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How to Find a Lost Hiker

Where the hell are they?
Where the hell are they?

This is a scenario we all dread: you’re on a group hike and one of the hikers in your group disappears.

  • How can you prevent something like this from happening?
  • What can you do to find them?


Keep your group together during a hike. If you’re the trip leader or you’re in an unruly mob of hikers, talk and agree to a set of policies at the trail head before your hike that will keep the group together . For example,

  1. Stop and wait for the rest of the group at all trail junctions and stream crossings.
  2. If you stop for a pee, leave your backpack on the trail perpendicular to where you stepped off. This will alert people to the fact that you’ve taken a powder, and will provide a last known point if you fail to return.
  3. Appoint a hiker to be a designated sweep (last person) in the group. This is a good place to put fast hikers who insist on leaving the group behind. Give them the job of looking out for slower hikers.
  4. Bring extra whistles to the hike. Make sure that all hikers have a whistle – they are much louder than yelling if you need to find someone or get their attention.
  5. Keep in sight of the hiker in front of you.
  6. Avoid slinky stops – where the group sets off just as the last hiker catches up on a stop break.
  7. Review the route on a map at the trail head before the hike starts, and call out significant landmarks or tricky turns along the route. (How many times have you been on a hike where only the leader knows the route?)

a. Bring extra copies of the map and make sure all hikers have one, as well as a compass.

b. Stop at designated landmarks for a head count and review your location, so hikers know where they are. Turn these stops into a compass lesson, where hikers identify surrounding landmarks, like peaks, using their compass and map.

8. Define a Time Control Plan before the hike or at the trail head (and pass out copies). This should include a turn around time where everyone agrees to hike out, even if the objective is not reached. Make sure that all hikers have a watch (incredible as it seems, many hikers don’t carry one.)

Keeping your group together is the most effective way to prevent a lost hiker scenario, but people still wander off or get lost. Here’s what to do when that happens.

Searching for a Lost Hiker

When you realize that someone is lost, the leader needs to take control of the group, explain to them what needs to be done and begin delegating responsibilities. If you are on a hike without a designated leader, don’t let people run off shouting for the lost hiker. You need to stay calm and define a plan of action before you waste time on ineffective searching.

  1. The first thing you need to do is to figure out where the hiker was last seen. This should be a place where they were definitively seen, not where someone thinks they saw them. Mark this place on your map.
  2. Ask the group when they last spoke to the individual and whether the lost hiker said anything about their physical condition (thirsty, dizzy, hot, had to go to the bathroom) or indicated a desire to do something not on the hike itinerary, like taking a quick detour to bag an adjacent peak or taking photos at a nearby viewpoint. These clues might give you an idea of where to start searching – mark them on your map for reference.
  3. Gather any information about the lost individual, particularly heath-related issues, that you don’t know but others in the group do. Are they diabetic, allergic to bee stings, asthmatic, etc? It’s best to know these things before a hike, but many people often don’t share these details if they don’t feel they are relevant. Knowing this information up front, may influence your decision to call in external SAR assistance sooner, if your immediate search efforts do not yield results. Given that it takes most SAR teams can take several hours to mobilize and arrive at a backcountry scene, your group’s search efforts are probably the best chance that a lost hiker has if they have a major health issue.
  4. Next, assess the state of your group and their condition, skills, fitness, supplies, the weather, amount of daylight left, and so forth. The last thing you want to do is to jeopardize the safety of the rest of the group and compound the situation with another potential accident or health issue. If the group is safe, determine who your strongest searchers are based on fitness, compass skills, backcountry skills, wilderness first aid experience, etc
  5. Quickly examine your map and see if there is any easy way to cordon off the immediate area to keep the lost hiker from wandering farther. Lost hikers have a tendency to keep walking once they realize they are lost, rather than staying put.  For example, send out hikers along adjacent trails with whistles and attach notes to trail head signs instructing the lost hiker to stop at them, rather than continuing to wander.
  6. Next, draw two circles around the lost hiker’s last known location, one 3 miles in diameter and the other 6 miles in diameter: 50% of lost hikers are found within the inner circle and 90% are found without the outer circle (NOLS’s Wilderness Guide.)
  7. Look at your map and identify potential off-trail accident scenes such as steep river banks, stream crossings, cliffs, and steep slopes.  If you have a small group of strong searchers, you need to prioritize potential accident locations first.
  8. If you have still not located the lost hiker and it is starting to get dark, it’s probably time to call for external assistance from a SAR team. You should do this earlier than later if the lost hiker has a life-threatening, pre-existing medical condition. Stop searching when it gets dark because off-trail searches will endanger your group and can further complicate the SAR scenario.

