Monday, June 6, 2016



The story of the lady who went missing along the Appalachian Trail in 2013 and whose remains were only recently found brought back memories of searches I was involved in as a young man.  I would like to report that in those decades past I managed to find someone still alive, but sadly that was never the case.  In one incident I was not called in until the man had been missing for a week.  By that time all remnants of his sign had been obliterated by law enforcement (some of them on horses) and when I came upon the man he had only been dead a few hours.  Over the years I’ve lamented that I was not called in earlier.  Regardless, finding someone is not so much an exercise in following tracks as it is a matter of understanding human behavior.  The same goes for animals of any sort.  Critters follow the easiest routes and will seldom take to the thickest habitat unless forced into it.  In the case of the Appalachian Trail woman it seems she kept a diary during her ordeal.  She is said to have been an experienced hiker but obviously she was not learned in survival; in fact, it seems her skills were miniscule.  What compounded her ordeal was that she is reported to have had problems with anxiety and panic attacks.  She was also said to have been phobic of the dark, perhaps even the night itself.  Nonetheless, I think she was a brave woman who was not about to let these obstacles interfere with her outdoors experience.  But her mistake was stepping off the trail to use the bathroom and probably walking into the brush too far.  I imagine when she turned around to look back she became hopelessly lost.  With a poor sense of direction she headed off on the wrong course taking sinuous routes that took her farther and farther from the main footpath.

Being lost in the woods is an anxiety producing event in and of itself, but for one who suffers from panic it can be psychologically explosive.  I’ve pondered what might have happened to her when she finally ran out of her medication.  Anti-anxiety pills can have dangerous side effects if stopped suddenly.  In her case when her pills were gone we can assume she was then subjected to an even higher level of anxiety.  With increased panic and lessening food supplies it was indeed a dire situation.  In one sense she was smart in keeping a journal.  The act of writing is well known to produce calming effects.  In so doing she most likely found her journal a friend.

News reports mentioned that the lady tried to send text messages.  I can understand her desire to seek assistance, but her mistake was not deciding from the onset that she could manage her situation on her own especially since she was not injured.  Relying too heavily on technology to save her drained her of energy better spent in other ways.  She probably walked into the woods and never glanced back to see how the terrain looked from that direction.  That too is a common mistake.  Moving from point to point seeking a good cellphone linkage and thus wandering in random and disorganized patterns made her even more disoriented and also made searching for her more difficult.

Ultimately, her remains were found only about two miles from where she had stepped off the trail.  When lost, even a short distance to an established path can become a life or death situation.  I recall finding a man who had tried to cross from one trail to another (the space between the two trails only about two hundred and fifty yards) but he got lost in the thick, almost impenetrable brush in between.  When I and another fellow found his body it was only about seventy-five yards from the trail he was attempting to reach.  He had pulled a camera tripod over himself as a form of protection.  There were fresh coyote droppings less than three feet from the corpse.  He was a man in his late seventies and I presume he might have had a heart attack after a number of days without water or food and in a state of severe mental stress.

I’ve mentioned in other posts about going on extended hikes with people who I would have thought would know better but who took with them no water, no hat, no knife or cordage.  US Fish and Wildlife Service employees, US Border Patrol agents, biologists and geologists too often trek into the woods as if it were a stroll in the city park.  They come down with heat exhaustion, severe sunburn, and sometimes even heatstroke.  A friend of mine told me a story the other day of a neophyte Border Patrol agent who ambled into a dense thicket along the Rio Grande even when told by his superiors that he had not developed enough expertise to wander into those areas alone.  Within thirty minutes the neophyte was lost.  In the ultra-thick brush the summer temperatures peeked over a hundred degrees.  To further compound the problem the humidity was saturating.  The young man began frantically calling on his radio for help but the brush was so thick that other agents were not able to find him.  A helicopter was brought in but chopper pilots cannot see beneath the trees' canopy and thus were of no use.  The same thing happened to the Appalachian Trail lady who apparently never thought to find a clearing from which to signal.  In the case of the neophyte agent other Border Patrol personnel were able to triangulate his radio signal and thus find him.  “He was in really bad shape,” said my friend.  “They practically had to carry him out.”  Getting lost in the woods is so common that every year searches are conducted to find lost hikers and in this part of the country to locate illegal aliens who call 911 to say they are lost and on the verge of dying from dehydration.  Yes, many of them are carrying cellphones.

