Imagine going to the beach to watch the sunset. A nice way to spend an evening, don't you think! Well, maybe not quite so nice if you go to the beach, walk out on the at least partially frozen sea, then get yourself lost. According to news reports here, and here, this is what it seems happened to a middle aged man in Germany who trekked out onto the ice near St. Peter-Ording close to the Danish border. (A hat tip to Bayou Renaissance man for posting about this here.)Since the temperatures would soon go down to -20C you maybe able to imagine that the man would have succumbed to the cold had he somehow not found his way back to shore or had he not been rescued. This guy was not finding his way to the shore but disorientated or not, he had his salvation with him and kept his wits enough to use it. Lucky for him - someone was watching - even if she was about 350 miles away and note I really mean it was lucky for him - very lucky.
What happened was that this fellow started setting off his camera flash in the hope that someone would see it (at least that is what was reported). Someone did see it and she had the sense to realize it was someone in need who was setting off the flashes. The woman who saw it was looking at her computer screen monitoring a web cam that was set up on the same beach pointed at the very same sunset that our sad-sack nature lover decided to get a better view of by hiking out onto the ice of the frozen North Sea. Local authorities, local to the area where the guy was lost, responded and flashed the headlights of their vehicles on an off to direct the lost and cold sunset worshipper back to shore. Then they, according to one report, chewed him out for having done something so foolish.
I will not even go into how stupid I think it was on the nature lover's part to trek out on the ice of the North Sea (heck I used to preach to my kids never to walk or skate on a frozen pond let alone walk out on a frozen sea) especially as unprepared as he seems to have been for survival. I will comment though on how easily remedied his situation would have been as far as becoming disorientated. Had he had the least amount of knowledge and sense before setting out on a hike in nature, he would have prepared himself with the most basic of equipment to assure he would not get lost. That basic equipment is available to anyone who has a few bucks to spend. It is called a compass. Had he been in possession of a compass all he would have needed to have done would have been to take it out and get a reading from it and then walk toward the direction of shore - that is presuming that he had enough smarts to realize in which direction shore would be found. An easy way to make sure of that would have been to have taken a compass reading before he set off on the ice.
I have a very good sense of direction. Not so much that I can tell you that one way is north with impeccable reliability but in that if I set out on a rambling hike I can almost always find my way back to my starting point without much difficulty. Note I said almost always. I have gotten disorientated before, turned around so much so that I did not know which way to proceed to hit my desired destination. So what did I do? First of all I stopped. Then I made a conscious effort to remain calm. Then I looked and listened. Now you may be thinking - looked and listened for what. Well as I would have, had I been in this guy's shoes, I would have looked for the last light of the sun's setting. That would have given me a sense of direction. If not, say it already was too dark or was snowing and I could not make out direction through the swirling whiteness, then the listening comes to play. I once found myself turned around in the woods and listened intently through the wind and through the sound of tree branches rustling to hear the sounds from a distant highway. Once I picked up the sound of passing vehicles (from about a mile away and in a snowstorm at that) I knew which direction I had to go to get back to my starting point. The thing is, had I not heard the traffic, I would still have been okay. I had a compass with me, and I knew which direction would get me going my destination.
I carry a compass with me virtually every time I am out and about in natural settings on hikes, short walks, backpacking trips, fishing trips and so on. Why? Simply because I do not want to get lost and wind up in a situation that might kill me. I have almost no compass reading skills. I do not plot my hikes using a compass. I go out and hike and I turn around and hike back even if I zigged and zagged to get where I was going. I am lucky in that way because I can usually find my way back with ease. Again, I point out I use a term like usually. I carry the compass in case it does not work out as usual and I do not need to be a map maker to use one effectively enough to get me back to safety. I take a reading for direction before I go, then I have a good idea which way I have to use to return. When I change course, I pick out landmarks and take a new reading from there. I always have an idea of which general direction I would have to walk to get back to where I started out. Mind you, if I was going to go out on an extended backpacking trek into a remote location, I would take maps and I would learn how to orient using those maps, a compass and landmarks. I have a very general idea how to do it already because I have read up on it before but even without such knowledge you can use a compass to make sure you get back to from where you started. In the case of the guy who was lost on the North Sea all he would have had to do was look at the compass and then walk in the direction of land - and maybe also hope he did not fall through the ice at a weak spot.
