How to avoid becoming a statistic in the Oregon Forests

Three pieces of practical advice for the Oregon Hiker

While Oregon is undoubtedly one of the most scenic states in the nation, it is also one of the most deadly when it comes to getting lost in the woods. Since 1997, 189 men and 51 women are reported missing as a result of walking into our forests – that’s 16 people getting swallowed up every year. Every dry season hikers with a wide variety of woodsman’s skills descent upon our wilderness areas and after just a few turns find themselves hopelessly lost in the dense Coastal Mountains. 89% of the missing are found, but 8% perish and another 2% are never even found.

What separates the 89% that are rescued from our sylvan “disappeared” can be as simple as lacking fire-building skills, or failing to bring adequate clothing and insufficient food and water.

1. Carry emergency supplies to sustain you overnight:

I always carry a “hip pack” that contains maps, emergency rations, a compass, a whistle, some fire starter, a “Leatherman”, a “bivvy sac”, a tube tent, and an assortment of medical supplies. There’s room on top for my camera, but essentially the bag is dedicated to carrying stuff that I hope to never use. That way it stays fully stocked and is handy to grab on the way out the door. In cold weather I often carry an extra pair of wool socks, and plenty of chocolate for quick energy. To be even more careful, you shouldn’t wear any cotton next to your skin. But to be honest, I usually forget to do this. The careful hiker should, if possible, wear a synthetic undershirt next to your skin, because when cotton get’s wet it can wick up to 26% of your body heat.

For added safety (since I’m out in the boonies at least once a week) I also carry a GPS – mainly for recording where I’ve been, and a locator beacon that I can activate to alert my wife that I’m in trouble. Keep in mind that phones usually don’t work when you need them in the woods. That takes care of the first challenge – staying dry and warm.

2. Making good decisions:

The second challenge is making good decisions. Oregon’s cold wet climate induces hypothermia in those unfortunate enough to get stuck in the woods without adequate protection from the damp. Hypothermia is no joke! It’s main characteristic is a tendency to become befuddled, make poor choices and refuse to reassess the situation as things go from bad to worse. It’s also very insidious because the first symptom is denial that you might be suffering from hypothermia. The best strategy is to converse body heat zealously.

There’s another caution that I would add to the challenge of good decision-making in the woods. Since I often hike alone and am no longer the spry youngster I once was, I try to avoid situations where I could fall and seriously injure myself in remote hard to find places. There are certain situations like traversing steep and slippery heights that I will avoid. Scrupulously observing such limits will force you to reconsider whether you should go on. If the risk is making you uncomfortable it may be wiser to turn back and retrace your steps – which is presumably less dangerous.

Sounds simple. Right? But I have learned that such a logical approach isn’t always reliable. It all depends upon the investment in time and effort one has expended to get to the present physical location. The longer the hike behind you, the more likely you are to take on additional risks just to avoid having to retrace the long outbound journey. That’s when your decision-making logic goes awry. Suddenly it’s no longer about the imminent danger ahead, but it’s all about the huge expenditure of energy and time it will take to retrace one’s steps. This is when mental discipline and firm guidelines can keep you from becoming a statistic.

3. The Pacific Northwest is Upside down!

Finally, there’s a basic element of geography that all hikers in the Pacific Northwest should learn to ignore! It’s the old adage about finding civilization by following water into the valleys. It is the absolute worst strategy in any commercial forest anywhere in the Pacific Northwest! The reason is simple; logging roads in the Pacific Northwest are built across the tops of the mountains, not along the valley floors.

In the Pacific Northwest timber is harvested by pulling it UP the slope to a landing pad built at the top of the ridge or mountain. That means that all the major roads, except major highways and county roads run along the spines of the hills and mountains, not down along the river like everywhere else in the world. To find people and roads you must ascend the slope, not descend them. Besides, it is virtually impossible to penetrate the thick thorny vegetation located at the bottom of the ravines. Many of these mountain stream beds descend over waterfalls or are clogged with gigantic logjams that are virtually impossible to scramble over. Dogs have an even more difficult time with such impediments. During the colder season these ravines are also full of wet cold fog that will rapidly induce hypothermia and eventual death.

Whenever you find yourself in a forest that is being logged or has been logged, remember to reverse the polarity of your woodman’s sense. Climb up to get out; not down! Once you’ve located the logging roads follow those roads that show the most use. It may take awhile, but you’ll walk out alive this way.

Like most things in life that can bring profound joy and inspiration; it’s important to stay on top of the situation and not let circumstances dictate the outcomes. Travel lightly, but be prepared.

About Jim

Love to spend time getting lost in the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest with Zoe, my Siberian Husky.
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5 Responses to How to avoid becoming a statistic in the Oregon Forests

  1. Brian E says:

    Jim, Good point on the ridgeline roads. I learned something today. Well maybe I knew it already, but had not realized it yet. Thank you!

    Along with having a fire starter (mine is a piezoelectric bic lighter). Practice building those fires in all conditions. It’s a good skill to have. It also tests your equipment and ability.

    Brian E

  2. Celia Davis says:

    Thanks for your work, and for so generously sharing. You’re such a good writer, I learn a lot in a short amount of reading. You are a treasure!

  3. Meg Ruby says:

    Excellent site. Came for the trail info (excellent!) and will come back for more of the stories and lore. I appreciate your ‘don’t be a statistic’ tips. I’ll remember to go up when lost.

    Your site reminds me of a good trail. One way points to new heights and adventures. The other direction provides mileposts that orient to forgotten times and ways of being from our not so distant past. Thanks for sharing the path with us!

  4. ooie says:

    Lets not forget about elusive predators that have been helping people disappear for a few millennia.
    Map of clusters of missing people, thanks to David Paulides.

    • Jim says:

      You’re talking about “big foot”. I haven’t seen tracks or any sign, or smell to indicate that he has much of a presence here. But then again I’ve only seen a few cats and I know there are more than 5,000 cougars in Oregon.

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