Bushwalking Navigation | How to Avoid Getting Lost or Losing Someone in Your Group

Have you ever been on a bushwalk and lost track of where you were? Ever turned the corner and found the rest of your group was no longer walking ahead? Ever stopped to take a photo and been unable to catch up with your group?

Getting lost on a walk can easily be avoided by some pre-planning, good leadership and each walker taking responsibility for knowing where they are at all times.

The Pre-planning

All walkers should have a map of the walk.

This could be a full topographic map or the relevant part of the map (A4), printed from a digital source or scanned from the original, and then laminated or inserted into a plastic pocket, which has been sealed. Before distributing a small part of the map make sure that the Eastings and Northings are clearly marked on the map, so a grid reference can be given and found. If the route has already been planned, show the route with dots or crosses and significant waypoints, which should be named.

If you have some individuals who have a GPs, issue them with the waypoints and route so they can upload it before leaving home. If you issue the route as a .kml file then individuals can familiarise themselves with the route, by importing the waypoints into Google Earth. Issue a route plan which gives information about the legs of the walk, especially for those without a GPS.

At the Start of the Walk.

A good leader will always brief the group:

  • have everyone locate the starting point on their map
  • have everyone locate the finishing point on their map
  • give an ETA at the campsite and distance
  • outline the route, describe the terrain, point out significant obstacles
  • locate a lunch spot and approximate time

 Before starting appoint a “tail-end charlie” or “whip” to always be at the back and assist in keeping the group together. This person needs to have enough experience and confidence to know when to ask the leader for a break to rest tired individuals or to bring the group back together.

Decide who will lead the way and brief them on how you want the group kept together: visual sight to the rear or maximum spread of 50m and/or pause at every junction. The trail-blazer needs to be a competent and strong bushwalker as they will often need to find the best route and break through bush.

Check that everyone has the emergency equipment needed for an overnight stop caused by bad weather or an injury, appropriate clothing  and sufficient water before departure.

During the Walk

During the walk everyone should orientate and thumb the map so that they can follow their route as they walk. The leader/navigator should bring major features on the ground to everyone’s attention, so they can relocate themselves on the map. At each rest break make sure everyone knows where they are on the map.

Individuals should try to match map-to-ground as they walk, anticipate approaching features such as creek bends, junctions and road intersections. Form a 3D image of the country you are walking through and make sure that what you can see fits with what you were expecting. Is the creek you are walking in following the direction the map shows? Is the creek running up hill or downhill? Does this match what the map shows?

Keep you map orientated towards the north using your compass or the sun.

What if you lose the rest of the group?

  • don’t panic
  • keep those “lost” together
  • try to work out where you are
  • head for a high point with your map, compass and phone and try to recognise features. Climb a tree if necessary.
  • If you can’t  see higher ground, head on a compass bearing which you think will most likely lead to higher ground.
  • don’t walk more than 1 km and continually check your bearings, so you don’t walk around in circles
  • return to a recognisable feature  by retracing your steps, taking a bearing before you start off
  • set up camp, build a shelter and conserve energy
  • if 3-4 hours have passed,  consider contacting emergency services or use you PLB.
  • blow your whistle: 3 blasts separated by a short gap. Signal with a torch
  • light a small fire: smokey in the day, bright at night

What if you as leader lose part of your group?

  • do a quick recce (min gp of 4) in areas of high probability such as where they were last seen and return to this point
  • leave a small group here for an extended stay. They should light a visible fire.
  • carry out a search using the remaining members of the group
  • signal for the lost group with a single blast of a whistle, repeated
  • if 3-4 hours have passed,  consider the group totally lost and contact emergency services by sending two well equipped people with full details (equipment carried, health, contact details of NOK, bushwalking skills) of the lost group members or use you PLB
  • searchers give 1 blast, and those lost 3 blasts on their whistles

Relevant Articles

Bushwalking Navigation
Bushwalking Navigation | A Route Plan Workflow
Bushwalking Rescue: Emergency Beacons and Personal Tracking Systems
A Guide to Better Bushwalking
Map Reading Guide (GeoScience)

  Creative Commons License This article by Bush Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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