to and including setting down their backpack full of supplies and wandering off. You might be interested in this book about survival.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 9:58 AM on May 29, 2016 [11 favorites]

If you truly have no map of the area and no mental map or idea which way civilization is, then this is probably pretty good advice pretty much anywhere. The problem is that in some places it can be very difficult to travel alongside a stream.

Your other option in a mountainous area where you know you aren't too far from civilization is to go up to a point that gives you a view, weather permitting.
posted by ssg at 10:14 AM on May 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you are lost in a natural area, there are two basic ways to safety; either a search and rescue team finds you, or you rescue yourself by walking out to civilization. The search and rescue team will look where you are supposed to be - this is why the one of the most important basic things for wilderness adventuring is to tell someone where you're planning on going and when you're planning on getting back. The wilderness can be big, and you are small, but despite this, most people are found in the first 72 hours or so of going missing. This is the best way out; they're trained and equipped to help you.

Self-rescue sounds more heroic, but it's a lot more risky if being found by search and rescue is a possibility - if you get in trouble at point A and need to get to point C to be found, if you break your leg or lose your supplies or whatever at point B in the middle, no one's going to be looking for you there and you're screwed. There's also the additional challenges associated with travelling through the wilderness rather than staying put - if you stay in one place, you can develop a shelter and improve it over days rather than sleeping on the ground every night, for instance. But there exist circumstances where self-rescue may be your only choice; if no one knows where you are and you left no evidence to this fact; if search and rescue isn't possible for some reason; if it's been a week and the search is likely abandoned.

Assuming you're rescuing yourself, the best answer is to go to somewhere to be rescued using a map and compass or GPS. But if you're lost, unprepared and/or in unfamiliar terrain that doesn't help. Routefinding through the wilderness is tough, especially if you're a city folk. People naturally tend to walk in a circle when lost if there are no external waypoints. And obviously that isn't going to help you. So following a river is one way of making sure you travel in a continuous direction downhill. It also ensures you have a water supply, which is important. Humans do tend to settle along rivers historically, so it's not bad advice assuming you're self-rescuing. It will work better where there are more settlements; it will work better if you're lost in Europe or New England than if you're lost in someplace truly remote, like Alaska.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:16 AM on May 29, 2016 [7 favorites]

I think Blue Jello Elf and Homeboy Trouble make some good points regarding wilderness survival. Listen to them. However, because I am a software engineer with access to a GIS database with detailed information about both surface water and human habitation in mainland United States, I went ahead and coded up a quick Monte Carlo simulation.

With a starting sample of 10,000 random locations (restricted to mainland U.S., on land, non-urban, less than 100 miles from a recognized wilderness trail) following your described strategy for no more than 20 miles results in success greater than 99.9% of the time. I defined success as passing within 0.1 mile of a permanent residence/business or crossing a city/town/village boundary. However, there are some big caveats to my simulation. In particular, I made no attempt to model travel restrictions from terrain features such as gorges, bogs, and waterfalls that might actually be impassible on foot.
posted by RichardP at 10:21 AM on May 29, 2016 [217 favorites]

It worked for Autumn Veatch, but that might just have been dumb luck.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:30 AM on May 29, 2016

> You might be interested in this book about survival.

I just want to strongly second this recommendation (the book is Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales). It's not the sort of book I would ever buy for myself, being the sedentary bookish type, but my brother gave me a copy a few years ago and I read it with fascination; if I ever decide to do anything involving the wilderness, I will read it again (and bring it along). It will answer pretty much any survival question you have.
posted by languagehat at 10:55 AM on May 29, 2016 [10 favorites]

RichardP, how about uncrossable fences, especially military land? (I ask because I've seen several lost people stories that occurred near military bases.)
posted by salvia at 10:56 AM on May 29, 2016

But then you can follow the fence which seems like an even better idea! Very cool, Richard.

In Boy Scouts back in the day we were taught that if staying in one place wasn't an option to make sure we were going in one direction because wandering back and forth was the worst thing you could do. A stream would be an easy way to do this (I mean it can wander, but you'll always be going downstream), but I don't remember it ever being suggested because we had compasses.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:04 AM on May 29, 2016

salvia , I didn't model terrain features that would impede foot travel, including uncrossable fences (i.e. my simulation would have counted as a success a route that reached a town boundary by following surface water downstream but required passing through an uncrossable fence). On the other hand, I did not count military land or facilities as either permanent residence/businesses or city/town/village boundaries, so reaching these would not, by themselves, have counted as a success in my simulation.
posted by RichardP at 11:05 AM on May 29, 2016

Yes, while that's probably a good general strategy, it also guarantees you the steepest, straightest path downhill, which is unlikely to be actually passable on foot the whole way a lot of the time. If I decided to do that, I'd leave some sort of marker in the original location indicating to rescuers that I was here, but headed downstream. It would let them call off search teams in the wrong direction, at least.
posted by ctmf at 11:29 AM on May 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

ctmf's point made me think about my own experiences tromping around in the woods, and also kayaking down rivers. There are going to be many places where the immediate vicinity of the stream won't be a place you can walk, because of steep banks, overgrowth, deep mud or silt, fallen trees, and so on. At some point, the stream will take on the same role as the hiking trail did, and will become something you need to be able to walk away from (to get around obstacles, say) and then find your way back to. The stream or river as a road leading to civilization seems like a decent idea, but whether it's a road you can follow seems like another question entirely.
posted by not that girl at 11:39 AM on May 29, 2016

One thing I've done the odd time on trip is consider alternatives when I look at the route at the beginning of the day. Would we come off the ridge to the east or west?

