We have all read headline after tragic headline; something to the effect of, “Hiker Lost in Bush.” It is a fairly common mishap: hikers or campers lose the trail; maybe they went to the loo and got disoriented, maybe they thought they could venture off in country they weren’t familiar with.
We recently caught up with Outback Survival Expert Bob Cooper, a man with over 30 years’ experience dealing with and training others in how to survive in extreme situations. Who better to answer the question, ‘what should you do if you get lost hiking in the bush?’
“First thing is first: sit down somewhere comfortable. Start a small fire if you can, and if it’s safe to do so, make yourself a cup of tea and take out pencil and paper,” Bob calmly explained.
All the while Bob was telling me this, all I could think was “WHAT?! Make a cup of tea! I’m lost, my life is at risk – why would I want a cup of tea now?”
But Bob is remarkably good at explaining things in a relaxed, calming manner. After hearing him explain step one in more detail, I was immediately convinced that this is exactly what he would do, and that it was exactly what I should do if I ever found myself in such a situation.
“The biggest factor weighing against anyone in a situation like this is their own fear — fear of the unknown. Knowledge dispels that fear,” he said.
Bob drills this point home: fear is your enemy.
The difference between Bob and me is that if I had become disoriented while running off to the loo, I would have immediately become afraid as soon as the realisation hit home that I was lost. Bob on the other hand would have made a literal or (at the very least), figurative cup of tea.
Bob knows what to do in the situation and so he does not fear it.
If I imagine a situation like this, I always envisage a giant phantom clock appearing above my head as soon as I realise “I’m Lost.” Maybe that’s just me, but stay with me… Tick, tick, tick – your time is running out, you need to find your way quickly, and for some reason you always immediately start to feel hungry…even though you just ate a ham and cheese sandwich and you’ve got a bag of scroggin in your backpack (good work on the scroggin by the way).
But Bob explains that, in actual fact you’ve got all the time in the world. Almost. You can last for days if not weeks without food, and so long as you are not in a region experiencing incredibly high temperatures (i.e. the Outback), there is a good chance you will be okay for a period of time long enough to either find you way back to the marked trail, or for someone to find you.
“I call this the study room. Imagine a study or a calm place at home in which you used to work or think: it’s peaceful, quiet; you have a cup of coffee or tea. Make yourself comfortable in the shade, using very little energy.”
So, first thing’s first: make a cup of tea and make a plan. If you don’t have a tea bag then sit down and just make the plan: the first step for which should involve getting your priorities straight.
They are numbered for a reason - these are your priorities for however long you end up in the outdoors before being found – or before finding you way back to the trail.
By taking time to rationalise your priorities, Bob says “you are taking control of the situation.”
Back in our hypothetical scenario, the big ticking clock is gone. You reach into your pocket and you pull out a compass (if you had one of Bob Cooper’s survival kits, this would be a given). Perhaps you have a smartphone: if so, you have a compass. If you simply got disoriented and know that you are not far from the trail, usually you can work out which way the trail – or which way you starting point is – from there.
Obviously, every survival situation is different, and it’s impossible to know exactly what you will need to do to get out alive. A lot of that depends on what tools you have at your disposal to begin with. But what Bob teaches all of his students is how to effectively use the most powerful tool we have: our minds.
“Most people make decisions based on their emotions; based on their fears. The best way to overcome that fear is to first acknowledge that you are afraid, and then write down the five steps: water, shelter, warmth, signals, food. The only thing you have absolute control over at this point is what you think, and writing down those thoughts helps you to control them. When we are afraid, our bodies go into overdrive. What we can learn is to put all of that adrenaline and cortisol to good use.”
The scenario has changed dramatically since you first became lost.
Even if you didn’t have a teabag and the means to light a fire, you have at least sat down and taken some time somewhere quiet. You’ve made a list of priorities and started to work out how you can start ticking items off that list. And you have found north and worked out that the trail must be due west in the direction of the setting sun.
And heading off in the direction of the setting sun, your mood starts to lift and you begin to enjoy being in the outdoors again. Even the weight of your pack isn’t so bad, after all, at least in this case you’ve got a decent sized bag of scroggin tucked neatly between two ham and cheese sandwiches.
Bob explains the two biggest misconceptions in regards to survival situations