PRIMAL FEAR: The Psychology of Being Lost

Trail Groove Magazine, January 2013

Trail Groove Magazine, Issue 6

Trailgroove magazine   issue 6   january february 2012

PRIMAL FEAR — The Psychology of Being Lost By Heide Brandes I was hiking back on the stretch of the Buffalo River Trail in Arkansas I had spent most of the day exploring when unexplainably, unexpectedly and stunningly, I was lost.

The trail was just simply gone. One moment, I’m trekking on it, the next moment, it had disappeared.

On the weekend following Thanksgiving, most of the Ozark trees had surrendered their leaves. The Ozark Mountains and the Buffalo River Trail were smothered with the gold, red and browns of fallen carpet.

I remember thinking just an hour before how the trail was only discernible by the flattened and tramped leaves from hikers before me. I had thought about how easy it would be to wander off the trail and into the primitive wild.

And, I had done just that.

It’s an unnerving feeling to be lost alone on an unfamiliar mountain with the sun setting, especially for someone new to solo hiking for long distances. I knew my fiancé’ was still over four miles away at a campground fishing, and if I wasn’t back by dark, he would worry. So I turned around and backtracked until I found the trail I had been on. I walked forward again until it disappeared. It just ended. No trail, no hint of a trail, nothing that even looked like a trail.

I started to feel my breath quicken, my body temperature rise and a fog engulf my mind. I just couldn’t fathom that the trail wasn’t there, so I just started walking… randomly. I walked until it was clear to even my foggy brain that the fallen logs and brambles that tore at me were not part of any kind of trail. That growing panicky voice in my head told me to keep moving. I tried hiking up the side of the mountain, thinking this particular stretch of trail was higher. Nope, no trail. I tried hiking down and found only sheer bluffs.

For a few terrifying moments, I couldn’t even find my way back to where the trail petered out, and that’s when I knew I did the wrong thing. In all honesty, I wasn’t truly, deeply, no-hope lost. I could see the highway that runs between Boxley and Ponca in Arkansas off in the distance, and I knew which direction I had to go. The thought of tromping through unfamiliar woods on a mountain that plummeted into hundred-foot cliffs while navigating the dark didn’t appeal to me, but I would’ve done it.

I wasn’t completely lost, but lost enough to feel frightened, angry and stupid.

How embarrassed would I be if I had to be rescued on a day hike? What would happen when the sun sank into pitch black night? What if I froze to death when the temperatures dropped below freezing? What if an errant black bear wandered along and ate my face off? Scenarios — all unpleasant and dramatic — filled my imagination. My main concern now wasn’t finding where the trail continued, but to go back to where the trail ended. I desperately searched for landmarks and stumbled back until I finally found the original trail that petered out.

Out of options, I sat on a small rock overhang where the trail disappeared and just thought. I let my breath slow down, I drank some water and I just relaxed a bit.

I also considered my options. In my mind, I could either stay where I was and trust that my fiancé’ or someone would come find me, or start plotting a route to head down the mountain to either the highway or to the next campground before the sun set. For a long time, I simply stared at the trail I had come from, and I knew that it had to continue somewhere. So, I stepped up onto the rock to take a look around, and holy of holies, there was the trail. Just one simple step onto a rock would have saved me 45 minutes of uncomfortable fear.

I may have found my trail again, but getting lost is an alien and uncomfortable feeling in this day and age of GPS mapping and Google search. It does happen though, and what our brains go through is just as strange. The psychology of “lost” is one that can help you or harm you, depending on how you handle it.


Beginner or experienced, it doesn’t matter. All hikers at one point or another get lost. Many times, even the most experienced hiker will panic in a situation like that.

Don’t blame yourself — you are hard-wired to react that way. It’s in your DNA.

Jennifer Pharr Davis knows more about hiking than most people on the planet, having hiked over 11,000 miles on long distance hikes throughout the world. In 2011, she became the first female to claim the overall record on the Appalachian Trail by hiking the 2,181-mile trail in 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes for an average of 46.9 miles per day.

But, she has been lost.

“I’ve been lost umpteen times, and when I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2006, I got lost so many times that I developed a routine for whenever I got lost,” Jennifer said. “I had hiked the Appalachian Trail several times and the trails are well-marked; however, on the Pacific Coast trail, I really got lost.

“My first instinct was to panic. I was fearful that I didn’t have enough water, didn’t have enough food and was worried I wouldn’t be able to find my way back.”

An experienced hiker, Jennifer has authored four books on hiking and is owner and founder of Blue Ridge Hiking Co. in Asheville, N.C. The author of “Becoming Odyssa” and a hiking trainer, even Jennifer made the wrong choices based on the panic of being lost in the woods.

“The situation seemed so dire because of the conditions. I kept thinking, ‘I have to get back to the trail as soon as possible,’” she said. “I just took what I thought was the shortest direction back to the trail, which was a bad decision. You have to go through rivers, briars and all kinds of obstacles, and I ended up in more trouble than I was already in.”

Ernest Troth of Virginia had a similar reaction when he became lost on a day hike in Colorado. Being lost wasn’t just frightening, but embarrassing as well.

“It was really hard to believe that I was lost. I've been a hiker since I was a kid some decades before, and actually said to myself, ‘I can't believe you did this. How embarrassing,’” Ernest said. “All the peaks looked the same. There was no trail, no other hikers. The day crowds I'd grown accustomed to were just now completely absent.”

The instinct to panic is a natural reaction for human beings when placed in a fearful situation. Ernest wanted to run in any direction, but he forced himself to stay calm.

“Planning ahead for eventualities helped a lot. I immediately implemented ‘STOP’ - stop, think, observe, plan - when I realized I was way off the trail,” Ernest said. “I spent the next half hour with map recon, compass orientation and visually retracing my route until finally the correct downhill direction seemed obvious.”


