I’ll start with review with some more general thoughts for those who have not read it yet, and then I’ll give you a heads up before I jump into the more detailed spoiler alerts.
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First, I have to say I think this book is a must read for anyone who spends any time in the outdoors! That being said – it is a total tear jerker and emotional roller coaster for sure.
While the author was not able to provide the exact answers, reasoning or closure I had hoped for, he did share many mistakes that were made, the lessons learned and of course, what a beautiful person Geraldine Largay truly was.
The book was very well written, easy to read, and provided a balance of general Appalachian Trail history and culture, along with great information on what happens behind the scenes of a massive search and rescue operation.
My Biggest Takeaways from When You Find My Body
*SPOILER ALERT* If you’re still dying to read this book and don’t want to be told about any or all of the details shared in it, you might want to stop here, go buy the book here and read it ASAP!
Always, always, always carry a compass. A real compass. Not a keychain compass. You don’t need anything too fancy or expensive, a compass like this one will do just fine. Make sure to replace your compass if the liquid inside it ever leaks or air bubbles start to appear in the circular housing.
But carrying a compass isn’t enough. You also need to know how to use it. I beg you, for the sake of search and rescue teams everywhere and for your own safety, please learn how to use your compass. Watch videos, take a course, and practice with it at home or on familiar terrain until you feel totally comfortable exploring new territory in the backcountry.
You’ll also need to carry a map. And know how to read it! And know how to use your map and compass together to navigate yourself out of almost any situation 😉
Basic navigation is one of the many safety skills I teach in my Backpacking Essentials course. If that’s something you still need to master, I’d love to see you in there!
The author repeatedly points out in the book who long distance hikers, AT hikers especially, tend to disregard the usefulness of a map and compass on such a well marked trail. That’s all well and good, until you find yourself off the well marked trail like Geraldine Largay.
Learn several different ways to start a fire and practice them until they become second nature to you. Practice in your backyard or at a local campground until you’re ready to go out in the wilderness. Starting a fire can be crucial not only for heat through the night if you’re stranded but also to send a sure fire signal to rescue crews to let them know exactly where you are. See what I did there?
Stay put if you’re lost. Once you realize you’re truly lost, stop moving! Stop pacing. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Sit down, take some deep breaths, observe your surroundings and do some grounding techniques if you have to. Staying put in one place will help ensure that you stay as close as possible to your last known location, which can be very helpful to search and rescue teams. They will start looking for you based on your last known location. If you keep wandering further from that spot, your chance of being found decreases.
Unfortunately, Geraldine wandered quite a bit trying to find cell phone service before she decided to stay put, but at that point she was so far off any logical or reasonable route a hiker would have taken from the last shelter she was at that searchers could not find her.
Invest in an emergency GPS or locator beacon. If you have the means (money, really) to acquire an emergency GPS device like a SPOT or Garmin – get one and keep it with you always in the backcountry. Do not leave it in your car. No one wants to locate your car.
Always carry a whistle, and blow it often in bursts of 3 if you’re lost or in an emergency.
Make note of which way you’re going to pee. Almost every time I’ve gone off trail to use the bathroom, there’s always been something distinctive about the direction I go, for example if the trail hugs a hillside – you either go uphill or downhill to pee. So it should be pretty easy head back in the direction of the trail. If there really isn’t a difference in which way you go and the terrain could be easily confused, use your compass! Because you carry a compass now right? Take a bearing and make note of which direction you’re heading, then head back in the opposite direction.
As the author points out in the book, if you never get lost, you’re not a true woodsman. Any one of us could lost or confused while hiking and backpacking – it’s what happens afterwards that matters most. Can you stay calm? Can you keep your wits about you and make sound decisions like confidently navigating your way to safety OR staying put if you can not navigate your way out? That is mostly what this boils down to.
The fact that Geraldine Largay was never found alive is one of the greatest tragedies of the Appalachian Trail, in my opinion. My only hope is that future hikers learn from her mistakes, aspire to reach her level enthusiasm and appreciation of the natural world and keep looking out for each other out there!