Opinion: What to do if you find yourself lost


I think it was a ground weta I was sharing my bed with. Actually, it wasn’t just one, there were dozens. They were everywhere.

It was my own fault. This wasn’t just my idea, it was the point of the entire story we were filming.

You see, if you’re spending the night out in the bush, having a comfortable, invertebrate-free bed is highly unlikely.

Honestly, who gets themselves lost on purpose? No-one except a damned fool, that’s who. But every year, thousands of people get into trouble outdoors, and have to be rescued. Last year 135 people died.

So, our intention for this story was simple: show how easy getting lost could be, and what you should do if and when it happens to you.

Firstly, you don’t need to be going far to get lost. The loop track we used was just 3.8km. But, being in several-thousand hectares of thick bush, a small step off that beaten path could prove a big problem.

What if you were running in little more than a light top and shorts and tumbled down a hill, rolling an ankle? What if it was windy, and drizzling? I felt sick thinking about it. The only thing skipping down the path towards you would be hypothermia.

Thankfully we’d convinced Matt Gibson from the Mountain Safety Council to tag along. Not only would he be my expert for the story, he’d stop me from dying of the many mistakes I’d surely make along the way.

We hadn’t even started before he informed me my first ones. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. If anything happened, no-one would have any idea where to look. I didn’t have much equipment. I hadn’t checked the long range weather forecast. You know, all the basics.

And my gear? A few clothes, a little food and water, an emergency bag and a pocket knife. More than prepared, I thought, for a day walk. “Sorry bro”, said Matt, pulling out his compass, waterproofs, rope, firestarter, and heaps of other equipment. At the very least, he said, you should have enough to stop you getting into further trouble. Here’s a good guide.

If I was getting lost, Matt would show me how to do it properly.

Have a read of this, it could save your life.

 The big issue was that I would be trying to get lost, which no-one in their right mind does. Have you ever tried? It’s actually really hard. I walked off track into a scrubby gully, wandered upstream a bit, climbed a hill and took a few detours.

Over a couple of hours I slowly got disorientated, distracted, and lost track of time.

Then it happened – BOOM. My sense of direction was gone. My brain was jelly. Any grasp of logic simply vanished. I was lost. Thank God!

It was still light. Should I try and find my way back while I still have light, I asked. Matt’s answer confirmed what I already knew. While I may somehow find my way out, it’s much more likely I’d just end up getting further lost. Imagine walking for another four or five kilometres… in the wrong direction?

No, the advice in that situation is simple -- find shelter and warmth, make yourself visible, and stay put. Anything that could assist searchers – a fire, a signal, broken branches – is a good thing.

We made camp, which involved a couple of plastic emergency bags, some cord kindly provided by Matt, a damp pile of logs I clumsily tried to fashion into a makeshift windbreak, and the aforementioned weta hotel.

Let’s be clear – without Matt’s help, I’d have been screwed. There are tons of ways to build shelters. I knew none of them. Any amateur effort I could have knocked up would have been hideous, and probably collapsed on me at 3am.

As night fell we ate a meagre dinner, I put on all my clothes, smeared myself in insect repellent, pulled a hood up over my head, and hunkered down for an uncomfortable sleep.

Between the mosquitos and the moreporks, morning couldn’t come soon enough. I woke just after 5am, having had the crappiest of crap sleeps, and despite it being a perfect, still, summer’s night, I was shivering. Had it been raining, or windy, or both, I’d have been utterly miserable. I stood in the chilly dark, wondering how long we’d be there.

Not long.

There was one other thing Matt had brought along - a personal locator beacon. For anyone lost in the outdoors this tiny device is the difference between being found in a hurry, and potentially not being found at all. We’d arranged with Taupo Land Search and Rescue to be the subject of one of their training exercises, and once our PLB was activated, it took them just over an hour to find us.

The sight of those orange jackets emerging from the bush was beautiful. I can only imagine the immense feelings of relief that would arrive with those jackets if you were genuinely lost and in trouble.

The value of having a PLB is unquestionable.

Without that, without anyone knowing where we were. Well, put it this way, which of the 164,000 square kilometres of New Zealand would you have started to look in?

So, what I’ll be doing is this: the next time I go out in the bush, whether for a run, or a walk, I’ll carry more than a pocket knife and bottle of water. I will tell someone where I’m going. And I sure as hell won’t be dragging any damp, weta-infested logs to the spot I’m about to bed down on for the night.

Watch the full story here .