Sobering stuff, but these incidents do occur and it’s best to think through what you’d do if you need to find a hiker who’s wandered away from a group hike.

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  1. Good stuff.

    When I talk with the group about staying together I remind them that if they haven't seen the person behind them in 15-20 minutes they should stop and wait. At 2 mph a 30 minute gap could be a mile of separation. That's a lot of territory to retrace if the person is lost.

    As for river crossings I also ask them to wait on the other side since someone might have trouble getting across. If the first people take off once they cross this could lead to group separation too. Same idea for really steep sections where you have to scramble or climb using hands.

    The one thing I tend to forget is to remind the group of all of these things at the summit before starting back down. Really should have a summit meeting too since many people just want to get to their cars and think why wait, its just downhill. People are tired and may be slower – it's a bad deal if they miss a turn or stumble and get hurt while the faster and stronger hikers are already in the parking lot getting ready to leave.

    Michael Blair

  2. When I take a group of scouts hiking, we rotate who leads so that everyone gets a sense of the responsibility of leadership. Whoever is in the front and an adult in the back (usually me) each have a whistle. One long whistle means "stop and wait" whereas two shorter whistles means "turn around and come back to join the rest of the group". I don't like the boys walking on each others heels so I don't mind if they spread out enough to be out of sight, as long as they are within whistle range and stop at all trail intersections.

  3. I agree. A set whistle signal system is a help.

    There are a lot of ways to do this. Morse Code is the most standard, Everyone should know SOS. And be taught to stay put once they decide to signal, except as agreed upon..

    Whistles can be almost useless in a dense forest, though. But, they at least give most campers a sense of security,..they have someone, somewhere that is intereseded in their safety. It really helps if you are hurt to know somone is out there.

  4. Marco,

    When I hike with anyone else, I bring two whistles, one for me and one for the other person or the lead hiker in the group. They are light but extremely loud. I find that the sternum strap whistles that a lot of packs include are nearly worthless because they are too weak to be heard very far away. IMO, a poor whistle is worse than no whistle at all.

  5. In 2004 I was once involved in a lost-child event while hiking Mt. Lafayette, in mid June in the Whites. I was one of 7 adult chaperons on a 60 high school student hike. The headmaster's plan was to separate into two groups. One, the slow (hiking) kids would only climb to Greenleaf AMC hut. The other fast group would double-time up Falling Waters trail, over the ridge, and down to the hut. All would descend together from Greenleaf.

    The event occurred on the way down. The faster kids bolted down the Bridal Path on the way to the parking lot. At the bottom a head count came up short and a 9th grade boy was missing. He was traced all the way to the bottom right before the Falling Waters cut off. Amazingly the kid stayed left and went right back up the hill again. Unseen.

    By now about 40 minutes has elapsed. So the two most fit boys started in after the kid. The headmaster called the Franconia Police. They relayed some good information about how these scenarios work from a rescue standpoint. It was now 5pm and the Franconia Rescue would not deploy until 7pm. Under no circumstances should **ANY** parents be notified until 7pm to avoid the frenzied caravan of outdoors amateurs in Caravans careening up Rt 93.

    If the local rescue deployed at 7pm then the State Police would be notified for a 10pm deployment probably entering the Pemi Wilderness from a dozen points. By 5am the next day the National Guard would be flying over with the thermal cameras. That was the escalation procedure as best I can remember it.

    At about 5:15 a foursome of males hikers came out and verified that they's seen the kid going up Falling Waters. They all thought it was odd that someone would be ascending that late in the day but assumed adults were close behind. In five minutes when they realized that this kid was lost and they did nothing about it. In the parking lot, all four were distraught as they were on their way from this "training hike" to ascend Denali in Alaska. Woa.

