The following appears in the January issue of California Sportsman:
By Cal Kellogg
A buddy of mine was out hunting this fall in the Tahoe National Forest, got lost and ended up spending an uncomfortable night in the woods before finding his way back to his vehicle the next day. Luckily, the weather was mild. Had it been cold and wet, the story might have had a tragic outcome.
Now, some folks reading this might think that only rookies get lost and such a thing could never happen to them. Think again. Anyone can get lost while hunting, and this is especially true when familiarity with the area you’re hunting breeds complacency. That’s what led to me getting lost a few years back.
I’m not going to lie: When I realized I didn’t know where I was, it sent a wave of fear through me. But looking back, it was a great learning experience that will hopefully prevent me – and possibly you – from getting lost in the future. I was 3 when my father took me hunting for the first time.
Between then and now I’ve racked up decades of experience navigating in the woods and mountains. And up until I reached middle age, I’d never been lost or even so much as turned around.
I think the first lesson to be learned from my experience is that you can get lost anywhere at any time if you don’t take precautions. Over the years, I’ve hiked some very remote wilderness areas and I’ve explored a lot of unfamiliar ground, yet I wasn’t in an unfamiliar area when I got lost.
I was in an area that I’ve hunted and hiked extensively for about 30 years.
ON THE OPENING MORNING of deer season, a storm was rampaging through Northern California. Those are the sort of conditions I live for, because the hunting can be fast and furious as deer migrate out of the high country, so I was keen to get out of camp and into the woods. The area I was hunting was on public land, and since it was opening day there were sure to be plenty of hunters in the woods.
I used to be an avid treestand hunter, but not being the most acrobatic person in the world, I gave up on climbing trees in my 30s. Today, I hunt almost exclusively from ground blinds, because it is a lot more challenging to fall off the ground than out of a tree; ‘nuff said! Anyway, on the day I got lost, I was determined to get out of camp 90 minutes before sunrise. I wanted to be on my stand when the sun came up to take advantage of both deer movement caused by the storm and movement created by hunters pushing the brush.
In my rush to get going, I overlooked my GPS and left it in the truck. I didn’t even think of grabbing it, and why would I? I knew the ground I’d be hiking like the back of my hand, or so I thought. Plus, I had a compass in my survival kit that I could use in an emergency, should it become needed.
I’D ONLY BEEN HIKING for 15 minutes or so when I initially got into trouble. The lay of the ground didn’t feel right, which was a big red flag that I ignored out of hand.
Conditions were horrible; the wind was gusting to 30 mph and it was raining sideways. I decided that the red lens of my headlamp just wasn’t cutting it, so I switched over to white- light mode, thinking it would give me a better idea of where I was and where I needed to go. The only problem was that the bright light did nothing but illuminate the rain and fog. This only served to confuse me even more.
At that point, I should have stopped and waited for daylight. That’s the first rule of “staying found” – when you first realize that you don’t know where you are, stop moving. My dad had taught me that lesson at an early age and had reiterated it countless times.
But I didn’t stop. The adrenaline was flowing, and I wanted to get to my stand. I’d only been hiking for a short time and, as they say, “knew the ground like the back of my hand.” I figured if I moved another 100 or 200 yards, things would start feeling more familiar and I’d have no problem getting into position.
When things didn’t look any more familiar 10 minutes later, I stopped again, but it only took me a couple minutes to convince myself that I’d find my way if I just pushed forward a short distance more. After all, I still had to be pretty close to camp, and you can’t get lost just outside of camp!
I continued to hike and stop and hike some more. By the time darkness gave way to the milky light of dawn I’d probably stopped a half dozen times, but every time I did ego and adrenaline pushed me forward.
In the area I was hunting there is a massive lava-capped butte that serves as a major landmark. The whole time it was dark I had the idea in the back of my mind that no matter how turned around I got, once it got light, I’d be able to see the butte and that would tell me exactly where I was.
Sounds like a good idea, right? I thought so, but the problem was that once it got light, I couldn’t see the butte. I saw ridge after ridge in all directions, but no butte and nothing else that looked familiar.
This is when the fear and panic really set in.
I HAD RAIN GEAR on, but the hiking had left me sweaty and I was starting to get cold. If I’d been using my head, I would have broken out my old- school compass and figured out which way I needed to travel to cut a road or familiar creek, but in my panicked state I didn’t even consider using the compass.
