Search-and-rescue expert tells you how to stay safe

Volunteer search and rescue teams regularly join police forces searching for people who get lost in the Canadian wilderness.

Halifax searchers work with psychology professor to find errant hikers, hunters and kids

Maritime search and rescue teams take part in a training exercise on Prince Edward Island in this file photo. (CBC)

Volunteer search and rescue teams regularly join police forces searching for people who get lost in the Canadian wilderness.

Tony Rodgers, spokesman and searcher with Halifax Regional Search and Rescue, said they've worked with Dr. Kenneth Hill, a psychology professor at Saint Mary's University, to study how lost people behave.

"He's done a lot of work on lost-person behaviour," Rodgers says. "For example, a hunter will not bother with trails while hunting for deer. They'll go over the trails and walk on. A hiker will continue on trails."

Children fear the "boogeyman in the woods" and might avoid rescuers.

Rodgers explained how people often get lost, and how they get found.

How to get lost

Berry pickers tend to stay near the highway and listen to the traffic for their bearing. They usually don't take a compass or a map, and their only way back is by listening. They get lured in deeper by a richer patch of berries and wander out of earshot of the road to get lost.

Hunters come prepared, but sometimes chase their prey into the deep woods and get into trouble.

Hikers stick to trails, but occasionally take a wrong split on a "trail" that turns out to be an animal path that leads deeper in the woods.

Children are at most risk. They tend to be entirely unprepared to be alone in the woods and wind up lost when they get separated from parents.

How to get found

Rodgers stresses that someone needs to know you're lost before he can find you, so write up an itinerary and give it to someone. Tell them where you're going, when you'll be back, and give them a time to call for help if they haven't heard from you.

Phones are great. Searchers can ping you device to locate you, but not if the battery dies or you wander out of coverage. Call for help, and then make a plan on phone usage. You may agree to call once an hour on the hour to spare your battery and keep searchers on the right track. Bring a backup charge, too.

Kids should follow the "hug a tree" plan searchers teach at schools. It's simple: find a tree and make it your home. Stay by it and await rescue. "Mess up the area around your tree so that if searchers come through in the middle of the night, they'll start to look for you," Rodgers says.

Tuck your pants into your socks, pull up your hood and cover your hands in the sleeves to retain heat.

Hug a tree really works for anyone who has reason to believe a rescue will be coming.

Bring bright clothes. In places like Nova Scotia, hunters are legally required to have a compass, knowledge of how a compass works, a knife and matches. They also wear bright orange coats, which are easily spotted from a helicopter.

Non-hunters should follow their example. 

What search and rescue does

First, they build a profile of the lost person. Searchers take a form to friends or family to find out if the person drinks, uses drugs, or has mental health issues that could factor into their behaviour.

Then they figure out where the person was last seen and start there. Searchers create a digital map and draw "doughnuts" radiating from the last-seen spot. The Halifax team has tracked rescues for 25 years and use that data to guide them.

"So we can say of 100 people lost in those conditions on that category of person, the furthest was found seven kilometres away and the nearest 100 metres," Rodgers says.

"By putting that on the map, it gives us a physical view of where we should be looking and helps us reduce the area at the beginning of the search."

They also mark "traps" like lakes, highways, and power lines.

People tend to stop at power lines and highways and either follow them out to civilization, or wait in the area for rescue. Lakes and rivers also limit how far a person will wander in that direction. 

Searchers look for signs of disturbance in those areas — gum wrappers, foot prints or other signs of humans. 

Searchers carry GPS trackers so they don't get lost, but the data also gets fed back to headquarters. The search paths are added to the digital map, so searchers know exactly what areas they've covered.

The boots on the ground work with the helicopters overhead to systematically scour the woods. Helicopters use infrared to detect people.