    A couple of minutes later, one of the chaperons – in fact the missing kid's older sister – came forth with the information that she was a tri-athlete. In training… Hello?!? Where were you 15 minutes ago? She laced on her running shoes and sprinted up the mountain. Passed the two boys and got her brother. What a mess!

    I guess my big takeaway from this event was to not let everyone stretch out too far on the way down. Or anytime for that matter.

    On later hikes the school group changed the way a large hike was managed. For example, on a 4 mile hike we would have "4 and wait" at each junction. The first one there would wait for 3 others, Then until when the 5th showed up he/she would stay and wait for the next three. Once we did this no one ever got lost again.

  6. On our troop backpacking trips, everyone gets a ziplock bag containing a topo map of the trip labeled with route and waypoints, plus a trip details sheet. This details sheet includes:

    – all of the scouts names,

    – the adults' names plus their cell phone numbers,

    – a hike plan with each day's starting and ending points,

    – detailed addresses and GPS coordinates for the trip starting point, the trip finish point, and any extraction points

    – name of the organization with jurisdiction over the area of the trip (e.g. George Washington National Forest, Pedlar District) and the phone number of the appropriate ranger or official,

    – name, address, and phone number of the nearest hospital

    It's still a work in progress, but recently volunteering with a local SAR group has emphasized the importance of everyone in the group having this information. Copies are also sent to all of the parents, in case we don't show or need to meet them at an extraction point.

    Whistles are definitely a good idea. Most people can blow a whistle a lot longer than they could yell, plus it travels further.

    An eye-opening book for me was "Lost Person Behavior" by Robert Koester. It is a study of how different classes of people behave when lost, including time, distance, and direction of travel. For instance, dementia patients tend to travel in straight lines, so knowing what direction they started heading can greatly affect your search probabilities. On the other hand, children may be frightened by searchers and actively evade them. And definitely inform local law enforcement as soon as possible. Here in Virginia, local SAR teams cannot self-deploy. They have to be activated by the state at the request of local authorities, so it could be several hours before they arrive on scene.

  7. Gerry,

    Yes, I well agree. Some tones cannot penetrate a forest at all. Others carry a bit further. But, even the best of them rarely penetrate more than a quarter mile in the woods. On a flat, open area, a hill top, a lake, and at dusk/dawn (when the forest is quite still,) they do better. I have tried several. Storm whistles, bosuns pipes, coaches whistles, etc. None really penetrate a thick ADK forest well, especially in rain and snow.

  8. 20 years experience in SAR and K9SAR.
    First and foremost, never delay the call. Don't wait till you fail or night falls, call for help immediately and cancel the call if you get lucky.

    It does not take half a day to mobilize a SAR team. Not under most circumstances. Earlylite, you have severely defamed many teams in this nation by saying "it takes most SAR teams… "

  9. As a SWAT Officer I found your "prevention" list very similar to rules that we follow when deployed (except for #2). We also carry glow sticks that can be used to mark areas of interest. There cheap, light weight and last for hours. Different colors can be used to mean different things too. I have yet to carry any while backpacking but if I was leading a group I would.

  10. Amir – sorry about that. I'll fix it. Really should be 2-4 hours.

    Hikezilla – heck of a story. I always make a point to tell people who are hiking up to Franconia Ridge at 3pm that they are going to run out of light and to turn back. I can't remember anyone every paying heed to me, though. Darwin calling.

  11. #1 Rule I always follow: The Leader selects the slowest and the least experienced hikers in the group to be in front…

    The Leader actually should be bringing up the Rear and not be in front……..

    If your worried about the one's in front getting lost, then "Sandwich" them, with one experienced member in front, the Leader at the rear and the rest in the Middle…..

    It also builds confidence and trains those with few skills.

    Also, a leader "never" lets any one member of the group "lag" behind "to catch up" for any reason what so ever…

    Years ago, I do not know if they do it now, but even in the Boy Scouts and the Marine Corps, the lowest slowest member was selected to carry the Guidon so we knew where he was at all times Lol's….and with an eye on the Guidon the others in the Patrol knew where they were in relation to the others in the group…People laugh at carrying Flags or Guidons but I think it is a great idea and all those in groups should adopt the idea…..Break down the word itself "guide-on" . Even on Combat Patrols we "sighted in" on the back of the Leading man's or Scouts helment that usually had some unusual mark on it, be it the ace of spades or a single one line or a bit of cloth….

