On Getting Lost While Hunting

The following information on getting lost while hunting comes from Chapter 9 of How to Hunt Deer by Edward A. Freeman. How to Hunt Deer is also available to purchase in print.

Every year we read or hear about hunters and fishermen getting lost in the woods and of the trouble and expense that is taken to find them. The state wardens, the sheriff’s department, guides and other woodsmen all turn out to look for the lost person. Not all of this is necessary. The search is necessary if a man fails to show up at his camp soon after he is expected, but there is no need for the man to be lost in the first place. The search is necessary because the missing man may have met with an accident and may not be able to travel, but no man should go out of sight of camp, in the woods, without a compass, and there is no real need for one with a compass to become lost.

A man doesn’t need to be a navigator or a surveyor in order to be able to utilize this instrument. All that he needs is a steady mind and something to give him a positive general direction. Almost any cheap compass will do this, if the carrier will only believe it, and if he has taken the trouble to notice the direction in which he started when he left camp at the beginning of the hunt. Most hunting camps are on a road, stream or pond that extends for some distance on each side of the camp and it is only necessary to find this road, stream or pond in order to find the camp.

When hunting in strange territory, I usually spend a part of the first day in familiarizing myself with the territory in the immediate vicinity of the place where I am staying. I walk the road, if there is one, for at least a half-mile in each direction from camp, observing any outstanding features which might serve as landmarks. I make short circles or half-circles near the camp, noticing any unusual formations such as trees, rocks, brooks, woodroads, choppings or anything which might be of help in determining my exact location in relation to the camp in case that I should become confused when returning from a hunt. This procedure would not help a man that is completely lost, because when he is in that condition, even the back door of his own home is liable to be strange and unfamiliar enough to be unrecognizable. This does not seem possible, but I know from experience that a man who is merely turned around can look at familiar objects without recognizing them and even after he has recognized them, cannot believe that they are in their proper place.

I came to a neighbor’s house when I was turned around, recognized the place, talked to the owner, but had to use my will power to keep from asking him when he had moved his house across the road. I knew that he had done nothing of the sort, but my mental compass was so far off that I had difficulty in believing that the house was in its proper place.

A neighbor of mine lived about two hundred yards south of my home. He became turned around in the woods and failed to return home before dark. I drove around the piece of woods which he had been hunting in an effort to locate him. In the meantime he found his way out of the woods, came to the back of my house, failed to recognize it and, instead of going south towards his own home, started off in a westerly direction and walked for about a half-mile before he came to a familiar place and was able to return to his home.

These things are often amusing, but can very easily become tragic if a man becomes panicky and terrified at the thought of not knowing just where he is.

Getting lost is a state of mind. It is not at all necessary. The true woodsman is never lost, even if he is unable to tell just where the home camp is located. I have been turned around in the woods until I hardly knew what way was up, but I have never been lost because I was at home in the woods and never felt the unnecessary compulsion to be at a house or camp when night came.

Fear is the cause of most cases of persons becoming lost. Any one will feel a little uneasy when he finds that he has no idea where the camp is or how to get there, but unless he submits to this fear, there is nothing to worry about. A night spent in the woods is nothing to the man who is in fairly good physical shape. No man who is not in good condition should venture into the woods without a competent companion.

“There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” I have slept out in nearly every state in the country and there is nothing anywhere that will bother a man, with the exception of poisonous snakes in some sections, and the danger from these is so slight that it can be disregarded in most regions.

There is something about a man’s mental make-up which makes him uneasy in unfamiliar surroundings. The casual hunter braves the imaginary dangers of the woods in search of game with the often unconscious object of proving that he is a skilled and successful woodsman. This is only natural and is an ancestral heritage handed down from the time when men lived on what the hunter brought home from the chase. When things go wrong and the hunter finds that he is not quite as good as he thought he was, he doesn’t know just what to do and, unless he keeps a steady head, he may become hopelessly lost and, unless found in a short time, may find himself in serious danger. This danger is not in the woods, but is in the man’s reaction to getting lost.