If you get lost, you still have some knowledge about the terrain in the area, and that will guide your efforts to get found.

Also consider who saw you last, where they expect you'll be, and the likelihood of a search.

I think axioms like the one you suggested would only be relevant if your plane is shot down over unknown territory.

In many forested areas, bushwacking off trail is unbelievably slow. Getting 20 miles would take many days.
posted by thenormshow at 12:37 PM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think it's not terrible advice, as long as you keep "follow the stream" strictly secondary to rule #1: don't get injured (or injured worse).
posted by ctmf at 2:33 PM on May 29, 2016

One point of entirely anecdotal data from someone who works outdoors and does a lot of off trail navigation is to be careful about following the stream too closely and falling in. A friend of a friend who was a seasoned outdoors person, did exactly this and ended up slipping on a rock, breaking a leg, and succumbing to hypothermia. I avoid leading students down steep drainages because of the amount of alertness required. Another suggestion for following the stream is to stay walking downhill on a ridge within sight or sound of your stream until the steepness of the drainage levels out somewhat and there's a more comfortable flood plain to walk in.

Of course, the best advice is to stay found, which I usually teach with topographic maps. Learn different land features and how to recognize them on a map. Keep track of where you are by tracking land features as you hike on a trail and getting into dense underbrush off trail isn't as much of an issue since you'll still have an idea of where you are. (I.e. This is a really steep slope, I went off trail at this point heading towards a drainage and I've only been hiking for a short period of time so I am most likely in this spot). I also usually tell students to leave a piece of clothing or other marker (we always carry flagging tape) on the trail if they go to pee if we're doing some sort of long solo hike so that we know where to wait for them and/or look if they don't come back. i imagine this would be useful in a legitimate search and rescue scenario as well.

On preview, it looks like not that girl alluded to that same point of avoiding literally following streams, so seconded! I totally stress the point of being careful about doing any sort of dexterous activity in a survival scenario, though. The most common scenario I usually hear about comes from people doing things like climbing trees or slipping on rocks.
posted by ajarbaday at 2:33 PM on May 29, 2016 [9 favorites]

I'm not sure where I got the advice, but I made a habit of turning and looking backward every couple of hundred yards (or less, depending on visibility) when hiking off the trail. If you don't do that, none of it looks familiar when you're going back to the trail.
posted by clawsoon at 2:56 PM on May 29, 2016 [10 favorites]

Only if you know there is civilization within a reasonable distance and at the end of the stream. Which you should know, unless you've been kidnapped and dropped off in the woods or something. There are lots of places in the western US that you'd have to walk an awfully, awfully long way to find a town or house and walking streams is very slow as its rough and you have to do a lot of detours usually.
posted by fshgrl at 4:58 PM on May 29, 2016

In New England, old stone walls can also lead you to a town or a farm and therefore help, but I'd follow the stream if given the choice. Plus, fresh drinking water, and perhaps things to eat if you get hungry enough.
posted by vrakatar at 5:36 PM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

The arid area where I often hiked as a kid has few streams and many bogs and some streams will end in the bogs. It seems strange that a semi-desert will have bogs, but that is how it is: as a good development, the water from the wet season is increasingly preserved in areas with ancient peat and new growth, but there is also quicksand. Some streams end on the beach, and that is good for finding your way, but you never know. We (my family and some friends) got lost there a couple of years ago, not in a dangerous way, but frustratingly.
I learnt as a child to look for a number of specific features - a rare group of trees, a dune with a characteristic form, a small lake. It worked just fine back then, we'd get lost, and then find our way back with some hours delay. But all of these features had changed over time, and now I had to use only the sun as direction. Without a watch, we would have been dangerously lost. My brother is a great outdoorsman, but didn't remember the specific area very well, and hadn't prepped because he expected me to know all.
You really need to have the map of the area in your head. In our case, I knew that going south would get us to a road, and even if heading south was not directly possible, it was our aim, and we eventually reached that road. But you need a watch for this, because you really lose your sense of time when hiking, except for the biggies: sunset and sunrise, and the sun is not always where you think it might be - in this case the sun was a straight west at 6 PM, and then headed north for an other couple hours or four. Even the midday sun can be an elusive marker, if you are in a wooded area, or as in our case, an area where most of the land is inaccessible.
If you are not good with maps - either inner or actual maps, you really need to stay on the trail. The nature is great there too, and it is a feature, not a fault that you meet other hikers. The walking in circles thing should not be taken lightly - you can die a few hundred feet from civilisation if you have no idea where you are.
For instance, when we got lost, my biggest fear was that someone would get a heat-stroke. The bog-water is not at all suitable for drinking, and since it was only a day-hike, I hadn't brought cookware. Second to that was a snake-bite. Snakes do what they can to avoid people, but tired and thirsty people do things snakes aren't happy with and that day, we met many angry snakes. We were never very far away from a farmhouse with a land-line, but getting there was complicated and almost impossible if someone had fallen ill.
posted by mumimor at 5:57 PM on May 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

In the Pacific Northwest and the Rockies or any geologically recent mountain range, following a stream will usually lead you to an impassible waterfall. Trails don't usually run beside streams, because stream banks get heavily eroded during spring runoff. The underbrush is thickest and most difficult to negotiate by the stream banks.

If you get lost in this sort of terrain, it's probably best to climb uphill towards the tree line, find a clearing and make yourself visible to rescuers.
posted by monotreme at 8:28 PM on May 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

It's worth pointing out that if happen to be lost on a remote dirt road, you should not leave it to follow a stream. A very sad example here.

Also, if you are following a stream and cross a road, that might be a good time to consider if the road might be a better route.
posted by yohko at 3:27 PM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

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