Survival list recommendations are numerous and oftentimes muddled, but in all cases one’s ability to survive being lost is dependent on only two things. First, comes one’s level of skill and second is one’s luck.  The world’s greatest survival expert is doomed if he or she gets bit by an ant or bee and suffers an anaphylactic reaction on the spot.  On the other hand there are countless stories of children becoming lost and then found a few days later scratched, bruised and perhaps mosquito bitten but not much worse.  Come to think of it, the highest chances of getting lost are rooted in decisions that were made without forethought or analysis.  What can happen by stepping off the trail to find a private spot to use the bathroom?  I’m sure the Appalachian Trail lady might have a thing or two to say about that.

I’ve heard people say, “Nothing is going to happen” so many times in my life that I’ve come to detest those who say it.  People who casually dismiss things—especially when related to wilderness survival—are dangerous to be around and I avoid them at all costs.  Naiveté is not something I respect nor is it anything I encourage.  Treat people who arrogantly say, “Ah, nothing is going to happen” as if they have the plague.  Don’t follow them and don’t rely on their judgment.  Instead, learn to use reason and analysis to examine the possibilities even when they seem remote.

Need I tell you that if you suffer from allergic reactions to insect stings that you ought to carry an EpiPen® epinephrine injection?  Must you be reminded to always carry a canteen full of water?  I hope not.  But like I said before, you’ll find people who do those things every day.  So below is a basic list.
Water-filled canteen, 2-quart minimum
Snack, i.e., granola bars
Wide brimmed hat (not a cap)
Leather gloves
Butane lighter
Pocket knife
Brightly colored bandana
The following are additional items you might consider but just remember they will add weight:
Water purifier
Small saw
Lightweight chopping tool: Hatchet or Large Knife
Insect repellent
Toilet paper
Extra butane lighter
25-feet parachute cord
Small ultralight tarp
Mosquito netting
A Note on the Knife
Regardless of where you travel you should always carry a pocket knife.  Some people consider a multi-tool or Swiss Army knife more appropriate.  A good pocket knife will do just about anything a small knife will do especially when it comes to carving and food preparation tasks.  Keep in mind, however, that a light hatchet or a small machete is infinitely superior to anything that might be referred to as a “bushcraft” knife.  That’s not to say that a four-inch blade “bushcraft” knife with a neat Scandi-grind isn’t cool and the “in thing” these days.  It’s just that if you are ever in a nasty situation you’ll wish you had a hatchet or a machete more than anything else.

A buddy of mine who lives in Durango, Colorado tells me he hikes the forests with no other cutting tools than a small hatchet and his Leatherman multitool.  In his competent hands nothing else is needed.  And that, my friends, is the important part: My buddy is well versed in survival skills.  Here in South Texas where nothing grows without vicious thorns attached to it the machete replaces the hatchet.  When I’m woods roaming with no intent to prune the trails and all I want to do is enjoy nature then I carry a Case carbon steel trapper model folder, a Swiss Army knife field-master and dangling from my belt a mini-machete.  Two of my mini-machetes are from Tramontina.  I cut the blades to 7 ½ inches on one of the knives and 7 ¾ inches on the other.  Yesterday I completed a knife using 15n20 steel.  The blade measures 6 ¾ inches.  The spine is 2.4 millimeters thick.  Note that lightweight Tramontina blades are 1.25 millimeters thick thus making them easy to carry.

