Day 6

Wandering off the beaten path? Stop and make a plan if you get disoriented, says researcher

With the Armed Forces responding to about 1,000 search and rescue missions, many Canadians find themselves lost in the woods each year — and according to one psychologist, your best course of action when disoriented is to come up with a plan.

By getting people lost in the woods, psychologist Ken Hill has studied how people react

'The woods are a scary place,' says psychologist Ken Hill, who studies the effect that getting lost has on people. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

With just a few steps off the trail, it can be easy to get lost in the forest.

It happens to many people each year — the Canadian Armed Forces responds to about 1,000 search and rescue missions a year. According to one psychologist, your best course of action when disoriented in the woods is to stop and make a plan,

"People underestimate how easy it is to get turned around," said Ken Hill, a professor emeritus of psychology at St. Mary's University in Halifax.

"No matter how much experience you have, people just do not understand ... how important it is to plan ahead, think ahead, to keep track of where they are."

Hill has studied the psychology of getting lost, and he has also been part of search and rescue operations across Nova Scotia.

Hill first found himself lost in the woods at age 9 in Topanga State Park, near Malibu, Calif. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Getting lost is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a stressful event that can take a toll on the parts of your body you need the most, he says.

"The woods are a scary place … for a lot of people, especially when it starts to get dark. You get cold. You don't know where you are," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. 

"The very act of being disoriented is stressful, and the part of your body that needs to be functioning is the first to go. That's your brain."

Hill says that once you become disoriented, the best approach is to spend a few minutes to get to bearings. If that fails, "sit down, come up with a plan."

That plan, he explains, might be to just hunker down for the night and protect yourself from the elements.

Lack of research

Hill's interest in the subject goes back to the mid '80s when he joined the search for a nine-year-old boy missing in the forests of Nova Scotia.

When he arrived on scene, "it was pretty much mass hysteria," he recalled. "No one knew what they were doing."

The situation highlighted a glaring omission in research. There was none examining what people did when they became lost in the woods.

"There's lots of woods lore and anecdotal stories about stuff you hear around the campfire and that sort of thing, but no one had actually studied lost people," he said.

When searchers found the boy on the eighth day of the search, he had died from hypothermia. That mobilized Hill to gather the research on his own.

"I started getting people lost — myself, my students. I would take my students in the woods and get them turned around and I'd give them little questionnaires," he said.

Experiences hard to describe

Hill's research has found is that no one reacts the same way when they find themselves confused and unsure where to go.

While some people will follow the stars, or the sun, others wander aimlessly, and one's skills doesn't necessarily dictate their outcome.

"We've looked for people who had all kinds of woods skills but panicked when they became turned around," Hill said. "Other people that we've looked for had no background, no experience — but remained calm, settled down, and survived the ordeal."

"I really don't think there's any way of predicting how somebody is going to respond in a situation they've never experienced before that induces panic," he said.

It can also be a challenge for someone to articulate what they did while they were lost.

For Hill, the experience of getting lost is personal. When he was nine, he became separated from his family in California's Topanga Canyon — and at one point came face to face with a bobcat.

"I walked off into the woods and spent most of the day trying to find my way out. Finally, my dad came and managed to find me," he said.

More recently, he says he got "turned around" in a park he uses for research located just outside of Halifax — an experience he calls embarrassing.

"There's a trail system that is very confusing, and the signs are useless — the so-called you are here signs are useless," he recalled.

"I was checking out the geography and that sort of thing, and I zigged when I should have zagged."

Eventually, he followed the sound of cars on the road to find his way back.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Rachel Levy-Mclaughlin.

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