13 Fascinating Facts about Lost Person Behaviour

Did you know that there are forty-one different types of people who get lost in forty-one different ways? Lost Person Behaviour is the science of knowing where to search for someone based on which of the forty-one profiles applies. The profiles were developed from a huge database of statistics gathered by search and rescue teams engaged in more than two million hours of searching.

Lost Person Behaviour is a New Science

Father Lorenzo, back in 1783, was the first to keep records of search and rescue results. He was part of the Swiss monastery system that used St. Bernard dogs to rescue people lost in the Alps. Father Lorenzo’s kept records only of fatalities. Apparently, three or four people died each year as a result of either avalanche or hypothermia.

In the mid 1970’s, a guy named Bill Syrotuck came up with eight categories of Lost Person Behaviour. That was helpful, but the really enormous leap forward in search and rescue work came in 2008. That’s when Robert Koester wrote  Lost Person Behaviour , a book that reviewers describe as “ground breaking” and “indispensable”.

There’s also a Lost Person Behaviour app  to help search and rescue teams respond even more quickly. The app doesn’t require a network connection so can be used anywhere.  It’s available for $10 from both Google Play and Apple.

Koester is the first to acknowledge that people are unique so his categories may not work perfectly every time. He also hopes to develop more categories, joking that he’s sure some future search is going to require a category for “female elderly light-wind board-sailers.”

Nevertheless, knowledge of Lost Person Behaviour has been proven to consistently get search and rescue teams moving quickly in the right direction.

How Would You be Categorized if Lost?

Three questions will determine how to start looking for you.

I was never lost in the woods in my whole life, though once I was confused for three days.

Daniel Boone

The first question is about your mental status. If you have dementia, a mental illness, or have been despondent, those are all categories that allow rescuers to assume certain things about how you will behave and how far you will travel.

Assuming good news on the mental status questions, rescuers want to know your age. This is particularly important if you are fifteen or under. Children behave quite differently depending on which category or age grouping they fall into: 1-3, 4-6, 7-12, or 13-15.

Finally, rescuers will categorize you according to what you were outdoors to do. For example, were you camping, hunting, climbing, hiking, horseback riding, snowshoeing, fishing or working? The answer gives rescuers a good idea as to your competency and to how you’ll behave when lost.

While many other questions will be asked, determining where you fit into the forty-one categories is the vital first step.full moon in forest at night

13 Fascinating Facts about Lost Person Behaviour

  1. It is a myth that we panic when lost. Instead, most of us experience shock, disbelief, and embarrassment.
  2. Many people experience an irrational belief that no one is looking for them. When that happens, they don’t call out. Some even ignore a helicopter flying overhead.
  3. Hansel and Gretel may have benefited from leaving a trail of bread crumbs, but it’s not a good sign when a lost person leaves a trail of clothing or equipment. Rather, it’s an unfortunate indicator of either late stage hypothermia or exhaustion.
  4. Fifty per cent of searches resolve within three hours.
  5. Fifty-four per cent of people are found within two miles of the point where they were last seen.
  6. Hikers tend to become lost if the trail is obscured or if there are confusing trails that intersect. Rescuers do a map and terrain analysis to determine where the confusing spots are so they can look there first.
  7. Hunters become lost because they are focused on game rather than navigation or time of day. If caught after dark, the typical hunter will build a shelter and then proudly walk out of the woods, unassisted, at daybreak.
  8. Despondent people typically don’t travel very far. If suicidal, they hide from search teams. Despondent people are often found at the interface between two types of terrain, such as a cliff edge, or along a shoreline.
  9. Lost adults will usually stay on a trail, however they may climb a hill to get a view of the area. They rarely travel in a straight line, and rarely reverse direction.
  10. Children, on the other hand, look for familiar spots rather than trails. They can’t judge either direction or distance and tend to move randomly.
  11. Young people of ages 13-15 often become lost in groups of two or more. Youth in a group rarely travel very far from where they were last seen.
  12. Children, ages 1-3, look for the most convenient location to lie down and are, as a result, very difficult to detect. A little bit older, ages 4-6, and one of the big problems is that they won’t answer rescuers’ calls because they’ve been taught to avoid strangers.
  13.  Berry pickers, nature photographers, and rock hounds are often inadequately clothed or equipped. Rescuers try to put themselves in the lost person’s shoes, asking questions such as, “Where do the best berries grow?”

