A small group (2-10 people total) is travelling in a wilderness area. For whatever reason a person or a couple get separated. What is the best strategy for the lost ones? What is the best strategy to be employed by the group. The goal is to reunite. How important is it for the group to sit down and talk about this before a trip?

A couple of algorithms I have seen my buddies perform:

First one: Both group proceed to the next checkpoint, that was defined for example at the morning looking at the map.

Second one: Both groups return to the point of separation.

I would love to read some theory on this, so quoting sources is very welcome.

Here is one example. We are talking military here, special forces mind you. They go on a mission, get separated, and that is one of their major mistakes. One survivor.

Another example: just yesterday evening I was riding bike with two friends. I turn left, they shout at me that they are going another way, I do not confirm (as I had not seen or heard them).

4 Answers 4


The most important part is to agree on a strategy beforehand and to not continue forward when you're injured, lost, or disoriented.

A typical strategy might be:

Each hiker to go at their own pace to that day's destination. The first group there gets to setup camp so the slower hikers aren't trying to do too many things, like hanging their bear bag, in the dark. Every individual (or at least subgroup) should have enough to survive a few days alone in their own backpack. Everyone should also have a small first aid kit and a way to signal to others, e.g. a whistle.

If anyone becomes lost, they should immediately stop, get their bearings, and begin hiking back to the prior day's location. Once there, they shouldn't move for the next day.

On the morning after someone fails to make it to a way point, the group should organize a search and always travel in pairs or greater. If there are too few people to leave someone at the camp, then a note should be left. Anyone that remains at the site should have a predefined time to begin backtracking. The first priority of the search party should be to get to the last known way point. If the lost hikers cannot be found there or enroute, a pair of hikers should return to civilization to report the missing hikers and any pairs remaining can begin searching in any obvious paths in an organized fashion.

Predefined signals are important. E.g. with the whistle, 3 long blasts is a standard emergency call, 2 long blasts could be "I'm lost, but otherwise ok", 1 long blast could be "I'm searching, stay put", and 1 short blast could be "I'm here, reply back with your location". Rocks can be placed in a row on side trails to indicate that a search party is currently down that trail. And note paper to leave messages at each way point are handy to indicate who went where, and when.

  • I like this answer, but I would really appreciate some sources of these claims - a search and rescue or military manual for example. Some place that people have thought about this and have established a mandatory policy about such situations.
    – Vorac
    Jun 1, 2012 at 15:03
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    One point to add, while there's nothing wrong with splitting the group up in the right context, I often find in practice the faster group also tend to have the best navigators (not always, but worth paying attention to.) If the group is split up, then make sure there's at least a couple of good navigators left with the slower group to make sure all is well.
    – berry120
    Jun 1, 2012 at 15:06
  • @Vorac These aren't so much "claims" as a sample plan that the group might agree upon, mixed with practical experience. E.g. AT hikers will often go alone between waypoints. The only claim I'd make is to have an agreed upon plan and not to move forward when you're lost and only backtrack if you recognize the way.
    – BMitch
    Jun 1, 2012 at 15:14
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    I agree with the answer with one caveat: Per “Leave no trace” principles, no paper or pen should really be used in the wilderness. Unnecessary weight, paper is fragile and will ultimately become trash, difficult to secure we’re it will be visible. For short, important messages, arrange small rocks into words. SOS is good and short.
    – M.Mat
    Oct 18, 2019 at 11:33
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    Thanks Mitch. I was just perusing this stack—didn’t notice the age of the post. I’m doing the PCT 2020. Lifetime backpacker with 10k+ and am super-protective of wilderness spaces.
    – M.Mat
    Oct 18, 2019 at 13:04

The most important thing is not to wander around randomly looking for each other - this is how a lot of mild situations become severe ones, especially if visibility is poor (a highly likely cause of a group becoming separated.)

The best policy to take is one of prevention rather than cure - ensure everyone is visible at regular intervals, don't wander far off from the group, and ensure that everyone is familiar with the current position and the route taken.

If a couple do get separated, then there's one of two main approaches I'd take:

  • Meet up at the previous or next checkpoint, and if a sensible amount of time has passed and the person still doesn't show up, start a search
  • Start an organised, methodical search for the lost couple or individual.

I wouldn't recommend returning to the point of separation since, most of the time, this point will only be roughly defined (if at all) and could just end up confusing things further. Established checkpoints are known definitive points, so remove some potential for error.

Of course, the approach you take has to be decided in advance and will be influenced by many factors:

  • How strong a navigator the lost couple are (if they're not, trying to navigate somewhere could make things worse)
  • How dangerous the terrain is and how familiar the lost are with this terrain
  • Whether they're contactable by mobile phone, radio or some other means

There's no hard and fast rule and it's very ad-hoc dependant on the situation, but it definitely needs to be decided in advance. Otherwise, the lost couple may decide it's better to stay where they are and await a search, and everyone else might be waiting for them at a checkpoint - or the lost couple may return to the previous checkpoint and everyone else the next...

It's also worth saying if you do start a search, make sure as a group you know exactly what you're doing, you do it methodically and you minimise the risk of losing anyone else as far as you can. There are proper search techniques that can be used - I won't go into them here (that's the scope of a different question!) but it definitely makes good reading!