It’s important to acknowledge that knives are what you ought to carry but not what you must carry.  A beer bottle broken on a rock can be turned into an excellent cutting tool to use for everything from gutting and butchering squirrels to deer as well as for scraping bark off a tree to fleshing out agave leaves to make cordage.  Just remember though that a knife makes it all a lot easier.

If you want to pick out one key word from this essay then that word should be, think.  Never do anything without considering all the obstacles it might create.  Don’t step blindly from place to place.  Think about what grows around you and then analyze the patterns you’re looking at.  City dwellers have particularly hard times learning to see, analyze and deconstruct what’s around them in the woods.  They have become desensitized to noise and visual stimuli.  Because of that urban dwellers should step even slower when hiking.  Unfortunately, it’s just the opposite from what I’ve observed.  But if you stop to think and observe and pay attention you’ll enjoy nature all the more and you’ll be less likely to get lost.


  1. Arturo; Living in Maine I followed the Geraldine Largay disappearance with interest. Apparently she had no sense of direction at all and would often start backtracking on the trail she had just came from after a short break and not know it. She was alive for something like three weeks after she was lost but made no effort to extricate herself from her predicament. Basically she had no business being out there alone. She could not walk her way out of a paper bag. Here are a series of articles run by a local rag on the case as it evolved. Though you might find them of interest.
    Greetings, Michael

    1. Thanks for sending me those articles. I hope others that visit this blog read them as well. I agree, Geraldine Largay was not prepared and should never have gotten off the trail. Someone commented to me the other day that it would've been better to just go the bathroom a few feet from the trail and then bury it. Alas, she was probably embarrassed and it caused her to lose her life. So often people will walk these long trails with no thought about what exactly can go wrong. The same goes for around here where every deer season a hunter will get lost after wandering away from the trail (sendero) and sometimes the results are tragic.

    2. Como decíamos en Venezuela, la pobre estaba mas perdida que el hijo de Lindberg. In that neck of the woods it is somewhat confusing and quite easy to get turned around. Unlike the desert southwest you really can't see very far and it really all looks the same. Her lack of any sense of direction put her especially at risk. I am sure she was unaware she was off the trail till it was too late. Counting on someone else to save her was her second mistake. And technology did not help either as there is no cell phone coverage in that area at all. A GPS might have helped if she known how to use it. Some tidbits of info have recently been released from he diary. Perhaps with time the whole thing might be made public in some sort of book that might shed some more light on the circumstances. The articles make a lot of noise about the military facility, but I doubt it had anything to do with it other than she got in to an area where no one else normally goes. It is sad and avoidable set of events, but in the end Darwin always rules.

  2. Good post, but I wonder that you don't include a compass among your survival tools, and many will also advocate a small flashlight. What are your thoughts on these?

    1. You are absolutely correct on both. How silly of me to have forgotten them, especially the flashlight. Around here walking at night without any sort of light is suicide. Rattlesnakes abound and I'd be nuts to hike anywhere without illumination. The compass is an excellent item to carry also. Thank you for mentioning them.

    2. I'll second a compass, even a small "thataway" button type found in many "survival kits," when combined with a basic knowledge of the lay of the land, i.e. major landmarks, fence lines, roads, waterways and their general direction. In my part of the state, rivers tend to run north-to-south, while in your area they might run west-to-east. If you know a highway runs nearby and the river crosses it, you could follow the river until you meet the highway. If you aren't carrying an appropriate map of the area, as long as the map in your head is accurate enough, if basic, then you have a better than average chance of not getting turned around.

      As you say, tho, the lost AT hiker had no sense of direction, and likely shouldn't have been in the woods by herself. Those are the people that will argue the compass is wrong, they know where they are on the map, in spite of the landmarks not matching up completely and the compass pointing a different direction than it should on the map.

    3. Also remember that this poor lady also suffered from panic attacks. We've all heard of people panicking in the woods when they are lost but just imagine what someone who already suffers from panic might go through when suddenly turned around and unable to simply calm down. As the news reports noted she was found about two miles from the Appalachian Trail. As incomprehensible as it may sound she was unable to negotiate her way back in what, around here, would be considered an extremely minor distance. This was a pathetically unfortunate incident that we can all learn from.