When one first finds that he is uncertain of his whereabouts in the woods, his first inclination is to speed up and get as far as he can before night with the hope that he is traveling in the right direction or that he will meet another hunter who will set him right. This is about the worst thing he can do. Instead of rushing around aimlessly, probably away from camp, he should sit down, take a rest and smoke his pipe or relax in some other manner. He should take account of the situation. If he does not know where the camp is, he should admit it and then say to himself, “What of it?” Is it absolutely necessary that he return to the camp that night or even on the morrow? His friends at camp will worry if he doesn’t show up, but what of that? His reputation might suffer if he has to stay out over night, but what of that? It is better for them to worry than it is for him to go blundering around getting more hopelessly lost as time goes on. What good is his reputation as a woodsman if his friends find him a hopeless madman, rushing blindly through the woods, heedless even of the men who find him?

If a man has a compass, he should be able to locate himself in relation to the home base if he has any idea of his travels since leaving it. If the camp is on a road that runs north and south and the hunter left it to hunt on the east side of the road, all that he needs to do in order to return is to travel in a westerly direction until he comes to the road. The chances are that this road will be the one on which the camp is located and it should be easy to find. It is not necessary to travel in an exactly straight course but merely in a general westerly direction in order to find the road. Other situations require other solutions, but most problems of this sort can be solved by a little clear thinking. If the lost man has no compass and the sun is not shining, the only thing which he should do is to sit tight and wait for aid to arrive.

The people who lead organized searches for lost persons are all in favor of the lost person’s staying in one place and building and maintaining a smoky fire. This is sound advice and is the best thing a lost man can do. It is also about the most difficult, because it gives a man too much time to think and worry about his situation. I would recommend that he establish as comfortable a camp as possible and that he look for food nearby, instead of merely sitting on a stump and waiting for someone to find him. Physical activity will relieve the mental strain and will often prevent a man from doing irrational things which so many lost persons do.

I knew a man who became lost and on the second day he saw a deer standing nearby watching him. It was an easy shot, but he did not shoot because he was lost and didn’t want to drag the deer along with him. He had had nothing to eat since the previous morning, but to him the deer did not represent food. All it looked like was an added burden.

Another man, lost on a stormy day, came to a man’s tracks and decided to follow them out of the woods. He thought that he must be nearly out because the trail was getting better all of the time.

What he did not know was that he was on his own trail, traveling in a tight circle. I have found myself starting to do this same thing when I didn’t even know that I was turned around, but I never followed myself very far without recognizing my footprints. Then by paying attention to what I was doing, I was able to reorient myself by getting away from that immediate area.

Irrational actions seem to be entirely rational to the man who is lost. His mental deductions are often erroneous and he does not consider the entire situation, but only thinks of immediate comfort. He looks at his compass and the needle doesn’t seem to point to the north. He reasons that it is no good and he throws it away as useless. His gun keeps catching on brush and trees, slowing his traveling, so he discards it. Twigs keep snatching his hat from his head. He retrieves it a few times and then forgets about it. Due to exertion and nervous strain, his coat becomes too hot for comfort, so he removes it and carefully hangs it on a tree limb with the idea that he will retrieve it on the following day. His shoes hurt his feet so he takes them off, carries them for a time, then lets them drop or hangs them on a tree to be retrieved in the future. Branches catch in his clothing and instead of taking the time to release them, he gives them a yank and tears them. Night finds him still lost, half naked and with little equipment left to make himself comfortable, so he continues to travel blindly in an effort to keep warm. All of these things have been done by normal people of average intelligence and might be done by anyone who becomes lost.

It is to avoid such things, as well as to aid any searchers, that I would recommend the lost hunter stop and try to reason out his location. If he has been foolish enough to be without a compass or cannot decide the probable location of the camp, he should make as comfortable a camp as possible and prepare to spend the night in the woods.

I do not recommend that the lost hunter use his gun to signal for aid, because, in my opinion, this custom, while universally accepted as the first thing for the hunter to do when he finds himself in trouble, is too often misunderstood or disregarded by other hunters. The result is usually a waste of valuable ammunition. I would not recommend that the lost hunter resort to this during the daylight hours. After the day’s hunt is over and everything is quiet, it would be advisable to fire the traditional three evenly spaced shots and if there is an answer, continue signaling as long as there is any indication that help is nearing. If there is no answer to the first signal, just forget about it and save the ammunition for a more important use.

