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Lost? Be a survivor

Sticky Situation Donning the explorer's boots you've strayed too far from the group? Happens to every trekker. Here's how you can find your way back

travel Updated: Feb 28, 2010 21:34 IST

Frequently on treks, you find yourself so enamoured by the beauty of the climb that you leave your group behind and take your own course up to the fort. Result? Your trek leader freaks out, a rescue team is sent out, you are found and chastised, and your enthusiasm not only trickles out but whatever is left of it, is greeted with manic dread.

While it's not a sin to choose your own trail or tread unexplored paths, your experience of being alone on a trek would get a lot less eerie if at all points you knew where you were headed. After all, it's best to know the quickest and safest way out of the jungle if you suddenly saw a wild bear walking in your direction, isn't it?

Know your stop points
In unknown terrains, trekkers devise their own escape routes. "The entire trail is chalked out beforehand, but you should be able to tell your way out using elemental clues. That's altogether a different kind of thrill," says trekker Shishir Deshmukh (36).

For instance, most trekkers have a detailed map of the fort they're headed to. The entire trail is split up into multiple equidistant stop points, where the leader will call to regroup. These points are junctures in the path where there's a fork in the road or a temple or water source worth halting at. These are also places where trekkers will feel the need to amble away.

But if anyone drifts from the group's route, the leaders go back to the immediate previous point of halt and send search parties in different directions.

The strayed trekker, too, is expected tofind his way back to this point. Now that's an easy thing to do during the day. But how do you navigate your way through the wilderness when it's pitch dark?

Navigating in the dark
After sunset, it is possible to identify directions based on the position of the constellations or the moon.

To trekker Abhijeet Avalaskar (30), the Ursa Major and Cassiopeia are most helpful. "The Cassiopeia, which is always in the northern direction, can be used to find out the pole star. It looks either like the alphabet W or M depending on which direction you're headed in. Also, the Orion constellation is always in the southern direction, so depending on where in the sky it is, you can figure your way out," he says.

But trekkers know better than to wait for a clear sky. If you're lost on a cloudy night, look out for stones or tree trunks that dot your trail; they're sure to have marks indicating the right direction. On a trip to Bhairavgad, Deshmukh found himself on a flatland surrounded by trees. "I didn't know where to head to until I saw small stones neatly arranged on a line of boulders trailing off in the distance. This indicated that trekkers had been here," says Deshmukh. The direction in which the water flows, too, can be helpful. "The flow of the water is indicative of which direction the base village is in. From it, you can also determine the location of the fort," explains Deshmukh.

The locals of the base village do their bit by way of making steps on trails so the climbing becomes easier and first time trekkers don't deviate from the course.

"You can grope around with the help of your feet or probe the path with a stick when it's dark. But so long as you are climbing down steps, you know you're going to reach the village," says trekker Kalpesh More (24).

If the area abounds in cattle, following the footprints of animals, too, might lead you to the base village. "Keep an eye out for markings in the form of flags and oil paint; they're usually found around ladders, temples, forts and caves," he adds.

Keep an eye on nature...
Landmarks and points of regroup are specified before the trek begins. This gives trekkers an idea of the location of thick patches of bushes, rough terrain and valleys that they must avoid.

Trekker Peter Van Geit is quite the impulsive explorer. On a trek to Ombattu Gudde (which means 'nine peaks') in Karnataka, his group had to scale nine peaks that all looked similar and had thick bushes. But the GPS system he carried with him helped him note the group's coordinates. While he was at it, he also recorded the locations of streams and other natural structures to help him another day.

... But keep a map handy
"Some trekkers use printouts of bitmaps that they obtain from the Internet because of a lack of vector maps to load onto their GPS systems. The printouts are large enough with scales as less as 1 cm: 250 m so the topography of the area is clearly visible," Geit says. Even hard copies of topography and terrain maps found in books are useful, as they show you the terrain and what the surrounding areas look like.

Once trekkers have determined the spot they're at, they cross reference it with these maps to trace out the trail. Location parameters in GPS devices are also stored for valleys, jungles and rivers that you want to avoid, and forts, statues and reservoirs that you want to visit. "With these points, a rough sketch of a map can be made to help other groups," adds Avalaskar.

Pointed the right way
The compass may seem outdated,but it is the most dependable device if all else fails. In a dense jungle when the visibility is extremely poor, a compass will help you identify directions and figure out the trail. "They're also sturdy devices that don't require batteries or any kind of maintenance," Geit adds.

And in times of sheer desperation, to attract attention, you might also try screaming at the top of your lungs. But there's a certain technique to this you scream the letters 'O' and 'A' in succession. Says More, "If your group is anywhere nearby, rest assured they'll reply with an A followed by O. But if there's silence...".

First Published: Feb 28, 2010 21:34 IST