3 Ways to Make It Easier to Be Found

While this post isn’t about how to survive in the woods if lost, I stumbled across three things that search and rescue teams attend to when looking for a lost person.ideal lost person behaviour - a campfire They:

  1. Look to see if there are any travel aids in the area. A travel aid is anything that would give a lost person an indication of civilization, such as an abandoned railroad, or a power line right of way.
  2. Tend to find you more easily if you stay put. One statistic I found said that 83% of those rescued had not moved for more than twenty-four hours.
  3. Hope you’ll set a fire. Fires are a great distress signal. And if you are lost for a while and move on, the extinguished fire circles you leave behind provide excellent clues for searchers.

Being Lost

I was lost in the woods at night on a conservation area field trip when I was ten years old. Fortunately, I was lost with my teacher and half a dozen other children. I remember my teacher becoming increasingly concerned and I remember us walking for what felt like hours, but I was with an adult so I don’t think I was overly anxious. Nevertheless, it was a tremendous relief to see the lights of the conservation centre and to be welcomed with hot chocolate and a snack when we finally arrived, cold and tired, at 11:00 p.m.

I have never been lost as an adult, but did lose my three-year-old niece at an amusement park one time. We were playing in the young children’s area. She went into a tunnel but didn’t emerge where I waited at the other end. It turned out that there were multiple exits from the tunnel. The ten minutes it took to find her were the longest ten minutes of my life. Equally challenging was the conversation that evening when my niece reported to her mother that, “Aunt Karen losted me.”

Have you ever been lost? What was the experience like for you?





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  1. I got lost some years ago – in my car. I was driving (at night) from Miami to the West Coast of Florida and Alligator Alley was closed off. Thinking I was so smart, I took a road that seemed to go in the direction I wanted to go and when that road ran out, I took another road, then another then another. It is very, very dark in the Florida Everglades and all I could think of was the alligators and snakes that come out at night and lay on the warm roads. Eventually, after about 45 minutes of roaming around getting more panicked by the minute, I found my way to a road that took me where I wanted to go. I was in a car so I can only imagine how terrifying it must be to be lost on foot. The fact that there is a science of “Lost Person Behavior” makes me wonder just how many people actually get lost in any given year. As usual, Karen, fascinating post!

    1. Even the term ‘Alligator Alley’ sends chills up my spine. I’m glad you were able to stay in your car.
      It would be really interesting to know how many people get lost, although I imagine the numbers vary depending on definitions of lost versus missing. I’ll see if I can find out.

  2. Interesting information. I’ve been lost a few times, although not for very long. I got lost at Knox Berry Farm when I was about your niece’s age. I, of course, don’t remember it, but I apparently was found by an “Indian” (a dressed up character at the park) and returned to my family.

    Good to know to stay in place if I ever get lost in the wilderness. I probably wouldn’t luck out and get found by an Indian.

    1. Your comment made me smile, Janis. I can just picture your rescue at Knox Berry Farm.
      I’m definitely planning to stay put if lost in the woods. I’d also like to learn how to make a campfire just in case search and rescue people don’t get to me during daylight hours. I don’t relish a night in the dark woods.

