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"One mistake people make is thinking nothing can go wrong." These words were said by George Brown after he spent two days lost in Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness. When a solo horseback riding venture went wrong during what would have been an eight-day excursion through the Bob, he was left with a broken leg, limited mobility, frigid temperatures, poor weather, and no shelter to hide under.

Luckily, George Brown's story ended after 48 hours of pure survival in Montana's backcountry. However, many hikers throughout the wildest national parks are not as lucky to come back with as much. And many of these stories start out with the words that George Brown uttered in hindsight - that no hiker or camper believes that it can happen to them.


Survival Basics In National Parks: What To Know

We had the chance to speak with SmokyMountains.com about an in-depth study regarding survival not just in the Smoky Mountains, but in national parks across the U.S. Taking into consideration data from every corner of the country, as well as more than 100 survival stories from hikers and campers alike, the results - and statistics - were astounding. As a result, the takeaway was a full guide of what to do, what not to do, what issues one might face, and what to do in those life-or-death scenarios - including when one is solo.

Related: Planning An AT Thru-Hike? Here Are The Essentials That Hikers Swear By

First: Be Prepared, Don't Get Caught Without A Plan

One of the most obvious reasons for hikers or those planning multi-day treks through a national park needing rescue is unpreparedness. Andrew Harrington, a survival instructor for BigPig Outdoors, stressed to SmokyMountains.com that the "number one mistake" he sees is a "lack of preparation." This, combined with the naïveté of not anticipating any issues, is what lands hikers in a bad situation.

So, the easiest way to do this? Here were the top suggestions by SmokyMountains.com:

  • Familiarize oneself with the Ten Essentials according to NPS
  • Leave a trip itinerary, complete with estimated times, with at least two people
  • Be aware of a 'bailout' direction and mark it on a map prior to leaving
  • Check the weather (more than once), including the overnight conditions
  • Wear merino or synthetic layers and consider puffy jackets or Gore-Tex shells
  • Practice making a basic survival shelter at home, or consider a survival class
  • Find free topographical maps at SARTOPO
  • Make use of hiking apps
  • Learn hacks for creating campfires in a pinch, such as petroleum-soaked cotton balls)
  • Invest in a personal locator beacon for longer trips

Second: Know What To Do Once You're Lost Or Disoriented

There are a surprising number of reasons one might end up lost or disoriented in a national park. Of those, the most common is simply just wandering off a marked trail. So, in the event that this does happen, what's the next step? SmokyMountains.com says there are four things to consider: warmth, shelter, food, and water.

Finding Or Creating Warmth

In the case of Annette Poitras, hiking with her dogs happened to be a miracle. Her survival on Eagle Mountain in British Columbia was partially due to her three dogs and their ability to maintain her body heat, guard her, and even find food while she was stranded. They were also instrumental in rescuers being able to find her location!

Not all hikers have furry companions to follow them on the trails, though. In this case, the number one source of warmth comes from clothing, as well as knowing when to layer up or down.

Avoid sweating in cold weather, and layer up when stationary to prevent the loss of body heat.

Finding Or Creating Shelter

A blizzard is one thing that no one wants to be left out alone in, but it is something that hikers have faced in national park territory. In the case of Alan Austin, who was stranded in Squaw Valley's backcountry, this is exactly what happened. Digging down into the snow and earth and creating a barrier between himself and the snow with packed snow and pine branches was his survival method.

If 'digging in' isn't an option, SmokyMountains.com suggests carrying a tarp or using a heavy-duty jacket to create some kind of barrier. Additionally, a lean-to might be an option for those lost in the woods with plenty of downed branches at their disposal.

A bed of branches is sufficient to protect a person from the moisture on the ground, as long as it's at least eight inches thick.

Finding Water Sources

Finding water is not always easy, especially if a hiker happens to be in one of many desert or dry national park landscapes. In this case, it's important to be savvy and pay attention to one's surroundings to find water, such as was the case of Gilbert Dewey Gaedcke, who was lost in a lava field on the Kilauea Volcano. He was able to squeeze water out of moss that he found - risking potential infection over dehydration - and survived.

SmokyMountains.com suggests using a lightweight filter and chlorine dioxide tablets in order to create fresh, clean water from a potentially contaminated water source. They also recommend taking the risk if there are absolutely no other options and one is on the brink of dehydration - statistically, the chance of rescue usually happens within 24 hours following a missing hiker.

Finding Or Rationing Food

In Kings Canyon, a hiker by the name of Greg Hein survived by eating bugs and other critters that could be found on the ground following a serious injury. However, hikers can also ration food in order to stretch their supplies over a 24-hour period while waiting for help. After 24 hours, it's best to start seeking out potential food sources... even if it's the kind that does crawl around on the ground.

The suggested course of action is to prioritize building a camp and shelter. Following that, it's proven that the average person can survive more than 30 days with the calories that are stored in their body. If all else fails, avoid hunting, trapping, and foraging if you are inexperienced - these can waste energy and time.

Third: Should You Move, Or Should You Stay Exactly Where You Are?

One of the biggest, life-altering choices that a hiker can make while they're lost is deciding whether to move or to stay in one place. While this could drastically change the outcome of rescue, an astounding 65% of hikers chose to keep moving, according to the data collected by SmokyMountains.com.

In the case of Austin Bohanan, who was lost in Smoky Mountains National Park, his decision to continue moving while following a stream downhill is what brought him to safety. However, this is not always the case with every lost hiker scenario. When it comes to what choice to make, there are two main options:

  • Stay put is the best option if someone knows where a hiker has gone, and where they might be. Additionally, if stranded on an actual trail or with a vehicle, this is the best option for rescue.
  • 'Self-rescue' is something to consider if no one knows where a hiker might be or that they've gone to the backcountry. In this case, finding high ground for a cell phone signal, going toward that previously mentioned 'bailout' direction, or heading to an open field to signal for rescue are the best options.

Don't forget to mark the trail and leave behind clues, whether they be tree carvings or some kind of mark on the ground.

In Conclusion: The Ultimate Goal Is To Be Rescued

When being reduced is the only option on the trail, there are some things to keep in mind, according to SmokyMountains.com. The first is to pack something that's brightly colored, such as a tarp, so that it can be seen easily through dense woodland, in inclement weather, and from the air. The second is to first try calling 9-1-1 since the emergency line operators can send a rescue crew out to any national park for rescue.

Third, having a loud whistle or a signal mirror is a huge help when it comes to signaling one's presence to another person or a rescue team. And, finally, add green plants to any signal fire to create smoke - and then move in the direction of a helicopter or search team.