Do People Who Get Lost Really Walk in Circles? New Research Offers an Answer

Person walking in woods

Headed in the right direction? If you're lost, maybe not. Your senses may mislead you. Photo by [h.koppdelaney via Creative Commons and Flickr.

Every year brings another round of news stories about people who become lost in parks. How quickly they are found often depends upon how much wandering around they do while trying to get "found." Do such people really walk in circles? Some just-released research offers a possible answer.

Scientists in the Multisensory Perception and Action Group at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, have published a study in the journal Current Biology.

According to a news release from the Institute:

It is a common theme in many books and films: when people get lost in a desert or a jungle, they end up walking in circles. No matter how hard they try, at some point they will cross their own tracks and despair, because they realize that they will never make it back to civilization.

Surprisingly enough, the belief that people walk in circles when lost is mainly based on anecdotal evidence and has never been studied systematically in a real desert or forest.

Scientists ... led by Jan Souman and Marc Ernst, have now presented the first empirical evidence that people really walk in circles when they do not have reliable cues to their walking direction.

Their study ...examined the walking trajectories of people who walked for several hours in the Sahara desert (Tunisia) and in the Bienwald forest area (Germany). The scientists used the global positioning system (GPS) to record these trajectories.

The results showed that participants were only able to keep a straight path when the sun or moon was visible. However, as soon as the sun disappeared behind some clouds, people started to walk in circles without even noticing it.

The study team dismissed one explanation offered in the past for walking in circles: that most people have one leg longer or stronger than the other, resulting in "a systematic bias in one direction." Dr. Jan Souman said,

"To test this explanation, we instructed people to walk straight while blindfolded, thus removing the effects of vision. Most of the participants in the study walked in circles, sometimes in extremely small ones (diameter less than 20 m).”

However, it turned out that these circles were rarely in a systematic direction. Instead, the same person sometimes veered to the left, sometimes to the right. Walking in circles is therefore not caused by differences in leg length or strength, but more likely the result of increasing uncertainty about where straight ahead is.

Dr. Marc Ernst, Group Leader at the MPI for Biological Cybernetics, added: “The results from these experiments show that even though people may be convinced that they are walking in a straight line, their perception is not always reliable."

Search and rescue personnel have long advised people who realize they are lost in remote areas to stop, find a nearby spot where they will be as safe, comfortable and as visible as possible, and then wait for rescuers to find them. This strategy limits the size of the potential search area and reduces risks to the victim.

Although the research cited in this story indicates study participants stayed on course better if they could see the sun or moon, there was one important detail: they weren't actually lost. If you're lost, you aren't certain which direction you should go, even if you could stay "on course," so just stay put.

An important key for any trip into the boonies: be sure a responsible person back in "civilization" knows your plans, so he can report you overdue promptly if you don't return as expected. Your "safety net" contact needs as many details as possible; information that you're going hiking "somewhere in Yellowstone" is better than no information...but not much!

Two real-world incidents in parks offer some examples that relate to the study's findings.

The newsletter from the Grand County (Utah) Search and Rescue Team includes an interesting comment from one of the team members involved in the search for a missing hiker in Arches National Park several years ago:

I came upon small footprints of a person who was obviously confused or indecisive as the tracks would go a short distance, then double back and go a short distance in another direction...

The hiker was eventually found...but not until she, and the searchers, had done more walking than was really necessary.

A second example confirms that lost hikers can become confused on any continent.

Earlier this year, a 19-year-old tourist from Great Britain got off the trail during a day hike in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area in New South Wales, a protected area in Australia that includes several national parks. Despite a massive search, he spent nearly two weeks wandering in the rugged terrain.

One major problem: he was a "moving target." Authorities said later that the young man walked in and out of the search area, traveling through areas already covered by searchers. A police commander noted the subject covered a "vast amount of territory," an area believed to be larger than 60 square miles.

In an interview with Britain's Sky News after his rescue, the teenager commented:

"Even when I was off the path, I thought I was only slightly off. I thought I was to the right, if I carry on going left I'll get back on the path....I started circling round and it was when I saw Castle Ruin and Mount Solitary on my left... that's when it really shocked me, that I was in the wrong side of the valley and that I've been walking for a day and half in the wrong direction."

All that wandering certainly made the job of the searchers more difficult, and the young man was fortunate to survive his mishap.

