Ready for anything

Times Staff Writer

Jeff Moran knows that even experienced hikers get caught off guard and run into trouble. For tips on surviving the unexpected, the reserve deputy with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and member of Altadena Search and Rescue points to John Muir, someone he describes as “the master of getting by.”

“Anyone in the 21st century who wants to read about survival should read 19th century stories of survival,” he says, adding that Muir survived many a wild night in the local San Gabriel Mountains.

Chip Patterson, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which conducts more than 100 search and rescues a year, puts it more bluntly: Hikers can prevent a fun outing from going awry by “not getting into a position where you make dumb mistakes.”

The first dumb mistake? Getting lost.


Venturing into the wilds and returning intact requires planning and preparation. For hikes of any length, no day pack should be without the “10 essentials” -- map, compass, flashlight, extra food, extra clothing, sunglasses, first-aid supplies, pocketknife, waterproof matches and fire starter, according to the Seattle-based outdoor organization the Mountaineers.

Always prepare for the worst. Search-and-rescue experts advise planning for an unanticipated night in the wilds by supplementing the essentials with a space blanket, a whistle and a signal mirror, which can provide a flash of light when reflected off the sun.

“Light will travel and is a great communicator,” Moran says. He knows of lost hikers who’ve successfully used camera flashbulbs to signal their location. He also says a whistle can be helpful to summon help, though it may be drowned out by the sound of water or become absorbed by foliage.

A cellphone shouldn’t be considered foolproof when there’s trouble, but it’s a must-have item when hiking, especially in the front country where there’s a decent chance a call can be placed. Moran estimates that about half the calls his group responds to in the Angeles National Forest are called in by the victims, who dial either 911 or a friend, who in turn alerts authorities.


Taking detours from established trails -- by accident or on purpose -- is a good way to get lost and one of the top reasons a search is called, according to the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit, based in Hemet. If you’re not familiar with reading topographic maps, it’s best to stick to the trail.

Moran recommends doing a “topo preview” of the area before a hike, which means becoming familiar with elevation change and terrain features. You can learn the basics of topography and how to use a map and compass from a variety of books, websites and classes.

To prevent getting lost, one trick on trails that meander is to follow blazes carved into trees or stacks of rocks, called cairns, left by other hikers as landmarks. It also helps to make mental notes along the way of unusual formations -- a boulder in the shape of your Aunt Bertha’s head, for example -- in case there’s confusion on the hike back out.

If you do get discombobulated, many search-and-rescue experts say it’s best to stay put rather than wandering and running the risk of straying even farther. It’s natural to think you can find your way out, but often it’s easier for searchers to find a stationary target than a moving one.


“I feel very strongly that we could’ve saved some lives if people had stayed where they were,” says Patterson, referring to a spate of emergencies, including eight fatalities, in local mountains since Jan. 1.

Some experts recommend that lost hikers use the STOP acronym: Stop if you feel panicked and lost. Think about where you were last sure of your location. Observe details that might provide clues to where you should be. Plan your next course of action.

If night is falling, that plan might be to stay put and bunk down. In this case, the top priority is keeping warm and dry. Here’s where the space blanket comes in handy, or you can get comfy in some leaves and tree boughs. Eat to keep the body’s core temperature up.

Search-and-rescue experts urge children to stay put and “hug a tree” when they’re lost. Moran says he hopes kids will remember this when they get older.


“We explain to kids, even though you may want to try to hike out, instead hug a tree and think about us trying to find you,” he says.


To e-mail Julie Sheer or read her previous Outdoors Institute columns, go to