  3. I've had 24 hours to reflect on this story, and I've come to the conclusion that, at least in the case of Appalachian Trail thru hikers like the late Ms. Margay, some of the survival gear listed here would not be included in the backpack. When we talk of the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, we should view them as the equivalent of the interstate highway system: designed to move backpackers as quickly as possible from one point to another, with little or no time to stop and enjoy the experience. There is only a small window of time from spring to fall that the trails are safe to walk, so the backpacker's purpose is to put as many miles into a day as possible, to the detriment of gear. The thru hikers, like interstate highway drivers, count on a series of readily-available shelters for sleeping every night, and have a steady flow of other hikers to rely on for mutual assistance for the minor breakdowns that happen on the trail. They buy the lightest gear possible, and have even been known to alter gear to make it lighter, e.g., sawing toothbrushes in half to save a few grams of weight. These folks simply aren't going to view survival gear as necessary, and occasionally one will pay the price, as Ms. Margay did.

    1. You are absolutely correct on all points, especially the part about going from one point to the other without taking the opportunity to enjoy where they're walking. Years ago I was in Big Bend National Park and I overheard one park ranger telling another ranger about this man who bragged he had walked a six-hour trial (if I remember correctly) in four hours. The ranger who was listening said, "You should've asked him what was the point?"

      I was guiding an English professor down a narrow trail in some very dense brush. The trail was about two miles long. At one point he became impatient with me and said, "You biologists are all alike. You want to stop and examine everything. Come on, let's get going."

      For many people a trail is tantamount to an obstacle course. The object is to simply make it from beginning to end and nothing more. Taking the time to admire the nature surrounding them is far down on their list. There is also a cult-like attitude about traveling ultralight. But for the bushcraft enthusiast there is a similar purpose but ideologically the two mindsets are light years apart. The ultralight backpacker weighs heavily on technology from titanium cups to space-age fabrics and, as you noted, reducing the weight of their pack whenever possible. It's not that the pack is any smaller; its that the pack is much lighter. But the bushcrafter seeks minimalism instead of lightweight. In other words, a bushcraft will carry few items, many of them purposed in duality. The idea is to conservatively (in the traditional sense) use natural materials but without harming the nature around them. Where an ultralight backpacker will tote tent pegs, for example, a bushcrafter will make them on the spot.

      In one blog I saw where a fellow carries nothing more than a razor blade on his backpacking jaunts. He claims that's all he needs. Indeed if all one intends to do is walk from trail station to trail station, eat at a local bed and breakfast or camp alongside a bunch of fellow walkers then perhaps even a razor blade is unnecessary. But for the bushcraft who wants to know nature intimately things like a knife, cordage and perhaps a hammock are more preferable...along with the items mentioned in my post and those in the comments section.

  4. I have a bit of ground with a road on one edge, a highway a couple of miles north and a dying town just a bit west.

    yet I have had folks come up out the creek lost as hell. I don't personally believe in the sense of direction thing but i do believe that observation will get you going.

    I guess my point is if you can get lost onj forty acres, two miles from the trail is a long ways.

    1. Sorry to take so long to reply. We've been working hard around this ranchito.

      I guess it has almost everything to do with one's association with the woods. Two miles around her (in thick thorn woods) is just a short walk...even when negotiating the narrow and briery game paths. But then we've grown up in this land. We know the woods all around like others would know their neighborhood. There are people around here though who can't walk fifty yards without getting in their pickup trucks or riding an ATV. Now those people are no different from the subway riders who get lost if ever forced to take the sidewalks above ground.

      I can see where for most people these days--those with very little exposure to the woods--even forty acres seems daunting. I've seen people get lost in even less than forty acres. So your point is well taken. I think it boils down to familiarity with the woods. The more one knows, the more one is likely to survive.