  3. That was a really interesting post to read, Karen. I had no idea there were so many categories or factors that went into how and where a lost person would go. It is a great idea to have something like this as a guide so that rescue personnel can find the lost person faster.
    I had heard that if you were lost you were supposed to stay where you are. It is much easier to find someone if everywhere you have looked can be crossed off without wondering if the lost person just reached somewhere you had checked just an hour ago.
    That must have been scary enough for you, as a ten-year-old, to be lost in a conservation area at night if you remember it to this day. Regardless of the fact that you were lost with your teacher and half a dozen other students you did pick up on the teacher becoming increasingly concerned.
    I have been lost before… at the drive in, of all places, I got very disoriented in the dark and could not find our car when I got out to go to the snack bar to get popcorn. I got panicky and angry at myself. When I calmed down a little I looked at the screen and by walking across the lot I located our car based on how the screen looked (what angle the screen was at) like from inside the car. I got very methodical and figured out how to locate the car in the end but that panicky feeling never left me then and every time we went to the drive-in after that.

    1. I can totally understand the panicky feeling of being lost at a drive-in. That has happened to me too, and I solved the problem in exactly the same way that you did. Thank goodness for logic that works in the dark!

      1. Wow, that’s amazing that you had a similar experience and solved it in exactly the same way! LOL ;), I am so happy to know I am not the only one who came out carrying snacks and found myself all turned around and lost. I felt like such a fool at the time. Logic rules!! LOL 🙂

  4. Fascinating! I didn’t know anything about this field of study. It makes complete sense now that I read it. (Fingers crossed that I will never need to use the information gleaned!)

  5. I lost my daughter “K” many years ago when she was a toddler, TWICE! It was terrifying. The first time, we were in the women’s clothing section of a department store, and she was about two. She was right beside me, holding the handle of the stroller while I looked at clothes on a big circular rack. One second she was there, and then she wasn’t. Without stepping away from the stroller, I called her name and looked frantically in every direction. Then I heard a little giggle. She had crawled inside the circular rack below the clothes and was hiding on me.

    The second time was about a year later. K and I, and her newborn baby sister were at a food court in a mall. We had finished our snack and I was putting the baby back in the stroller and loading the diaper bag, perhaps distracted for about a minute. I looked up and K was nowhere in sight. I called her name. There were not many people around and no-one had seen her leave. I began running down the hallway of the mall pushing the baby in the stroller and shouting name. I was running toward the administration office so I could report her missing. Around a corner and way down the hallway, I found her. She was grinning and hugging the giant furry mascot of the Mall (human in a costume). It turned out that K had noticed big green footprints in the mall hallway and followed them to the mascot; she loved big fuzzy creatures. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.


    1. Oh my gosh, Jude. ‘K’ at that age sounds playful… and crazy making! I so clearly remember the terror I felt when my niece was lost for those few minutes – the feeling of overwhelming dread, the panic. To have that happen twice with your daughter – I imagine that future trips were exhausting for you as you kept an eagle eye on her every second. I hope she grew out of that behaviour quite quickly!

  6. What a fascinating article and story! I have never been really lost, in the sense that someone had to search for me, but many times have I had the sensation that I had no idea where I was anymore. It is a feeling that makes your heart stop and your stomach turn. Usually, common sense, or whoever I am with (who often has a better sense of direction), helps me pick up the trail or head in the right direction again. I always believe I will “get there”, but that it might take a while. Which is OK. As long as I get “there”!

    1. I’m hearing a theme between this comment and the one you made for the “your memoir needs a theme” post. I need to learn patience from you, Liesbet. I always want to get there NOW!

  7. My son and I got lost on a hunting trip. We were supposed to take a 20 minute walk around a mountainous area and meet back at the truck. Unfortunately we turned the wrong way and ended up going the opposite direction and did not realize it. By the time we knew we were lost we had walked down a mountain to a road. We stopped there and my husband followed our tracks in the snow until he found us. It was getting dark and by then my son and I were too weak and tired to walk back up the mountain. So my husband built us a shelter and started a fire and went back up the mountain to get help. When the lights go out in the mountains it is really dark. We split a sandwich and huddled together waiting for someone to come and get us. Turns out we had gotten into an area with locked gates on govt land. So my husband had to rouse someone in that dept to get the keys to all the locked gates and search and rescue finally found us in the wee hours of the morning. We might have smelled like wood smoke but those guys looked like angels to us. We thought we were really lost but they knew where we were just could not get in there easily. I delivered mail to businesses on Main street and the next time I went into the general store one of the employees hollered from the back asking me if I wanted to buy one of their compasses. I said no I am never hunting again and over 30 years later I never have! If my husband hadn’t come looking for us I am not sure how I would have handled that situation at all.

