General Aspects of Behavior by Lost Persons

Excerpt from "Analysis of Lost Person Behavior"

People who are lost may experience differing types of reactions. They may panic, become depressed or suffer from "woods shock." Panic usually implies tearing around or thrashing through the brush, but in its earlier stages it is less frantic. Most lost people go through some of the stages. It all starts when they look about and find that a supposedly familiar location now appears totally strange or when they start to realize that it seems to be taking longer to reach a particular place than they had expected. There is a tendency to hurry to "find the right place." "Maybe it's just over that little ridge." If things get progressively more unfamiliar and mixed up, they may then develop a feeling of vertigo, the trees and slopes seem to be closing in and a feeling of claustrophobia compels them to try to "break out." This is the point at which running or frantic scrambling may occur and indeed outright panic has occurred - running is panic.

If they do not totally exhaust or injure themselves during outright panic, they may eventually get a grip on themselves and decide on some plan of action. What they decide to do may appear irrational to a calm observer, but does not seem nearly so unreasonable to the lost person who is now totally disoriented. Generally they would be wiser and safer to stay put and get as comfortable and warm as possible, but many feel compelled to push on urged by subconscious feelings: "This must go down to the road" or "All streams lead to civilization" - totally ignoring the distance or problems in between. (One young man after becoming disoriented climbed uphill from a mainstream to try to locate the path. When he could not locate the path [wrong hill], he tenaciously slithered down the bed of small streams as a means of getting back to the main one. It wasn't until he had banged and jolted to the bottom of a 10' waterfall that he was jarred into realizing the hazards of this mode of travel and thereafter traveled up on the bank.)

Of those who do not feel compelled to "push on," some may make an effort toward shelter (if they are still able) while others slip into helplessness and/or despondency. Their course of action is often predictable according to personality, health, experience, and weather, as discussed earlier.

Regardless of how well and healthy a person seems to be when rescued, there is almost always some degree of shock. Even people who while lost appeared to use good judgement with no suggestion of overt panic exhibit what we like to call "woods shock." Many persons found mobile and well will seem to converse in a completely normal manner. Only upon close questioning does it become evident that they are unable to remember where they spent the first night, whether they had any water to drink or whether they crossed the river yesterday-or maybe the day before.

Undoubtedly the psychological trauma of being lost will affect behavior. Some notable behaviors are:

Failure to Make a Shelter or a Fire

Remarkable few individuals build a fire or erect a good shelter to protect themselves from the elements. Perhaps this is relative to the lack of outdoor training or the inability to accept their situation. Rather than conserve energy and make themselves comfortable, there is the tendency to resign themselves totally to being uncomfortable. Neglecting conservation of energy and failing to take shelter from the elements may lead to an early death. The few who do build shelters forget how well camouflaged they are and fail to leave markers of their presence, while the few who make fires fail to use them as signaling devices.

Discarding Equipment

Most lost persons are poorly equipped. Many have not anticipated being gone for more than a few hours or did not expect sudden weather changes. Certainly, none have seriously considered the possibility of becoming lost or stranded. It is interesting that the few who do have some equipment usually do not use what they have in order to survive. People have perished with a full pack containing a tent, food, and water. In many cases, equipment that the individual did have got discarded along the way. The hunter leaves his rifle, the hiker discards his knapsack, and the old man leaves his coat. Perhaps this is because of the inconvenience of carrying things or forgetfulness while in a state of shock or exhaustion.


Many individuals shed their clothing. In warm or hot environments, this is understandable, since it is easy to become overheated. They remove extra clothing, then forget or discard it without realizing that 4 am may bring temperatures that are 40 degrees colder than those in the early afternoon.

This same phenomenon happens in quite cold environments and is harder to understand. Perhaps the hurrying and overexertion make one overheat for a short while, and during this time lost persons discard clothing. Many times, jackets, boots, socks, and other articles are found very near to the lost person's "last stopping place." Disrobing often even reaches the point of emptying pockets in an orderly fashion as though preparing for bed. The most probable reason is advanced hypothermia in which state the body has cooled to the degree that cold is no longer felt. It has often been noted that, in the advanced stages of both heat and cold exposure, persons may become quite irrational and appear to by beyond sense or feeling.

Sense of Abandonment

It is interesting that many individuals do not realize that someone will actually come and look for them. Individuals have ignored helicopters that hovered over them. Others have made no effort to call out or make signals, since they felt that there was no one out there to hear or see them.


It is important for search planners to be able to detect the presence of a lost person. The measure of visual detectability is whether the person can be seen at a distance of 50 feet. This gives planners some idea of whether to strive for a thorough but slow coverage, or a fast but less thorough coverage of an area. If a victim is easily seen, then coverage can be less thorough!

To contrast the two alternatives, an easily detected lost person would be one who is standing or sitting, wearing bright clothing, in the open, and able to respond to calling. The difficult to detect would be a small child, huddled inside a log (to keep warm), and who may not respond to calling (because of fear of strangers), and is dressed in dark clothing.

A main influencing factor is weather. In good weather, when the sun is out and the temperatures are above 60°F, victims are more easily seen. However, it is also common for people who have spent a chilled and miserable night to find a warm, sunny spot and sleep during the midday. When the weather is cold, some victims seek some form of shelter and warmth, and will crawl under logs or cover themselves with pine boughs. Both tend to conceal the victim from view.

Travel aids

Pathways, game trails, streams, old roadways, and drainages constitute travel aids. They are paths of least resistance and afford the victim some direction (right or wrong). However, not all lost persons use them. 

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