Years ago I used to wonder why any one became turned around in the woods and why they usually traveled in circles. The theory that one leg is longer than the other or that the turning of the earth was the cause, didn’t seem reasonable to me. I thought that if I could find the cause of this, I could avoid getting lost. Since that time I have had a chance to study the wrong moves which I have made, and in my case at least, it is caused by inattention. I think any man can travel the woods by constantly watching directions, and he would seldom become turned around. This is the first step in preventing confusion, but it does detract from the enjoyment of being in the woods, for one certainly sees less game and therefore bags less.

A friend and I were cruising a piece of timber when we jumped two deer. It was out of season, but I wanted to know where the deer would go, so we followed them for a short distance. I soon lost the track and, walking to the left, saw an old track. As soon as I saw that it was not the track which I was looking for, I walked in the direction I was facing instead of turning back as I should have done. Before I had gone a hundred feet, I saw to my left a disturbed place on the ground. When I walked to it there were the tracks that I was looking for, and a clear print of my own foot beside it. I felt sheepish when I looked at my grinning companion who told me just what I had done. I had become completely turned around in an area no larger than a city lot, and this on a day with a bright sun shining overhead.

Another time I was hunting alone in a piece of woods which was about two miles wide—east and west—and five or six miles long. This woodland was surrounded by town roads. I had hunted the west half of this area and was quite familiar with it, but knew little about the east half or the road which bounded that side. It was early in the season and I had little hope of bagging a deer, but wanted to get an idea of their feeding grounds and where the largest herd was staying. My plan was to follow a woodroad to an abandoned woodchopper’s camp which was about halfway through the woods, turn left and go about a half-mile to the north to another woodroad which I could follow back to the point where the car was located.

I found the camp without seeing anything of interest, then walked along, checking game trails for signs of recent use. When I came to the town road, I turned left again, which should have taken me back to my car. I walked along this road for a time and then it dawned on me that there should be an open field on my right where there was nothing but woods. The sky was overcast, but I had my compass pinned to my coat and I glanced at it to check directions to assure myself that everything was right. I had to shake the compass and let it settle before I could believe that I was headed north when I should have been traveling south. Usually I am no dumber than many other hunters, but it took me a good ten minutes to figure out where I was and how I came to be there. I was on the east road when I should have been on the west one and somehow I had traveled all the way through the woods.

My mental compass wouldn’t adjust itself so, in order to be safe as well as to have easier walking, I returned to the place where I had left the woods and followed the woodroad back into the woods in a westerly direction. This road ended in a small chopping. Using my compass, I crossed this chopping and another cutting, following a road out of the latter, and came to a camp. This camp was unfamiliar to me until I looked into the window and then I realized that it was the same which I had passed earlier in the day. The act of looking in the window brought my mental compass back into adjustment and I was all right for the rest of the day.

Somewhere after leaving the camp for the first time, I became so interested in deer tracks that I lost my directions and turned to the right when I thought that I was going straight ahead.

Sometimes a man will get lost by not heeding the instructions of his companions or his guide.

I, with three companions, was hunting on the edge of a piece of woods that was about five miles square and surrounded by roads. Two of us were familiar with the territory, but the others had never hunted there.

On the northwest edge of this piece of woods there was a side hill, sloping to the east, where deer often spent the day. When these deer were disturbed, they usually headed in a northerly direction and crossed a road at the edge of the woods. Our plan was to drive this side hill with three men while the fourth man covered the crossing. This section of the woods was about two miles long and not over a half-mile wide and was bounded on the east by a brook which flowed north at the foot of the slope. Before starting the drive, I explained the “lay of the land” to the two men who were to help me do the driving and told them to head north and not to cross any roads or brooks. The sky was overcast but the clouds were thin enough so that the sun’s position could be seen and there was little chance that any of us would get lost.

