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Even in popular wilderness areas such as Yosemite National Park, becoming lost while hiking can lead to an extremely dangerous situation. Ideally, preparing multiple means of navigation and emergency communication will prevent you from getting lost in the first place, but if things go wrong and you're unable to navigate safely you'll also need a backup plan. In many cases, wandering aimlessly can result in becoming even more lost, and also make it more difficult for rescuers to find you. When accurate navigation is not an option, it may be wise to stay put and make your campsite as visible as possible.
On February 17th, Alan Chow, a 36-year-old man from Oakland, California, was backpacking alone in Yosemite near Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Although Chow is an avid hiker and planned on taking the trip solo, temperatures dropped and snowfall reportedly blanketed the trails, causing him to veer off course. Realizing the risks of attempting to return to safety when the path was uncertain, Chow made the decision to stay put.
When he didn't return to work, coworkers reported him missing, and the search began. After six days, a National Park Service ranger in a helicopter spotted Chow's campsite on a mountainside, and he was rescued. He reportedly set up his tent for shelter, bundled up in layers to stay warm, melted snow for drinking water, and relied on his food supplies during this situation.
In a statement to local news outlet KTVU, Yosemite Park Ranger Scott Gediman said Chow had done everything right to survive. “[He] did the right thing by setting up his tent and was able to stay put. He is fine. Not even hypothermic; will not even be going to the hospital. The lesson here is for everybody, is that if you're out in the back country and you fall, you hurt yourself, you get lost, just stay put and don't try to walk around and get even more lost.”
Chow posted a statement on his personal Facebook page after the events, thanking his rescuers and updating friends and family on his condition:
“I luckily only suffered a sprained ankle and slight malnutrition, but otherwise I'm fine physically and mentally. I'm simply trying to get some rest and, for the most part, ready for life to continue as normal. For those that are curious about how I managed to survive, I simply followed the basic survival skills that I learned. Kept close to a water source, conserved my energy, rationed out food supplies, tried to keep warm, and found a suitable location to setup camp so that I would be as visible from the air as possible.”
As survivalists, we value self-reliance, but there comes a time when we must swallow our pride and wait for help. If you ever find yourself lost in the backcountry, you'll need to carefully weigh the pros and cons of attempting to navigate to safety versus signaling for rescue. Stubbornly wandering in circles can be a dangerous mistake.