Lost and found

Emergency experts advise preparedness before going into unfamiliar territory

By Jimmy Mincin/The Altoona Mirror, Altoona, PA - October 27, 2009

If you were lost in the woods, or stranded on a back country road, would you know what to do?

With hunting season in its early stages, and old man winter looming just around the bend, the issue of preparedness in the wilderness is edging its way to the forefront of seasonal concerns.

"Always be carrying a cell phone that has a fully charged battery - even if it's just a cheap, pre-paid phone - and be familiar with a GPS device," Scott Beveridge, director of the Blair County 911 center in Altoona, said. "That way, if you get lost, our telecommunicators can track where you are in the woods and lead you back to a hard road."

In the last two years, "about a half-dozen" hunters have gotten lost in Blair County woods, all of whom were found because they had working cell phones with them and called 911, Beveridge said. What's more, a recently upgraded Phase 2 compliant system implemented in all 67 of the state's 911 call centers contains new software for mapping and addressing to provide better tracking to a caller's location.

"It puts a symbol icon right in front of the dispatcher. Within 30 seconds, we have their GPS coordinate," he said of the system. "It's basically a two-fold scenario: We get the lost person out of the woods, and we're not sending out massive amounts of emergency responders into the woods - especially in the dark.

"Overall, common sense is the key point for anyone going into the woods." he said. "That means knowing your surroundings, dressing appropriately according to the weather, making sure you have no underlying, potentially life-threatening medical conditions."

And if you get lost, stay in one place.

"If you stay put, it narrows our search pattern," Beveridge said. "It also helps you to maintain body temperature and to protect yourself from the elements."

Fact Box

Survival 101

Survival expert and author Randy Gerke, Montrose, Colo., said stranded people may initially look at a broken down car as merely trash, but debris can provide resources for shelter, fire, signaling, materials for constructing traps and snares for food and the means to collect and carry water. In his new guide, he reveals the following ideas.

» Fuel can be used to make fire that will provide light, security, a source of signaling and a heat source for warmth and cooking.

» Wire can be used as cordage to construct shelters.

» Fabric and padding from seats work well as shelter, insulation, bandages, shoes and clothing.

» Batteries can provide an electrical source to create a spark to ignite a fire, by connecting a piece of wire to each terminal and striking their ends together.

» Glass is useful as a reflector for signaling.

» Tires can serve as fuel, especially useful as fuel for a smoky daytime signaling fire.

Source: "Outdoor Survival Guide" (HumanKinetics, 2009)

Search and rescue expert Randy Gerke, who has served as a technical adviser to TV shows "Rescue 911" and "Worst Case Scenario," as well as authoring "Outdoor Survival Guide" (HumanKinetics, 2009), stressed the importance of designating a reliable person as an emergency contact for motorists.

"They should be given your itinerary and travel plans," he wrote in an e-mail from his home in Montrose, Colo. "They should know the description of your vehicle and its license number. They should know when you are leaving and when you plan to return. If you don't return when expected, they should be given instructions to notify the appropriate authorities."

And never depend solely on modern technology.

"Learn to use a map and a compass. As with any electronic device, a GPS can malfunction - batteries can go dead, and they can be damaged from water or rough treatment. But no matter what technology you choose to use, become proficient with it. Don't wait until you're lost to begin reading the instruction manual."

He cited shelter, fire and water as the three most important priorities in a survival situation.

"Shelter is usually the first priority. It provides protection from the elements and helps keep you warm. "Then comes fire. Besides giving a feeling of physiological security, it provides heat and light. Fires are also a great method to use for signaling. Locating a water source is the next priority - your body will not function well for long without water."

Generally speaking, food is not one of the first priorities in a survival situation, as healthy people can usually go a few days without food, Gerke said.

He added plant consumption should be considered carefully, as ingestion of some plant species, even in small quantities, can be very dangerous.

"As a rule, never eat anything you cannot positively identify," Tom Ford, director of the Penn State Cooperative Extension Office Blair County, said. "Often, plants which look the most enticing are often the most toxic. In my 27-year career as extension educator, I have seen more adults than children poisoned through the accidental ingestion of poisonous plants. Children spit things out that taste bad. Adults sometimes rationalize too much and keep eating the plant part despite its acrid flavor."

Some poisonous area plants include the water hemlock, giant hogweed, rhododendrons and azaleas, Darwin's orchid and meadow buttercup, he said, adding one of the best and most common edible plants survivalists look for is the common cattail (Typha latifolia), as its roots and lower shoots "contain carbohydrates that can provide energy and ward off hunger."

Being lost can happen to the experienced outdoorsman as well as the novice.

"The key to fixing the situation is recognizing early on that you are lost, and then immediately stop and begin following an organized plan to get back on track," Gerke advised. "An individual's pride, lack of attention and lack of preparation are dangerous enemies when traveling in unfamiliar territory. It's not a weakness or character flaw to admit that you don't know where you are."

Mirror Staff Writer Jimmy Mincin is at jmincin@altoonamirror.com