Fear does funny things to our bodies. One of the most primal instincts embedded deep into our evolutionary DNA, fear and adrenaline also cause even the most experienced and logical hiker to revert back to instinctual behavior.

Fight, flight or freeze — it comes down to those simple reactions.

“People vary in how often or how likely they are to become frightened or anxious, but virtually everyone has a point where they can feel flooded with anxiety and fear,” said Dr. Holly Parker, a practicing clinical psychologist at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, MA.

“This can certainly happen if someone gets lost hiking, and there are ways that fear can work against people. Anxiety and fear narrow the focus of attention, meaning that a lot details can be missed. They can also bias how people come to understand what's happening.”

Dr. Cynthia Divino, executive director for the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research, said the brain reverts back to a primitive response when flooded with adrenaline. The primeval brain takes over, and the logical brain slows down.

“When we encounter a situation that we perceive as life threatening, our fight, flight or freeze response ignites. When this happens, most of the blood flow from our brain goes to the hind brain and mid-brain (or emotional brain). The part of our brain that can think logically (our frontal lobe) essentially turns off as the blood flow shifts to our hind-brain,” Divino said.

“We find that we can't think clearly and are consumed by fear. With our fight, flight and freeze response taking over, we revert to primitive instinctual responses which are often very poor choices in that particular situation.”

Parker says that research shows that fear and anxiety can lead people to interpret a situation in a negative, threatening and anxiety-provoking way, causing them to assume the worst case scenario.

“This can create a situation in which the complete picture of the person's situation or problem isn't seen, and so the full range of decision making options may not be available to them. Panic can cause people to forget the survival lessons they were taught, so trying to remain calm and allow time to more fully think through lessons taught and the options available is key, rather than reacting,” she said.


In Kenneth Hill’s 1998 “Lost Person Behavior,” studies show that hikers choose to do a number of things when they find themselves lost; many times, these behaviors only cause you to become even more lost. These strategies include:

  • Random Traveling — the person moves randomly in the woods with no particular motivation except to find safety.

  • Directional Traveling — the person travels in a specific direction, regardless of the terrain

  • Route sampling — the person tries out several routes from an intersection

  • Directional sampling — the person samples short distances in various directions leading away from a landmark

  • View enhancement — the person climbs a tree or hill in order to see landmarks

  • Backtracking — the person follows his town tracks back to the safety

  • Folk wisdom — relying on adages like following streams downhill or orienting oneself by using the North Star

  • Staying put — the hiker stays in one place until help arrives

Backtracking and staying put are the most successful ways to deal with being lost, but so few hikers actually stay put or backtrack. “When I got lost, I thought, ‘Oh my god, I have become that guy,” said Troth. “The first instinct is to run back, run up a hill or just go anywhere. I think this is worse for guys — it’s the same reason we won’t stop and ask directions. If you stop and stay put, you have to admit you are lost.”

Embarrassment — especially for experienced hikers — also keeps them from staying in one spot to wait for rescuers. “I think it is embarrassing to get lost, but it happens to everyone whether you are a beginner or an expert,” said Jennifer. “At our hiking company, we plead with the people who take our classes to stay put if they get lost. But, it’s a pride thing. We want to prove we can survive, and it’s a hard thing to admit when you are lost and need help.”


Most experts agree that hikers should above all stay calm and stay put. By acting on adrenaline only, hikers can make their situations spiral into dangerous waters.

“Our minds often take their cue from our bodies, so if we can calm the body, we can calm the mind,” said Dr. Parker. “Grounding exercises take advantage of that by essentially grounding you back into the present, rather than getting pulled away mentally by overwhelming emotions.”

Parker suggested trying to ground the mind by naming as many states, as many colors, sports teams, holidays, movie titles, spices, types of trees, etc., as you can.

“Try this for a few minutes and notice how your anxiety goes down. Then when you feel more centered and calm, return to thinking about possible solutions for your situation,” she said.

Dr. Divino agrees. Even a simple deep breathing exercise can help reduce the panic or emotional response.

“What people can do is start taking slow, deep breaths. This shuts off the fight, flight, or freeze response and blood flow will return to the part of our brain that is most likely to get us out of the situation quickly,” Dr. Divino said. “It helps if people have knowledge of what to do in these situations beforehand because they can more confidently return to what they know or have read.”

Survival expert Annie Aggens, director of Polar Expeditions with Northwest Passage and Polar Explorers says sometimes lost means “LOST.” If you’ve run out of options and no plan seems to be working, she said the best thing you can do is help searchers find you.

“I’ve been lost, and it is hard to keep the panic down,” she said. “You need to keep a really cool head. If you can’t think your way out of a situation, then stop, think, organize and plan. Start making markers in the direction you are traveling to help searchers find you.” Strips of cloth and arrows made from wood or rock can be placed in visible areas. If an aerial search is ongoing, take a belt and shake a tree branch.

“A weirdly shaking tree branch will be noticeable if they are searching from the air,” Annie said. “Doing these things not only make you feel like you are doing something constructive, but it helps you maintain hope. If you lose hope, you go to a very dark place. Find a place to settle down and make it homey. Make it comfortable, and if it’s safe, make a fire.

“Above all, don’t give in to panic and go running off into any direction. The most important thing to do is keep a cool head.”

Looking back at my own adventure of losing myself, I did fall into the trap of not thinking straight, but I did keep my cool for the most part. Backtracking and stopping to assess my situation helped me find my way again in the deep, dark woods. It also taught me that no matter how dire a situation seems, panicking will always make it worse.

Next hike, I’m bringing markers!

Buffalo river trail hard to see Buffalo_River_Trail_hard_to_see.jpg