    • The slowest hiker should be in the middle or behind the lead. In front, they dally more and don’t know the way. You risk the leader who does know the way being distracted and not knowing if an inexperienced person misses a turn.

  12. Solid advice, and well worth heeding. And depending on the size of the group, if the slowest member quite a bit slower than the fastest member, the idea of breaking the group up into two doesn't sound like a bad idea.

  13. Excellent post and comments. We all hope we don’t have to use it, but obviously these things do happen.

  14. Great Topic. Well worth reading.

  15. This was a great post. The thing that stood out for me is the need for everyone to communicate early and often and never assume someone else knows what you are doing. And also never assume you know what someone else is doing.

  16. Yeah, great stuff. A thought I’d throw in is that I think it’s okay to let fast people go at the front, as long as you trust them, and they “get” that they shouldn’t distance themselves too far from the group. As someone with a naturally fast pace up hills which, for me, I find to be the most efficient way to preserve momentum, I get very frustrated if I’m forced to walk behind people who have slower and shorter steps. I get around this by usually being on either end of the group, then stopping more frequently and letting people catch up, or (if I’m at the back) stopping occasionally and letting others get ahead for a bit.

    Another thought is that it’s not necessarily mandatory for everyone to stop at junctions, especially if there are many of them, as long as there’s always at least one person waiting to ensure all those behind go the same way. For significant stream/river crossings, if they’re not bridged, I’d definitely stop everyone. The last thing you want is having people scuttle across on their own and removing the ability to assess the best and safest way for the whole group to cross.

    Also, about whistles, over here in New Zealand (with significant amounts of messy weather and dense bush in places so your mileage might vary) we’ve intermittently had youth-SAR members running tests on the effectiveness of different whistles. (There’s no affiliation to me—I’m not directly involved in SAR.) One finding was that yelling and screaming was the most effective method of producing noise, audible from 400 metres in their test environment (I think that’s about 1300 feet) and only beaten by an impractical honking plastic tube. Obviously the result would vary depending on many factors and as has been pointed out, it’s likely more exhausting to yell and scream than to blow a whistle, but I think the biggest thing to take from it is that if you’re stuck and don’t have a whistle… or even if you do have a whistle, yelling and screaming might work better if the whistle isn’t getting the attention you need.

  17. This is really constructive information all hikers, leaders and followers should be aware of. I first started hiking when I was 8 at summer camp. that camp had a very good reputation for never losing anyone and not having accidents. they were one o the last camp groups allowed at Baxter State Park in the late 60’s. Most other organizations had been banned. The camp rules were strict and keeping the group together and accounted for no matter what was paramount. The hike leaders were very experienced and well trained and passed along their practices and maybe more importantly their attitudes toward being in the woods and mountains to everyone else. To this day….and I’m a long way from 8…. it makes me crazy to go on hikes with local clubs that let faster hikers blast out in front of everyone else and do the “Slinky stops”. I never heard that term for it before but it’s great. That defeats the purpose of the stop as often the last hikers to catch up are the ones most needing the stop. I often volunteer to be the sweep, partly as I am not likely to get lost if I’m behind and if there are slower hikers to follow it encourages me to relax and take more time to enjoy my surroundings. Good post, and the comments following are good to read.

  18. Why would you ever suggest for someone to leave their backpack on trail while they take a pee? If someone were to slip and get hurt, somehow get disoriented on the way back—you wouldn’t have any of your supplies! Your whistle, water, extra layers! I understand the idea behind people being able to find you, but I’ve just never heard anyone suggest you leave your backpack with all your equipment behind.

    • Emily, In some of the groups I hike with, it is common to leave your pack when you leave the trail, so the “sweep” person in the rear doesn’t pass you by. I no longer do this, because I’ve twice had animals chew into the pack. Instead, I tie my bright red bandana to a bush at eye-level on the side of the trail where I’ve stepped off, or tie it to my trekking poles. Speaking of bio breaks, in some terrain it helps to take a compass bearing to help you return to the trail after relieving yourself.

    • You are so right. Never leave your pack. You will attract critters and be without your much-needed food and equipment.

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