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    I do not agree with "I wouldn't recommend returning to the point of separation" However, most people I talk to about this, do not agree with me, so possibly I am wrong. Could you please try to persuade me of your thesis. My point is that meeting on the next checkpoint is unsecure, because the groups can take very different routes, have diferrent timings, get lost even more etc. On the other hand, going back seems much safer as we are talking known terrain, known route.
    – Vorac
    Jun 1, 2012 at 13:56
  • @Vorac It depends on how familiar the group is with the area. I'd personally err on the side of caution if at all unsure and say meet at the previous checkpoint, but if those that are lost are skilled navigators you may have decided in advance it's safe to just proceed separately to the next checkpoint. As long as everyone ends up there it doesn't really matter on specific routes, since the point is to meet up there rather than along the way (of course, if you do meet up along the way treat it as a bonus, but not something to rely on.)
    – berry120
    Jun 1, 2012 at 14:05

Each scenario is probably different, so you'd likely make a plan on the hoof: How far are you from your previous 'checkpoint', and how far is it to the next? What time of day is it, etc...

If the 'lost' couple were at the rear of the group (a likely scenario) and you're following a rerasonably well defined trail, then backtracking for a while (or at least, sitting and waiting) to look for them seems common sense: An accident or injury could have slowed their progress significantly, and the next checkpoint could be a long way off.

And, who's carrying any group medical kit..?


Case study: Persimmon Pass.

We were running a group with 20 kids and 4 adults in Willmore Wilderness in September.

The nature of the trails in Willmore: At low elevations they are the remains of what used to be logging roads. Up to timberline, trails are traveled mostly by horse outfitters, and are well worn. In meadows they may scatter in multiple paths. Above timberline trails are vague. There is no signage. No bridges on creeks.

The ascent of Persimmon pass took longer than expected. This is not a regularly used pass, so the trail above tree line was non-existent. It is not difficult terrain, but is largely scree stabilized with various alpine plants. We topped the pass at about 5 p.m. Sunset is at 7:30

The weather had been sun and cloud mixed. At the top of the pass we could see a small storm coming down the Rock Creek valley.(major creek defining the SW side of the Persimmon Range) I guessed 30 to 45 minutes to it's arrival.

One of the staff with seniority over me wanted to cut straight down the other side, to get down. I persuaded him that if it's sliding scree at this slope, then further down where the gradient was steeper would mean that there were intermittent cliffs even if they didn't show on the map. (A 50 meter contour interval hides a lot...)

I knew from a previous similar trip that angling SE while descending would get us to a packed grass slope down to tree line. Of the group, I was the only one who had done this route segment.

I also knew that the senior staff would override my decision if he was worried about being caught above tree line in a storm.

My strategy was to keep the line of people as long as possible to have plausible deniability if he tried to stop us then go straight down. Above tree line, visibility was good. Keeping several hundred meters between front and back was easy to do and verify that we hadn't lost anyone.

Senior guy was staying with 2nd staff member that was having a tough day. That staff member was not nimble, and was having serious difficulty with the scree. And I lost them when they were in a dip.

We reached the top of the grass slope as the snow hit. Visibility dropped to 100 meters. I sent the remaining staff member down with a group of larger junior boys to find a spot to camp. I divided up boys as they came in into groups and sent each with a senior boy to reach the camp below. The two staff never showed up.

As expected the storm was small. Snow lasted about 15 minutes, then we could see again. Wasn't enough even to stick except in a few places of thick dry moss.

We had a whistle protocol: Two short blasts: "Where are you" One short blast "Here" Two long blasts "Come to me" Two short blasts in return, "Coming" Three long blasts, "I need help"

I sent a senior boy to go away from the camp where camp noise wouldn't distract, and once a minute blow two long blasts, then spend the rest of the minute listening.

They came in about half an hour later. In the snow they hadn't descended fast enough, and had overshot our location, coming down the next water course. That had gotten them perched above a 12 foot cliff, which they had backtrack up and around.

We reexamined our mountain protocols from this incident:

  • Arriving at the top of the pass that late forced a bunch of later decisions.
  • Making decisions at 8,000 feet is much like making decisions after two beer. No longer at your best.
  • Rule: Establish a turn around time that allows for a return to a viable campsite at least an hour before sunset. If the go/nogo time arrives, and you aren't at the pass, you turn around and go back to a usable camp. If the other side of the pass appears on the map to be no more difficult, then you must get to the pass before go/nogo time. If the far side looks more difficult then the go/nogo time needs to be adjusted. But this time MUST be set at the start of the day when judgement is at it's peak.
  • Rule: Establish rendezvous points at various locations. These should be spots that are easy to spot, and as unambiguoius as possible. Examples: Intersection of trail and timberline, shoulder of ridge, major stream crossing, trail junction.
  • Rule: In case of separation, main group builds a visible fire at first opportunity.
  • Rule: Ensure that all your leaders know the overall plan for the day.
  • Training recommendation: When training new staff use the existing situation, run a couple of changes (different weather, different time, different ability) and game out the scenario, getting them to think and speak about it.
  • Training recommendation: Involve all staff and interested senior boys in the discussion setting up the go/nogo times.

Previous existing protocols:

  • whistle protocol above. (Everyone has a whistle)
  • Buddy system. No one travels alone.
  • Staff sweep. Last person is a staff member. By preference the tail end group has 3 people in it.
  • Multiple copies of the map. Our rules say 2 copies by 2 people, with one copy with the sweep. In practice we usually ran with 3 copies, and if senior boys were interested, they also had copies. Usually this boiled down to the trip leader, the navigator, and a newish staff member learning to navigate. Anyone who had a map, also had a compass.

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