So...if you ever realize you're lost in the woods, desert or similar unfamiliar terrain, don't just do something—stand (or sit) there!

You'll be doing everyone a favor—and you won't find yourself walking in any circles.

Comments

Once got lost in DC in the dark on the way home from a meeting; because of construction, decided to take an unusual way home that had me catching a bus in an area I didn't usually catch one. It was an area I was actually very familiar with, however. I got to the bus stop but saw that I had just missed one that wouldn't come again for 45 minutes. So, I decided to walk home, crossing Rock Creek Park and into my neighborhood in Mount Pleasant. Rock Creek Park is an NPS unit, and as you can imagine, is quite dark at night; however, there's a bridge right across between the neighborhoods. Anyhow, I crossed the bridge into my neighborhood but somehow made a wrong turn soon after crossing the bridge. Before I knew it, I was back in Rock Creek Park completely unsure of where I was. I decided to head in what I thought was the direction of home, but the pollution, the dark, the trees, made most everything invisible. I even went down a hillside in the woods where I saw another road below me. I eventually found a way out of the park, climbed a hill, and much to my deep surprise, I was back on the road I had started on. I completed the loop, waited for the bus, and finally got home.

I've almost never been lost in my life - been able to drive through almost any place without a map, even in the dark in places I had never been. So, I was definitely taken aback to get lost in my own neighborhood and more so to have traveled in a circle.

In this case, once I was lost, I had to keep moving - you don't stop in Rock Creek Park in the middle of the night; it's a skinny park - you will find a way out. However, it was deeply strange to discover that I had gone entirely the opposite direction than I thought I was going.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

I've never been lost in the Wilderness, I've always known where I was - I just couldn't remember where I parked my car :-/

Interesting. I was once lost in a whiteout while traveling by dog team over open tundra. My destination was a winter trapping camp perhaps twenty miles inland from the village of Wainwright on the North Slope. We had traveled the route several times over the previous month. I was certain that the dogs were going in the wrong direction and kept giving the lead dog the "gee" (go right) command. There was no visible trail. The leader kept looking back and was probably thinking that I was and idiot. Finally, I decided to let the dogs find the way. Sure enough they pulled me right up to the camp and stopped. I didn't know we were there until I walked to the front of the team to find the entrance to a snowblock shelter. Over the years there were several occasions when my dog team was able to find their way home or to a camp when I would have otherwise been lost.

Ray, I do hope you have recorded all your outdoor experiences in some kind of journal. Enough experiences to write book? Especially the sled dog episode.

Ray -

Thanks for the excellent example of how humans can become disoriented when visual reference points are missing. I suspect others can relate similar experiences in dense fog or other limited visibility situations.

The other interesting aspect of your story is the accuracy of the dogs "navigation." I've read similar tales about horses finding their way "home" in a whiteout.

Jim, your right on horses finding there way back from point A to point B and back. Many a drunken cowboy on a horse will tell you the same. Back at the bunkhouse nursing a mean hangover the next day.

My own adventure is rather recent. I decided to try my luck at night hiking along the River Bluff Trail near Norris State Park, downstream of Norris Dam along the Clinch River in East TN. My goal was to start the hike at dusk and, if it became too dark to see, to use a flashlight.

Once I entered the forest, however, the canopy quickened the onset of darkness. I needed the flashlight sooner than anticipated. After about a mile of hiking, the white beam turned to dim orange, but I proceeded on. The beam of light then went from dim red-orange to nothing at all. That was it. Total darkness. I had no spare batteries (not a smart thing to do when night hiking).

Night hiking without a flashlight under a fully enclosed canopy of Eastern Diciduous Biome forests can be a near cave-like experience. I had two choices, spend the night and wait for first light, or put my dog (an Aussie Shepherd mix-breed) on a short leash and trust him to find the route.

I decided to use my dog, who I knew was very familiar with the trail from many previous hikes. He led me very slowly along the trail, step by step. The slow pace was sufficient to negotiate uneven rocky sections of the trail, and we managed to get past a few locations where trees had fallen across the beaten path.

This canine seeing-eye technique worked remarkably well, except for one memorable incident when the dog suddenly veered off trail to chase after some unidentified noctural creature. Fortunately, I was able to convince him to change his priorities.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830