By Chris Parmeter, Colorado Division of Wildlife
In the 1980 movie classic "The Mountain Men", the character Henry
Frapp is questioned by a young green horn: "Haven't you ever been
lost?" Frapp scratches his whiskers and after a recollecting pause,
replies, "A fearsome confused for a month or two… but I ain't ever
For the fur trappers, wandering through a vast and unexplored
country, "lost" would have been something of an oxymoron. Not knowing
where you were was a necessary part of the mountain man business. The
blank space on the map was as much "home" as it was wilderness, and
"lost" was more a state of mind than a physical dilemma.
When the mountain men plunged head-long into the unknown, they knew
that where they were going there would be no restaurants or hotels.
So they planned accordingly. They learned quickly where to find food
and how to get it; how to mend equipment, to make new or make do;
they could sleep in a log, a cave, or just plain under the stars –
and survive! How did they accomplish this incredible feat? Simply,
they were prepared - mentally and physically.
Today, the same principles apply. When you head out into the woods,
be prepared: for cold, rain or snow; to tend an injury; or to stay
the night in the woods. It's not as difficult as it sounds. Here are
a few nuggets of Mountain Man wisdom to help you survive:
The old timers relied on "Dead Reckoning" for navigation: utilizing a
compass to guide them in the general direction they wished to go.
Sometimes in the absence of a compass, they relied only on
"reckoning": as in "I reckon camp is back that way." The contemporary
woodsman may have the handiness of a GPS, but owning one of these
high-tech gizmos is not an adequate substitute for map and compass
skills. Just as with other conveniences (cell phones, cameras, flash
lights), the batteries will invariable go dead just when you need
them the most.
Learning how to read a map is not that difficult; up is north, left
is west and so on. The closer the lines are together the steeper the
country. Water is shown as blue, while man made objects are black. It
is simply a two dimensional rendition of a three dimensional world.
Using a map and a compass to show you which way is north, you’d be
hard pressed to get seriously lost. Sure, some practice is required,
but that's all part of the preparedness thing.
Paying attention to where you're going can also be a big help to
staying found. As you pursue your quarry, notice which way the
shadows are falling. Have you been mostly climbing, or descending?
Look for landmarks as you go. Not stumps and rocks, but BIG landmarks
that give your relative position to the valley below, or that craggy
peak to the west. Turn around and look behind you, what would it look
like if you were going that way – back to camp or the truck?
Unless your trip is taking you across the Gobi or the Brooks Range,
you probably don’t need to carry 50 feet of copper wire or spare
fishing line and hooks. The largest wilderness area in Colorado can
be traversed in a day or two by a man in decent shape. So what are
the essential essentials you need when you’re on your own hook?
- Water. Without it, you’re dead in three days. Without it for a few
hours, at 9,000 feet above sea level, you’re not dead, but you may
wish you were. Dehydration can lead to altitude sickness and
hypothermia. But even worse, it can impair your judgment, induce
panic, and result in a fatal case of Lost.
- Fire good… Fire friend… Fire number two in importance. Learn how to
build one, WITHOUT toilet paper and gasoline. It’s as easy as one two
three: One, you need dry tender. Scratch around under grass tussocks
for the driest stuff. Get lots of it, about a volley ball sized
bunch; two, kindling. You want about twice as much as the tender you
- Kindling is small stuff - matchstick sized. Three is the fuel
itself. Gather up plenty if it looks like you may have to spend the
night. Pick dry branches one to two inches in diameter – these burn
without difficulty and make it easy to control the heat. Of course we
can't overlook the match. You don't need to be proficient with a
flint and steel, but you should have at least a couple of ways to
start fire; it doesn't matter if it's a lighter or a fire plow, as
long as you can get it lit.
- Shelter. Now don’t jump right into bivy sacks and backpacking
tents. Let's take a step back and start at the beginning. Shelter
starts with your clothing. Dress for the worst. And in a Colorado
autumn, the worst can be pretty harsh. Pick synthetics - like fleece
or polyester blends - but wool is best. Dress in layers: long handle
union suit, light mid layer(s), and warmer outer layer. Dressing
appropriately when you leave camp will find you well on your way to
surviving a night in the outback even without a buffalo robe.
- Make a plan and let someone know what it is. Leave a map open on
the dashboard of the truck. You don’t have to give up your secret
spot with an "I AM HERE" arrow, just circle a square mile or two.
When you leave camp, a plain old "I'm gonna work this ridge out and
come back down the crick" is enough to give your buddies a place to
start looking for you if you should become “a fearsome confused." The
important thing is to stick to your plan.
As you head into the high country this fall, see yourself as one of
the Lewis & Clark Expedition; be prepared, both mentally and
physically for the challenges of the unknown. Keep your powder dry
and your eyes on the horizon and you'll know that "lost" is, by and
large, just a state of mind.
Chris Parmeter is a District Wildlife Manager in the Gunnison/Crested