Venting on Lost Person Behavior


Ok—going to vent because I’m tired of people with elevated egos dying in the outdoors simply because they entered the back country with the wrong mentality, lack of training, and/or the wrong gear for the environment and wind up in a survival situation. Quite honestly I’m not as upset about them becoming a statistic or a case study, but rather influencing others with their poor attitudes towards preparedness. Only 50% of those placed in a survival situation will walk away and have a story to tell others about. The remaining 50% will be dead, injured, or vanish without a trace.

I was challenged in a class the a few weeks ago on how survival training is really “irrelevant” to outdoor skills. This came from a grizzled and well seasoned guy in the back row sitting with his arms folded across his chest. It only took a few minutes for the agitator to realize he picked an argument with the wrong guy. Here are the stats, but don’t take my word on it, do the research on your own.

Much of this comes from the research I do on lost person behavior. I look at around 500 cases a year and really study at an in-depth level about 50 of them. I eliminated kids and focused on just adults in my conversation. For the sake of this specific argument, I included hunters, photographers, rock hounds, hikers, and generally adults between the ages of 18-65 engaged in some outdoor adventure. I eliminated (except where noted) those with memory loss, Alzheimer’s, and other issues of memory loss or disassociated disorders. I couldn’t remember if in my original argument if I included those who work in the outdoors, so I threw in what I could remember at the time and for the sake of this entry, include those who work in the back country such as guides, surveyors, forest and lumber workers, fish and game/conservation officers etc.

For clarity, I need to include that in the cases I studied, those who were rescued or recovered were more often than not, inadequately equipped and not trained or well prepared for the circumstances they wound up in.

Also, the question around “Where were they when they were found” often comes up in discussions, yet better question, “Where were they not?” They weren’t close to trails, roads, or other common routes. Most wound up in a panic state or took panic actions such as running or walking faster. This is common in adults since large muscle movement provides a rhythmic state, which (falsely) reduces panic. Walking fast or running is to adults what rocking is to a child in distress. Most made the attempt to fix the situation on their own or find themselves, which often makes the situation worse.

Panic also leads to poor judgment, poor execution of decisions, and emotional reaction. Panic comes from the amygdala. It’s the small part of our brain that controls flight, fight, freeze, feed, and …well procreation. The amygdala can save a life in most situations, but it can also cause death. Ask SCUBA divers what the main rule is when you are out of air that you do not do….its shoot for the surface while holding your breath even though the amygdala is wanting you to conserve air in your lungs. Shooting to the surface while holding your breath will cause lungs to over expand and you die. Thanks lizard brain.

Victims in my research also show undeveloped or at best poorly developed direction finding skills and may not have map and compass or at least navigation training. In several interviews I have done, hunters and hikers claim they have internal compass and navigation skills. There is absolutely ZERO evidence that supports internal compassing. In fact, what many claim is an internal compass is really the ability to read clues and signs in the backcountry. I discuss this more in another write-up.

Pride and ego are another factor in my interviews and research. The one single party that claims they do not need training for survival or preparedness is backcountry large game hunters. In several interviews I was told several times “I grew up in the woods”. While this was true for a few (less than 1%), most who had “grown up in the woods” when surveyed actually spent less than 27 days per year in the backcountry. For this reason we never say hunters are “lost”, we say they are “geographically embarrassed.

Barry Mitchell in his excellent work on lost person behavior noted the following:

  • 40-50% are adequately equipped
  • 50% followed a trail or drainage at some time while missing
  • 30-50% move at night
  • 90% are found within five miles of IPP (Our research notes hunters and back packers will travel up 8 miles once they realize they are lost)

In William Syrotuck’s ground-breaking work on lost person behavior noted:

  • Frequently located near natural boundaries and vegetation inter- faces – forest edge, stream, steep slope – and navigation aids – walls, fence-lines, shelters etc.
  • Sometimes wander away from regular tracks and trails and become lost
  • Need to identify ‘magnets’ that may have attracted them

Here is why we believe training is needed by all outdoor enthusiast and why I get upset when we are undervalued. According to Syrotuck:

  • Fatalities………………… 43%
  • Injured …………………….. 3%
  • Unhurt……………………. 37%
  • No Trace………………… 17%

The numbers speak for themselves. If you are outside you need to train and equip yourself for the adversity. As outdoorsman we are going further in the backcountry, rely on our electronic devices, more unfit, and a host of other disadvantages that keep us from coming home when it all goes wrong.

Adventure IQ ( offers workshops and seminars to better equip yourself for survival situations.


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