It’s that time of year again for hunters to make their list and check it twice in anticipation of the opening day of rifle deer season.
They are making sure that they have everything they need for a successful day of hunting, but does that list include items to be prepared in case of an emergency or getting lost in the woods?
Believe it or not, but this is one of the times of the year when DCNR’s search and rescue operations are most busy.
Having a medical emergency or getting lost in the woods is something that can happen to any of us at any time. There are simple steps everyone can take to make sure that if it does happen, they are properly equipped for an extended stay in the woods and can easily be found.
A Missing Hunter Last Month
During the end of October, DCNR search and rescue operations were activated for a missing hunter in the Quehanna Wild Area in Moshannon State Forest.
The lost hunter was an 86-year old male with no health problems, a good walker, and an outdoorsman who had hunted in that area for three years.
He was dropped off around 9:00 A.M. and was supposed to walk out and meet his friend at 12:30 that afternoon -- but he never showed up.
More than 30 searchers worked that evening and into the early morning hours.
The Pennsylvania State Police provided a search dog and full-time handler, and a helicopter with a forward-looking infrared camera to detect any “heat” on the ground within a 1-mile radius of the point the hunter was last seen.
But the search efforts that evening were unsuccessful.
The next morning, a fresh crew of searchers, including DCNR staff, volunteer fire departments, state police, volunteers, and search dogs, arrived to continue searching for the lost hunter.
He was found at 2:00 P.M. that day in a deep ravine and remote portion of the area being searched.
After becoming lost, the hunter traveled down a drainage he found thinking it would lead him to civilization. However, in the Quehanna Wild Area, where roads and civilization are mostly in the flat mountain tops, this assumption wasn’t correct.
For the next almost 30 hours, he kept walking a little at a time. Crossing back and forth across a stream full of blown down trees and slippery rocks to find a way he could continue downward.
He fell numerous times in the rugged and steep terrain and got wet and cold from the stream crossings. He crawled under a rock ledge to try to sleep in the middle of the night (sleeping under a rock maybe explains one reason why he wasn’t spotted by the state police infrared camera on the helicopter).
He prayed someone would find him. At daylight, he continued down to a larger stream known as the Mosquito Creek, still a dozen miles from the nearest civilization, where searchers would later that afternoon find him.
He saw lights from searchers once the night before and he tried to flash them with his flashlight, but they were too far away. He also tried to waive at the state police helicopter that morning as it passed unknowingly overhead a couple times, but he never thought to use his rifle to signal for help.
Finally, after a night and day of searching, the hunter and his family were reunited at the search command post around 3:00 P.M.
Be Prepared and Stay Safe
This story, unlike some others, has a happy ending. It is important to share because it highlights some things that you should do and not do when becoming lost in the woods; and it reinforces the importance of the preparedness and safety.
Becoming lost or hurt can happen to anyone -- even people experienced in the outdoors who are familiar with their surroundings.
The best thing you can do for yourself and your searchers is to be prepared for this kind of situation.
If you need help in the woods and have cell phone service, do not wait to call for help. If you are calling for help for yourself using a cell phone, dial 911. If there is no 911 service, you will need to know the state park of state forest office number where you are recreating.
If someone doesn’t return and goes missing within a Pennsylvania state park or forest, contact the state park or state forest office where the person is missing or needs help. If you are unable to reach someone immediately, you should contact 911.
Before You Head Out into the Woods
Here’s a few important tips to follow before you head out into the woods:
Always plan out your trip ahead of time with a map. It is important to lay out your trip, including where you are going and how you’ll get there. Become familiar with the surroundings of where you are heading.
Always tell someone where you are going and your expected time of return. Write down your plans and indicate on a map where you are going. Let them know that you will call when you return. If they do not hear from you, they can contact the proper authorities and a search can be started. Also, leave a copy of your plan in your vehicle as well. Do not leave your plan on the dash or seat, where it can be easily spotted by someone hoping to break into vehicles.
Don’t rely on your cell phone; take a paper map with you. Cell phones and GPS units are not reliable in remote areas. You may experience a drained battery or no cellular reception. A compass also is a helpful tool that is a perfect companion to your map.
Bring other helpful gear. Take matches, a knife, a whistle to sound for rescuers, food, and water with you. Also remember to always dress properly for the outdoors and weather conditions.
Follow your plan. When you’re on your adventure, stay on designated trails and learn what trail markings indicate the trail you need to be on.
If You Become Lost or Injured
If you should become lost or injured, follow these simple tips:
Remain calm. While this sounds easy, many people will panic when in an undesirable, unfamiliar situation. Remaining calm will help a lost individual make sound, rational decisions.
Stop walking. Walking with unfamiliar landmarks will often lead someone who is lost to wander in circles and can potentially cause a longer rescue time.
Seek/build shelter and a fire depending on weather conditions. Staying warm and dry are two key elements to surviving an extended period in the wild. Preventing hypothermia -- a condition where your body core temperature is too low to sustain your health -- is critical. Learn about
hypothermia (PDF) and ways to avoid it before you ever become lost in the woods.
Only as a last resort, follow a stream -- if no one knows your whereabouts, if you do not have the means to stay warm, and if you are at a point of last resort, find a stream and follow the water downstream. All streams in Pennsylvania will eventually lead to a road.
About DCNR’s Search and Rescue
DCNR’s search and rescue responds to 20-30 searches each year. Spring and fall are when most of the searches occur.
In the spring, most of the searches are for lost hikers, and during the fall, most of the searches are for lost hunters. Most of the lost hunters are males over 50 years of age.
Learn more about DCNR’s search and rescue operations, and how to volunteer in search and rescue efforts at the