Woods shock refers to a persons mental state after the realization that they are lost. Its the effect of taking someone from their normal environment, and putting them into a situation where they do not have the slightest idea where they are at. The degree, or level of woods shock varies from person to person. The effects range from fear to all out panic.
Living in a city, people have streets, and street names to keep them oriented. We know where we are at because this street connects to that street, and so on. When a person has been raised in the city or town environment, they become accustomed to knowing the street layout and how to get from one place to another.
In the wilderness, there are no street signs, or names of roads. This lack of normal guidance (no street or roads) has certain profound psychological effects on people that become lost in the wilderness.
Very little research has been done on “woods shock” as it can only be studied when a person is lost. When the search and rescue team finds the person, the woods shock goes away and the person returns to their normal mental state.
Children who have been lost in the woods overnight, were rarely able to describe anything about their experience. The children simply could not put their experience into words. The children that are able to describe being lost, said they hid from monsters at night (remember these “monsters” for later in this article). Adults who spent the night lost in the woods, described hearing wild dogs, coyotes or even wolves. Adults said they heard sounds that came from a type of K9, even though there were none in the area. Some adults also described frequently hearing voices in the night.
Sometimes the lost person mistakes the rescue dogs for wolves and will hide from the search and rescue teams. So that might explain some of what the lost people heard. Children will see lights and voices in the night (which is really the search and rescue teams with flashlights calling the childs name), the children will sometimes think that the lights and voices are monsters and will hide from the rescue teams. In the childs mind they are seeing “monsters” in the dark, but in reality its the search and rescue parties.
Even though there are several levels of “Woods Shock”, only three are going to be discussed.
The first level is disorientation. Ok, I think I might be getting lost, but I’am not sure. Maybe if I walk that way I will find the trail. This grasping at straws is the first sign of “woods shock.” This is when someone “thinks” they are going in the right direction. Their decisions are usually justified because a certain hill or stream looks familiar.
The middle level of woods shock is panic. This is where the person will start running, maybe yelling and screaming for help. If the person is carrying a firearm, sometimes they will drop the firearm to be able to walk faster. Sometimes the person will drop their packs and gear to be able to move faster, as they think their gear is slowing them down. The decision to drop the equipment is justified because the trail is “right over there”, I’ll just get to camp and come back for my gear tomorrow.
When rescue teams start finding discarded gear – such as backpacks, clothes, matches, knives, firearms – the chances of finding the person alive goes down.
The “panic” phase is usually when people step off the edge of a cliff, or fall into a ravine or creek bottom. In their mind, they are only a little ways from the safety of the camp, park or trail – they just need to get over the top of that hill. In reality they are lost.
During the panic phase a lot of people disregard their own safety. Instead of stopping and setting up camp when the sun goes down, they continue to walk during the night. This is one of most likely times they will fall and suffer some kind of injury.
The final level of woods shock, is the thought that they will die in the woods, lost, and all alone. At this point some people will just sit down, give up and prepare their selves for death – which they think is now inevitable.
The effects of the middle phase takes it toll on the person – both physically and mentally. When they are finally so exhausted they can no longer walk, that is when thoughts of setting up camp and building a fire pop into their heads. But, then they remember the pack and the supplies were dropped several hours ago.
Guilt can set in, thoughts of the family members that will be left behind, how could I be so stupid to get lost or drop my gear, now I’am going to die.
A lot of times its not the cold, lack or water or lack of food that kills people. Its the panic during the middle phase. Severe panic kicks in, the person will start running through the woods at night. Sometimes the will run off the edge of a cliff, step into a hole and break their leg, fall into a river,,,,.
Preventing Woods Shock.
To help avoid the first level of woods shock, people that venture into the wilderness should under go certain levels of wilderness survival training. Here are a few suggestions.
1. Learn the basics of building a fire. Fire provides not only warmth and light, but a sense of security – “as long as I have fire, I am safe from wild animals.” For thousands of years people have used fire to make them feel safe and secure – its a primal human instinct.
2. If you are lost, admit that you are lost and stop walking. People can walk for miles trying to find their way back to camp. The more a person walks, the further they will be away from where the search and rescue teams will be looking. On average most people will walk 1 – 2 miles per hour. If someone walked for 3 – 4 hours, they could be 3 – 8 miles from the search location.
3. Spend an unprepared night in the woods as if you were lost, but in a controlled situation. Walk into the woods, and practice building a fire and building shelter with only basic tools.
4. Carry a basic survival pack with you. Regardless of where you are going, or what you are doing – if you go into the wilderness carry at least some matches, snacks, cord, compass, GPS, topo map and a rain poncho. If you get lost, use the rain poncho to build a shelter, build a fire and have a bite to eat. Then relax and wait for the search and rescue teams.
5. Make a mental note of your location. Use the top of a hill, or a creek as a waypoint. Remember that hill is on your right going in, so it should be on your left going out. This is an example of very basic navigation skills.
6. Get a topographic map of the area. Blue print companies or ranger stations will sometimes sell topo maps. They are well worth the money. Practise navigation skills before you need them.
7. Buy a GPS and compass – and learn how to use them. Its not enough just to buy a GPS and compass. The person has to practice until they can use both devices without having to look at the manual. Practice navigating around town, around the neighborhood until you can work that GPS and compass in the dark.
8. Use common sense. Your lost, admit it, sit down and build a fire before you hurt yourself.
With some simple training, most people will be able to avoid the most extreme level of “woods shock,” which can and most certainly lead to death.