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While in the Ozarks a couple of weeks ago, I got a painful lesson in how easy it is to be stupid if I'm not careful.
I was on a 3-day solo camping trip in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness, and had made camp for the night. From the parking area, I followed a trail that led to the "camping area" for a mile or so, then cut off the trail and headed a couple hundred feet into the woods to make camp. Since it was cold and bugs weren't a problem, I was using a bivy instead of a tent (the military CWSS bivy, which is woodland camo). After getting out my bivy and bag and throwing down my pack, I put on my headlamp and headed off about 70 feet back toward the trail to cook dinner.
It got dark while I was cooking, and when I started to head back to my gear, I couldn't find it! I knew I wasn't far away, but I hadn't thought about the fact that I had a camoflage bivy and no tent. My headlamp seemed really weak for trapsing around in the timber in the pitch black. I decided to go back to my cooking gear and start again, only to realize that I couldn't find my cooking gear either! Great! Now I had no bearings at all.
I had a compass, but after all the turns the trail had taken, I wasn't even sure which direction I needed to go to get back to it. It was starting to get cold, and I only had on a light jacket. I knew it was going to be below freezing that night.
Keep in mind that I've been camping for a long time, am an Eagle Scout, and was an orienteering and wilderness survival instructor for the scouts when I was still active. Luckily, despite having ignored every bit of training and common sense I had learned in those experiences, I knew well enough to sit down when I felt that little surge of panick hit. I laughed at myself, because this was the kind of stupid crap I thought only city-slickers got into.
I decided that I was going to sit until I had a reason to move; not just wander aimlessly. I retraced my steps from the parking area to my campsite and tried to remember every detail. It dawned on me that a small trickle of a creek had crossed the trail not too far from where I turned off and headed into the woods. I strained my ears for a few minutes until I was fairly certain I heard water trickling to my right.
I got up and blazed the log I had been sitting on, and slowly started to count paces toward the water (taking compass bearings the whole way, so that if nothing else I could find my way back to my log). After about a quarter of a mile, my foot splashed into a small creek. I was able to follow this upstream to the trail, take a compass bearing, and look for my cooking gear. Once I found it, I hung my pot from a tree so that it would catch light, and followed the same pace-counting plan to find my gear. I had to come back to the cooking gear a time or two and start in a new direction before I tripped over my sleeping bag. No telling how many times I had walked right past the stupid thing.
At this point, I was able to get my much more powerful flashlight from my pack, hang my headlamp from the pack, and go back to clean up my cooking gear.
Modifications made: when I got back from this trip, I started looking for some sort of light to attach to my pack in case I have to leave it after dark. I was thinking of one of those lapel pins with an LED light that I sometimes see people wearing here, or the light-up bobbers. After some research, I found some magnetic LED strobe lights worn by kids at raves for a steal, and they'll be in my pack for future trips!
Moral of the story: don't let your guard down! Even experienced outdoorsman do stupid things if they're not careful!