    1. Oh my gosh, Leona! What a scary experience. All I can think is how wise you were to stop moving so your husband could find you. How much worse it could have been if you’d just kept walking. And how great that you weren’t alone. I wonder if your son has continued hunting and, if he has, does he make sure that he is always with someone?
      Thanks for reading this post and for commenting, Leona. And apologies for the couple of days delay in replying to your message. Karen

      1. Yes he did do some hunting as a teenager but now that he is in his 40’s he does not hunt at all. Not sure if that had a role in him not doing any more hunting. Leona

  8. I was lost in the sand dunes in Florance Or once about 20 years ago. Long before cell phones & hand held GPS units. My now ex husband & I rented dune buggy’s to explore the area. I specifically remember asking the man who we rented from ” how do we know which way to come back?” He said to just look for “that tree line” pointing. So leaving our then 10 & 11 year olds in the car we decided to just do a 5 minute check it out cruise to make sure that it was a safe situation. We literally planned on starting them & driving a few feet then get the kids on board. I will never forget the feeling of going down this huge hill and dropping so hard my body shook. I am not a big roller coaster fan so who knows why I agreed to this. That is the feeling though. Like your stomach is dropping out of your body. It took less then 5 minutes to be turned around and lost. Everything looked the same. The supposed tree line wasn’t always visible and we never stopped moving so got off track more & more. I remember the panicky feeling of the sun going down, being close to out of gas & knowing my kids where back in the car expecting us to be right back. There where no other people out there to ask for help or directions. Fortunately the man who rented them came looking for us after about an hour which felt like a day. He was smart enough to bring gas as well. We where running on fumes and where about 2 miles from our starting point. For the record there was more then one tree line. The kids where fine & playing on Game Boys & eating all the travel snacks. I have not ever tried to rent dune buggy’s again. I am now a hiker & try to pay close attention to my surroundings as well as carry a backpack with my 10 essentials plus some. I also just bought an In Reach just in case!

    1. Whew, Elaine, you write this in a way that makes the fear you felt very real and very terrifying! And made so much worse by being close to where you’re supposed to be and yet not able to see your destination. And, of course, your kids being in the car, the sun going down, running out of gas. I’m so glad it worked out. Looking for the silver lining, I imagine this experience has made you not only a much better and safer hiker, but has hopefully also had an impact on friends and family so they’re equally well prepared when out in the woods. Thanks so much for writing. Karen

  9. “Hope you start a fire”. Are you kidding? We had a major wildfire here some years back, with loss of life. It was started by a lost hunter who thought he was Daniel Boone and ignited the entire back country. Just a suggestion…if you’re going out in the wild, learn to read maps, learn how to use a compass, take both with you, and learn to read your terrain and know where the heck you are at all times. The idiot who started our fire (and who is now spending several decades living at public expense in a confined setting) was never more that 2 miles from at least one rural highway. So, take a small mirror with you (for signalling in daytime), a flashlight (preferably with a strobe mode), and a whistle. And just don’t go wandering off on your own.

  10. If you would like to learn more about the “nitty gritty” that goes into managing a SAR operation read the following. Managing the Inland Search Function. Another class to take, for those looking to progress in the Public Safety field, would be the Advance Inland Search & Rescue Planning course. 5 day ground and air search tactics and oversight skills. Taught by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Air Force.

    Thanks for informing the general public about lost person behavior! SAR teams can only educate so much at one time.

  11. I’ve looked all through this post and can’t find a source for the information written here, e.g. the “13 Fascinating Facts”. These seem to reflect another person’s research and not this blog writer’s. But whose?

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