Only two of us drivers arrived at the road where the fourth man was stationed. We waited for the missing man for a reasonable time; blowing the car horn and shooting our guns occasionally in order to give him our location in case he was lost, and then two of us drove the car around the road looking for him. He was still missing at dark and, after listening for gun signals and checking most of the houses in the vicinity, we started for home with the intention of starting an organized search in the morning. About seven miles south of there we found him sitting beside the road waiting for us. He had crossed the brook and at least one other stream, which he must have followed for some distance before he found a place that was shallow enough to wade.

He had crossed an abandoned road and another piece of woods in order to arrive at the place where we found him. This man evidently did not travel in circles, as so many do, but traveled in an almost straight line in the wrong direction. As soon as he became lost, soon after we started, he disregarded everything which I had told him and only chance brought him out on a main road near a house where he was able to find out where he was. This man was unharmed, but he crossed one road without knowing it and might have crossed the second if the house had not been there.

People who are hunting in strange territory should not disregard advice and information offered them by natives of the district. If you meet a local man in the woods and he tells you that north is south, you should believe him unless you have positive proof that he is wrong. Nine times out of ten, he, with his intimate knowledge of the country, will be right. Very few men will be deliberately misleading in giving directions to a stranger, but sometimes a man is lost in his own back yard and doesn’t know any more about directions than you do. Such people can usually be spotted by their manner. Any vagueness in giving directions or a reluctance in answering questions will give the idea that they are uncertain of their whereabouts and then a man should use his own judgment about believing them.

Once while hunting, I disagreed with an older, more experienced woodsman, who was a resident of the section and, as it turned out, I was right, but it was a very brash thing to do. Three of us were hunting together that day. Our leader was prospecting for fur while we were looking over the country for bears or any other game which might be there. The section was mountainous and near the timberline. On the way home we crossed a peak above the timberline. From this vantage point, the lake, where our leader’s cabin was located, was visible and, before entering the timber, I checked the approximate location of this cabin and fixed this in my mind as we descended. About a half-mile from the lake we came to a trail which had been made by a man who had trapped the territory in previous years. We knew that this trail passed in back of our destination and was, at its nearest point, about two hundred yards from the camp. When we came to this trail, our leader wanted to turn to the left and I wanted to turn to the right. Both of us were sure that we were right, and, both being rather stubborn characters, neither would yield to the other. As a result, we started in opposite directions while the third man, who had voiced no opinion, sat on a rock and waited, saying, “You can’t both be right and one of you will be back here.” I was at the camp and had a fire started before they arrived. I was right in my directions, but wrong in disputing the knowledge of an older, more experienced man in a country with which I was unfamiliar.

One time I was fishing on a fairly large lake and two fishermen came along in a rowboat. When they came abreast, one of them asked the directions of a certain landing. I told them and pointed out the direction which they should take. They never slackened their speed or changed their direction, and if they continued on their course they would have reached the shore at a point about four miles to the south of their destination. It was nearly dark and I don’t know why they should ask directions and then fail to follow them, unless they were lost and slightly panicked by the possibility of spending the night on the lake. They must have reached the shore without mishap, but they could have saved themselves a lot of rowing if they had taken the time to stop and talk to me and to listen to my directions then proceed as advised.

Sometimes some natural configuration of an area will cause a person to become confused.

Another man and I became turned around in the goat-raising region of Texas, while returning to our camp one night. We had a short two-mile hike and we anticipated no trouble. We were supposed to follow a trail that would lead us up to a plateau where the trail became practically nonexistent until, at the end of a point, it lead to a break in the rimrock which it followed to the valley where our tent was located. We crossed the plateau in an easterly direction until we came to the edge. From there the valley was on our left so that we must have been on the north side of the point of land where the trail was located; and if we followed the rim, we should come to the break where the trail left the plateau. We walked for a longer time than we felt was necessary and then, deciding that we had made a mistake somewhere, we sat down and waited for the moon to rise. We knew that we would have about a two-hour wait so we built a small fire and spent the time in idle conversation.