I couldn’t get past the idea that I was on “familiar ground” and that things would start to fall into place if I just kept moving.
It was about an hour later that I spotted the first deer of the trip, and it was a dandy buck. I wasn’t hunting at that point. I was hiking but somehow, saw the buck before he saw me. Lost or not, it was a shooter and I was going to try to nail him. I dropped to the ground, squirmed out of my pack, readied my rifle and waited.
The buck moved around my position in a 180-degree arc. I could see his head and neck most of the time, but the lay of the ground prevented me from getting the rifle’s crosshairs on his vitals. Just when I thought the buck was going to come into the clear, he slammed to a stop, paused for a beat and proceeded to backtrack in the direction he’d come from.
I had the wind in my favor but couldn’t figure out why the buck had bugged out. Yet I was also still lost, so I didn’t waste any time ruminating over the missed opportunity.
I put the pack back on and moved forward several yards. The next thing I saw erased the fear and replaced it with jubilation. There was a Polaris Ranger parked under the trees. That explained why the buck had reversed course. I still didn’t know where I was, but whoever owned the Ranger would almost certainly point me in the right direction. The question was, how long would I have to wait for the hunter or hunters to return? I didn’t care if it took all day. I was going to wait until they showed.
When I reached the Ranger there were two daypacks sitting in it and I realized that the hunters must be close. I was correct and they showed up about 10 minutes later. I’ve never been so glad to meet a pair of strangers in the woods, and I told them so!
“I’m lost and I’ve been looking for that big butte, but I can’t see it anywhere,” I related.
“Well, you can’t see it because you’re standing on it,” exclaimed the dad of the father-and-son duo.
That’s when I realized how lost I’d really become. I was at least 2 miles from my intended stand location and was traveling almost exactly in the opposite direction!
“Don’t you have a GPS?” the son asked.
“Heck yes, I do. I have a great GPS. I left it in the truck!” I said and we all had a good laugh.
The “Clark Boys” did better than point me in the right direction. They gave me a ride back to a main spur road and within a half hour I was back in my camp.
True, my opening morning was a bust, but I didn’t care. The first thing I did was change into some dry clothes and then I broke out the GPS, made sure it was working, dropped a waypoint on my camp and put it into my pack. I was found and determined to stay that way!
I’VE HAD PLENTY OF time to reflect on the events of that morning and have come to some conclusions that will serve me well in the future. I think the first and most important thing is realizing that yes, I can get lost even on familiar ground.
The moment you realize you don’t know where you are is the time to act, and that doesn’t mean more blind hiking. That is the time to stop and put your tools to work.
What tools are those? GPS, compass and topo map. Those are absolute must-have items that have to be in your pack every time you head out. Naturally, the GPS is the primary tool because they are easy to use and fast to employ.
The compass and map are insurance for the worst-case scenario. GPS units are electronic devices and they could potentially fail at the worst possible moment. The compass and map always work, no matter what!
Another piece of gear my wife insisted I begin carrying on my solo adventures is a locator beacon. It’s something I’ve come to believe every outdoor enthusiast should carry. As with getting lost, you never know when you might sustain a serious injury, such as a cut or other medical emergency in the field.
Personal locator beacons are a boon for anyone who goes off the beaten path. Let’s say you’ve fallen and can’t move, or you’ve sustained a serious cut and though the bleeding is under control, you need to be evacuated. How are you going to get help?
There are several devices on the market, but they all basically work the same way. If you get in trouble, you hit the panic button, the device pings a satellite and search and rescue teams are dispatched to your location in short order.
Do your research when you pick out a beacon. Some are better than others; some have great additional features. Mine cost about $300. It’s highly reviewed, so I know it’s going to work in the backcountry. It’s 100-percent waterproof and it features a strobe light that will flash for 48 hours once I hit the rescue button, making it far easier to locate me at night.
When I go into the woods today, I’m going with the assumption that I will get lost or hurt, so I always have the tools to get unlost or rescued with me 100 percent of the time.
And if I get the first inkling of being turned around, I’m going to stop and reestablish my bearings. I refuse to let ego and panic rule the day ever again! CS
Editor’s note: Cal Kellogg is a longtime Northern California-based outdoors writer. Subscribe to his YouTube channel Fish Hunt Shoot Productions at youtube. com/user/KelloggOutdoors.