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Lost and Alone in the Wilderness? S.T.O.P

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As enthusiasts gear up for outdoor pursuits like camping and hiking, the allure of adventure is accompanied by potential risks. Jim Cobb, an authority in outdoor survival, notes that news stories frequently report individuals losing their way in the wilderness and falling victim to exposure or other hazards.

Fortunately, there’s a simple tool you can teach your loved ones, as well as use yourself, in that situation. Cobb emphasizes, “The acronym S.T.O.P. serves as a simple and invaluable tool for anyone facing such a situation.”

child lost in woods

The S.T.O.P. Acronym

S is for SIT DOWN

The first step S, stands for SIT DOWN. When lost, it’s crucial to halt any movement, take a break, and regain control. “Panic is counterproductive,” says Cobb, “and clearing your mind begins with sitting down.” Practice the 16-second survival breath, also known as box breathing. Do this until you feel you are in control.

He also advises that staying in one place, provided it’s safe, significantly enhances the chances of being found, as “searchers find it much more challenging to locate a moving target.”

T is for THINK

Continuing with the acronym, Cobb instructs, that T represents THINK. After calming yourself, assess your situation, location, and how you reached it. Sometimes, this is all it takes and you’re able to retrace your steps to return to safety.

Other times, though, you’ll need to prioritize your list of basic needs and determine what you need to do first. Usually, this means getting a fire going and cobbling together some sort of shelter. Remember, the elements can and will kill you far sooner than a lack of food or water in most situations. Addressing any injuries also takes precedence.

Also, consider how long you’ve been gone and how long it may be before people start looking for you. If you’ve committed a cardinal sin and not told anyone where you were going or when you’d be back, it could be quite some time before any alerts are sounded.  In that situation, you’ll be on your own for far longer than you may be prepared to sit tight and wait.

O is for OBSERVE

O signifies OBSERVE. Basically, take stock of the situation.

Can you make a reasonably accurate determination of your location?

Do you know in which direction to travel to find help the quickest (and do you know how to find that direction)?

How late in the day is it now?

What is the weather like now and what is it likely to do in the next few hours?

For example, while in many cases you’d be far better off to stay put and wait for help, if you are absolutely certain the highway lies two hours to the west and it is the middle of a bright, sunny morning, put the sun to your back and get trekking.

This step also entails taking a mental or physical inventory of the resources available to you, Cobb elaborates. What gear do you have in your pockets or in your pack? Look around and try to ascertain what natural resources are available to you as well. Is there a stream nearby from which you can obtain water and do you have the means to disinfect it? What about wild edibles, such as blackberries? Even if you aren’t necessarily hungry at the moment, just knowing those sources of food are around you can be a comforting thought.

P is for PLAN

Lastly, Cobb emphasizes the importance of P, which stands for PLAN. Only after sitting down, thinking, and observing are you able to devise an informed plan of action. Of course, the plan will vary with the situation but, generally speaking, it will first involve a decision to either stay put or continue moving.

If you are going to sit tight and wait for help, this is a great time to start signaling for assistance. You should always have a whistle in your pocket when traveling outdoors. The sound of a whistle will travel much further than your voice and using a whistle won’t give you a sore throat. Three sharp blasts at regular intervals is the standard distress signal.

The whistle has the added bonus of not preventing you from working on a debris hut or other shelter, or from starting a fire, while you’re using it.

Remembering S.T.O.P.

To remember these steps, Cobb suggests writing S.T.O.P. on a piece of tape and placing it inside your jacket or somewhere else that will be visible to you should the need arise.

Final Thoughts

By emphasizing the importance of SITTING DOWN to regain composure, THINKING through the situation, OBSERVING the surroundings, and ultimately devising a PLAN of action, you can significantly enhance your chances of survival when lost.

It’s a structured approach that emphasizes the need for a calm and deliberate response in critical situations. The S.T.O.P. acronym offers a practical and efficient approach when confronted with the daunting prospect of being lost in the wilderness.

Have you ever been lost in the wilderness before? What did you do?

Originally published March 26, 2014

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