When the moon appeared, it apparently rose in the west. When we faced the moon, the valley was on our right when it should have been on our left. We spent a few minutes in trying to puzzle out our location and then, knowing that the moon must be in the east, we walked along the rim in that direction and soon came to the end of the point where the trail was located. From there we could look down on our tent that showed up white in the increasing moonlight. We had done nothing wrong that night, but had become turned around by following the edge of a point of land that described a half-circle and by failing to see the break in the rimrock where the trail left the plateau.

I encountered a similar situation one night while ‘coon hunting. I intended to follow a small stream to a trail which crossed it and that would lead me out of the woods. As I followed this stream, I came to a branch which I mistook for the main stream and I followed this branch without noticing the change in the direction of the current. This took me deeper into the woods and I had to wait for daylight in order to find out what I had done.

Occasionally we will become familiar with a section of the country without the use of a compass and we will find that our sense of direction is different than that of the compass. This does no harm unless we become lost and even then it is not important if we know the compass location of the area in relation to the surrounding territory.

There is one piece of woods which I know as well as I know my own back yard. I have hunted it many times and have never had any trouble in finding my way around, but if a man should meet me there and ask for the compass directions, I would have to look at my compass in order to give him the correct answers. To me, everything in that piece of woods is partly turned around. Even the sun is out of place, but I have adjusted myself to this unnatural condition so that I have no trouble in finding my way around.

The same thing happened to me in a southern city, so it is not the woods which causes a person to become confused in his directions. I arrived at this city in the nighttime on a train from the west. Unconsciously using this east-west railroad line as a direction base, I proceeded to make myself at home. I found a place to live that night and a place to work the next day. I don’t remember when I first noticed that the sun was out of place, but it must have been within a day or two after I arrived.

I lived there for over a month, never had any trouble in finding my way around and never succeeded in straightening out my directions. It seemed odd to board an east-bound street car to go to the west end of town, but the strangeness soon became natural.

I found that the train from the west circled the town and entered it from the southeast, and this is what put my mental compass out of order.

Five years later, I re-entered this city by daylight and it was like entering a strange town. Buildings that I recognized were on the wrong side of the streets. Streets ran the wrong way and I had more trouble in finding my way around than when I had first lived there and the sun came up in the west.

The list of things which a hunter could use in the woods is almost endless, but the first thing on my list is a good compass. I have done a great deal of hunting without a compass and have never had very much trouble, but for the past twenty years I have never entered unfamiliar territory without this important aid.

In my youth I, with one companion, spent a summer in the wilds of western Canada. Neither of us carried a compass or felt the need of one. We were lucky. To be sure, we were in a drainage basin which ran south for hundreds of miles and for at least fifty miles to the north. This series of lakes and streams could not be crossed without swimming and even the exuberance of youth could not make that snow-fed water inviting. If we had become confused as to direction, all that was necessary was to go to the top of the nearest mountain and we would have a panoramic view of the entire area, and any considerable body of water was sure to be in the right direction for us to travel. Even so, it was a foolhardy thing to do and only the self-confidence and ignorance of youth would induce two people to put themselves, entirely on their own, in a strange, wilderness country without a compass.

The man who is familiar with his hunting territory is less apt to lose his way while hunting and, if he becomes lost, has a better chance of finding his way out of the woods than the one that goes forth without any idea of the local terrain. The only way to become thoroughly familiar with an area is to travel over it, but the use of a good map can give a good map reader a comprehensive knowledge of the salient features of the country so that when he enters the woods he can identify many of the hills and streams which he encounters.

The layout of streams is, perhaps, the most important thing on the map. Most hunting areas are drained by one main stream, fed by small brooks which empty into some major river system. Knowledge of this drainage area is good insurance in that, if a man becomes lost, he will be able to reorient himself in a short time and find his way out of the woods.

There are some places (we have them here in Maine) where the streams run “every which way” so that they are of little use as direction pointers. This can be extra confusing when two drainage basins originate in the same comparatively level area. Study of a map before entering such places will help, but they are very dangerous to the inexperienced, and, if in the deep woods, should not be hunted without a guide.

Any hunter who has any doubts about his ability in the woods should hire a guide, and then, if he should happen to become lost, he can let the guide do the worrying. That is one of the things for which he is paid.

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On Getting Lost While Hunting

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