Navigationally Embarrassed?

Official Search and Rescue searches and evacuations do not incur any cost to the party receiving aid providing that the request for help is made to Police. In other words, if you need an emergency evacuation by helicopter, contact Police, or the Department of Conservation (who will liaise with Police) in the first instance, not a helicopter operator. It is extraordinarily rare for parties of two, or more to get lost.

You are lost

Should you become lost, try to backtrack to your last known point and start again. If this is of no use, or impossible to do, stop and have something to eat and drink. At least this will quell any panic and give you time to consider your position carefully and rationally. If you are indeed lost with no idea where to go next, find a source of water that is not in a deep gorge and stay put. If you have one, set off a locator beacon, ensuring there are clear views to the sky.

The search will start with a helicopter sweep of road ends, huts, tracks, rivers and ridges, often in that order, usually within hours of being notified. The SAR Controller (Search And Rescue Controller) will then methodically arrange for each area your are likely to be in to be searched by SAR teams, so it is important to stay in one place and not inadvertently walk into an area that has already been searched.

Stay put, stay as visible as possible and do what you can to attract the attention of others: set up cairns around you, arrange broken fronds and arrows made of sticks pointing towards where you are waiting and light a fire. If you must move, ensure that you leave plentiful messages and unambiguous signs indicating your intended movements. Keep your pack and its contents with you at all times.

Some lost people push on under the mistaken belief that if they go to sleep, they will die. They would be better to build a makeshift bivvy out of ferns, branches and leaves and try to keep warm. Sleeping is difficult when you are cold, but dozing conserves energy and you may get to enjoy a snooze.

It is unwise to push on down gorges, creeks and steep bush faces in an endeavour to recover your position as you won’t know the way, you will be stressed about being lost and so you won’t be thinking as logically as you may otherwise do, and you won’t have the benefit of a second opinion to veto unwise decisions. Worse, it will probably get dark as you reach the hardest section.

Smoky fires, mirror flashes, waving orange pack liners and shaking tree branches will help indicate your position to a searching helicopter. Waving arms and stationary pack liners are not easy to spot from the air. Many helicopter pilots have night vision equipment: a candle can be seen with these some kilometres away, as is a small torch shining into the trees. If you hear a helicopter at night, shine your torch into the surrounding trees, but not at the helicopter as you may blind the pilot. A camera flash, or cigarette lighter can be used if you don’t have a torch.

Remember that early explorers endured appalling conditions without the benefit of modern gear or, on occasions, any food. Providing you drink plenty of water and keep warm, you should be able to survive for a few weeks without food. However, you should be found within three to four days after your notified overdue date, unless you keep on walking and so walk out of the search area, or back into an area that has already been searched, in which case you need a lot of luck to get found.

Losing another party member

Confusion reigns if party members charge into the bush looking for a lost member without plans to rendezvous: set a reasonable time and location to regroup. Sending an experienced party member ahead, perhaps without a pack, to “head the lost member off at the pass” and another member back to the last location where the party was together are sound strategies. If the lost member finds the main party in the meantime, by all means carry on, but leave someone with the packs until their owners return as packs without owners are nearly impossible to find.

Depending on the experience of the missing person, allow some time to elapse, then set off a locator beacon, or send two members with pertinent information for help.

Ground signalling codes

Distress signal3 signals, 15 seconds between each. Repeat after 5 minutes
Acknowledgement2 signals in quick succession. Repeat after 2 minutes
Recall signal4 signals at 40 second intervals.
Signals can be made by shouts, whistles, rifle shots, torches, or mirror flashing.

To flash a mirror, or bright metal surface at a target, first line the reflector up to the sun so to direct the reflected sunlight onto the ground in front of you. Carefully rotate the reflector until the reflection illuminates the nearby ground immediately below the target. Then slowly oscillate the reflector directly up and down so that the sun’s reflection will at some stage beam to the target on each oscillation.

This page is a reproduction of the relevant section of FMC’s Safety in the Mountains booklet; first published in 1937, and still in print today, 11 editions later. You can buy your copy from the FMC website, at near giveaway price. More than 130,000 copies of this distilled mountain wisdom have found their way in to packs, huts and collections of generations of outdoors enthusiasts.