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The psychology of being lost in the forest

November 15, 2008
Joe Hackett, Enterprise Outdoors Columnist

Webster's Dictionary defines lost as "unable to find the way." A lost person is unable to identify or orient his current location with respect to known locations, and has no effective means or method for reorienting himself.

The renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud, a one-time visitor to the Adirondacks, described wilderness as a place where "a man can become lost and yet find himself in the process."

We've all heard the stories. They usually begin like this. "I wasn't lost; camp was lost!" or "I got turned around and twisted." Often, the excuse blames other circumstances, as in, "It sure got dark fast!" or, "The trail was poorly marked, steeper, longer and in worse shape than expected."

On occasion, the truth comes out. "I was tired and wasn't paying attention," or, "I was tracking a wounded deer and lost my bearings," or, "I forgot my map, compass, flashlight ..."

Humor can soothe an ego, as in, "I wasn't lost, I was temporarily misplaced," or, "I've never been lost. I was just bewildered once for a couple of days," or, "I took the scenic route and decided to stick around for a while."

External circumstances are often blamed and a thick swamp, a heavy blowdown or a poorly marked trail intersection takes the brunt of the blame. Rarely does the individual traveler take responsibility for becoming lost.

It happens as the trail becomes indistinguishable or a hunter falls asleep on watch as darkness settles in. The woods all look the same in the glow of a flashlight as a sinking feeling comes over you.

It happens in a alder-tangled marsh or among a maze of herd paths that meander aimlessly through a summit's spruce thicket. There's a ping in your stomach with the acknowledgment that maybe this isn't the right way.

It happens in a thick, cedar swamp after a heavy snow where, without the aid of a compass, a right-handed traveler will circle clockwise back to his own tracks.

A left-hander will circle likewise, but in a counterclockwise loop. Whether lefty or righty, you should never cut your tracks in this situation.

If you come upon tracks again, as you surely will, there will be no way to determine which was the original set of tracks.

Dick Emperor, a Saranac Lake guide and game protector for the old Conservation Department, claimed that "A guy that claims he never got lost never went in the woods very far." More recently, retired Forest Ranger Gary Hodgson explained, "You're never really lost unless somebody has to come find you."

The psychology of becoming lost presents a paradox. Lost individuals can't really be studied until they are found. Then, it's too late.

When you become lost, you are disoriented and your perception is distorted. The woods no longer feel familiar, and your confidence level is greatly diminished.

Many outdoor travelers, especially hunters, believe there is some sort of shame in becoming turned around. But it happens.

You start to panic, and then your imagination and memory play tricks on you. You become scared because you are lost and you doubt your skills. What was once familiar is now unfamiliar, and your behavior becomes unpredictable. You begin to second-guess your actions and lose faith in your abilities and judgment. In fact, you should trust your gut as it is second only to the brain in terms of nerve endings.

All wilderness experts agree, if you're lost in the woods, stay put. Trying to hike out usually gets a person into deeper woods and bigger trouble. One survey of experienced outdoorsmen revealed that although they are aware that staying put is the recommended course of action, they often refuse to stay in one place for any length of time, especially during the day.

Wilderness skills programs stress the importance of "staying where you are" when lost, as long as you can reasonably expect a search to be conducted soon. Unfortunately, very few people apply this method of getting out of the woods safely. Although it is true that most lost people are found in a stationary position after the first 24 hours of a search, this is usually because they are fatigued, asleep or unconscious. Fortunately, the vast majority of lost people walk out alive.

Search-and-rescue experts wonder why even the most experienced outdoorsmen tend to take flight when lost.

Indeed, the extent of a person's outdoor experience is not always a very good indicator as to how rational he or she will behave when lost. However, it may be that the response is as much physical as it is mental.

Although a moderate level of arousal is optimal for mental functioning, when arousal is intense, thoughts tend to scatter in irrelevant directions, making the person unable to concentrate on solving even the most simple of problems.

Too much arousal can also reduce the number of environmental cues a person can perceive, thus interfering with the recognition of familiar objects, people or places.

Fear is a emotional reaction with effects that amplify the general physiological arousal. Fear stimulates a heightened concern for self-preservation, which readies the body for flight through the release of adrenaline and an increased blood supply to the legs.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that a lost person's impulse is to move rather than stay put. His body is physically and mentally telling him to. Fear interferes with higher mental functioning which may cause a regression to more "primitive" modes of thought, the fight-or- flight response.

The fear of getting lost is one of our oldest fears. A century ago, a study revealed that the "dread of getting lost is common" in children and adults alike. The author described many examples of this fear, including one woman who was "haunted by the thought of losing the points of the compass in some wood ... accompanied by a sickening sensation."

More recent studies confirm that many people fear getting lost, especially in wooded environments. Anecdotal evidence reveals that most children and many adults have apprehensions about entering the forest, especially alone. In one study, in which children were asked to name the nearby "scary" places, forested areas were second only to haunted houses.

 
 

 

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