Now that I am back to that almost completely hapless hiker, let me point out something he did right. He kept his wits about him when he was lost, at least enough to think of using his flash as an emergency beacon. It is important to remain calm if you get lost. It is easy, very easy, to panic but panic helps nothing except maybe that it helps your downfall or demise. Apparently he must have had enough sense to put fresh batteries into his camera before going off to take pictures of the sunset in the frozen north. Why he did not have enough sense to bring along a compass is beyond me. My guess is that he also did not have a flashlight. I carry a flashlight with me, in my pants pocket, almost everywhere I go. I leave it behind pretty much only when I forget it. When I hike, I take extra batteries too.
A flashlight cannot only be used to help illuminate your way but can also be used as a signal device. Think about how lucky this guy was that the woman watching the web cam did not just think he was taking pictures; some people probably would have thought so and paid him no or little mind. If however he had been signalling on and off with a flashlight (such as an SOS signal) it would have been much more obvious that he needed help. The SOS while not the most simple, is certainly one of the most simple distress signals in the world. It is Morse code and essentially means I need help, or send help, or I am in distress. It is simply a series of three dots followed by three dashes followed by three dots. Very easy to accomplish with a flashlight by turning it on and off. Even if you forget the order and put it out as O-S-O or three dashes followed by three dots followed by three dashes - chances are someone would realize you are trying to send and SOS because it is a standard distress signal around the world and it follows the pattern of three. The ironic thing in this situation is that the SOS signal originated in Germany, and one has to wonder if the ice trekker even knew it existed.
If you forget the whole SOS thin then remember this - three of anything is also an international distress code. So if the guy lost out on the ice kept setting off his flash in sets of three flashes, then waited awhile, then repeated the three flashes, it should have signaled that he needed help. Three whistle blasts (another good signal device to carry while hiking), three short bursts of light from a flashlight, three gunshots (not all that great during hunting season so carry a signal whistle), three dark lines - of broken branches or stones or mud or whatever - in the snow out in field (as could be seen by air rescue crews) all would be distress signals. Lucky for our lost Ice Man of the North that he used a light because my guess is no one would have heard a whistle in his case.
If you think your sense of direction is infallible and you figure you cannot get lost - maybe as did this guy - well then I wish you luck when you do get lost - luck like this man had out on the ice. I think though that the chances of such a lucky save repeating itself in the event you get lost are slim to none. So I strongly suggest being prepared before you set out - even on something like a short exercise hike in the woods. You would be surprised how easy it is to get turned around if you fall and hit your head and become dazed even momentarily, or because of something as simple as you hiking off trail or losing a trail. You might also be surprised at how easily people can panic when they become lost and how much easier it is to become even more lost when you panic. So before you go make some preparation. Think about your trip beforehand. Think about what to do if you get lost before you get lost. Think about remaining calm and how you would convince yourself to avoid panic. At the very least carry a compass and a flashlight with fresh batteries. Have a basic idea of how to use the compass. Take a compass reading before you set off, take readings as you go along, keep in mind the general direction that you have to go in order to return to your starting point. Also take along a flashlight, I carry a Mini-mag Light but there are many others available. Those with LED bulbs are much easier on the batteries.
There are many other things I take along on a hike that would help insure my survival if I ever got lost or otherwise stuck out in the woods or another harsh environment unexpectedly. I always carry a knife unless I forget one. Since I usually take two or three I hardly ever forget to have at least one of them with me. When hiking I also carry plenty of water, some high energy food, a small first aid kit, a space blanket, glow sticks (those plastic tubes filled with luminescent goop that is activated when you bend the plastic tube breaking the inner glass tube that contains the catalyst to make the goop glow) a flashlight, an extra light, extra batteries, water, some high energy food, water (did I mention water already), a waterproof hat for warmth, matches in a waterproof container or waterproof matches, a small fire starter like a candle (something that will make it easier to get a blaze going), a magnesium fire starter bar (in case the matches do not work or I lose them) and water. All of that can be carried in a small daypack with room left over for a sweater. I also carry a gun when I legally can do so - which right now is always.
Don't think you need it all - take it all anyway, it may save your life.
All the best,
Post Script: Before I sign off, let me point out I am a cynic by nature or maybe by way of how I was nurtured. Being a cynic, let me ppint out that neither the lost man nor the woman who was his savior allowed their names to be released to the press. Being the cynic I am it has me wondering, was it just coincidence that both were watching the same sunset that saved the man or was it all a set-up? How does this tie in with them not wanting their names released? You see, if they are friends, and their names are released, then a mutual acquaintance of both could put one and one together to come up with three and realize something is amiss. Of course, it probably was not a scam and with luck like mine I suppose it is just envy of that guy's good fortune that turned on my cynical switch.