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  • Writer's pictureValentine Smith

Losing Track

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

“The forest rolls on forever, amidst its green carpet the mountains rise, foreboding, a maniacal maze of game trails begins and ends without any ‘human’ logic.​

Between the distant snow-capped range and where I stand are blended a hundred lesser ridges that I cannot see, and twice as many misted gullies. I should have looped back on the trail, but when was that? The day is ending and the sting of the thorn cuts ease slightly as the sweat begins to cool.

Like the ocean, the wilderness horizons in every direction. I know there are tracks, roads, homesteads and towns, but where are they, where am I?” [1]

The often-tragic experience above has been felt by some amongst us since the beginning of human existence. Many have survived and some have not. ‘Losing track’, is a reality.

Losing Track – (Wilderness, urban and life parallels!)

As we evolve in the evolution of the planet, we often hear the outcry, ‘We have lost track…We are losing our way!’ This scream of alarm has been heard for a millennium. The term ‘Losing Track’ applies to many things. In the middle ages it could have related to some religious or empirical upheaval, played out again in the first half of the 20th Century and continuing. Or, when I remember my father, on the introduction of Television grumbling, “Damn things should never have been invented” as he lamented community losing its way with the end of the family fireside chats.

In trying to not be distracted, my interest is primarily focused on losing track in the bush, but I have discovered that the distractions, whatever they may be, are equally applicable to being lost in the home or losing one’s direction of thought in any setting or environment.

Losing Track - What it means.

How many times do you think, hear or say, “I’ve lost track of where I am” or maybe it is more a case of “I’ve lost track of my thoughts,”which in essence is likely the same thing? The bottom line is that you are probably distracted by something that has left you unsure and often bewildered as to where you were, or in extreme cases you may be unsure of what you were doing in the first place. On the minor side of not knowing your direction or purpose are those times when you find yourself in another room or going out to the garage and, usually following a distraction, you momentarily or completely cannot recall what your purpose was.

These sometimes annoying or funny incidents are generally not too serious when you are in familiar surroundings, unless it involves a safety or security issue, but when you find yourself in unfamiliar locations, such as whilst hiking in the wilderness or a forest, it can be a much more dangerous situation.

If you find yourself confused and bewildered at home in the winter you can at least make a cup of coffee and sit down and put your feet up in front of a warm fire, but the same dilemma in the wilderness is a much more serious situation, because often you have walked away from familiar surroundings. In the wilderness a period of confusion can lead to anxiety and a very serious panic attack from which it may be difficult to escape.

But what does ‘losing track’ mean? To better understand this let us look at some of the definitions, e.g.

Losing Track = “…to not know any longer where someone or something is, or to not be able to remember something: to no longer know what is happening…”[2]

Lost = “unable to find one's way; not knowing one's whereabouts, unable to be found”[3]

Track = “A rough path or minor road, typically one beaten by use rather than constructed. A course of action; a way of proceeding”.[4]

So various dictionaries define losing track in similar ways, i.e. you are losing or have lost your way either by direction or during a course of activity.

Drifting back to the topic of ‘Losing Track’ Life, Wilderness and Urban survival thinking’ what happens when we lose track.

Losing track in the wilderness:

Hikers, hunters, naturalists or wanderers often lose track or get lost in the wilderness or bush, but how does that happen?

We can identify all sorts of things that may contribute to someone becoming lost or missing in the bush, (I separate the terms lost and missing because they are two different things. A lost person does not know where they are, whereas a person missing may well include those who know where they are, but time management, injury, or other challenges may make it difficult for them to proceed, this leads to others reporting them missing).

When we look at hikers and others, we occasionally see the term hiker replaced with walker or wanderer. A serious hiker may not be too different to a bush-walker, it generally depends on who is naming them; however, a ‘wanderer’ is somewhat different because it suggests someone carefree and more relaxed, with most dictionaries adding the word ‘aimlessly’ into defining the activities of a wanderer. Is it fair to consider an intended wanderer as being ‘aimless?

I was asked a question by a journalist the other day regarding recluses in the bush. The question was, “Are there many weirdo hermits in the bush?” My response was, “what determines a person as weird?” Most dictionaries use words like, ‘supernatural’ and ‘mysterious’ to define weird. If we study the old thoughts concerning transcendentalism, such as reading quotes from ‘Walden’[5] by Henry David Thoreau, we will see that there are a few among us that think it more normal to disappear into the woods, rather than the alternative of dedicating our lives to packing boxes, studying mathematics or counting ‘coins’. After all, if you are religious, you likely only believe in ‘One God’ who similarly does not pack boxes or count coins like the rest of us.

The interesting thing about ‘a wanderer’ is that, like most of us, many have direction and purpose, often which is directed towards discovering enlightenment through observation, analysis and thought, no matter how obscure. Alternatively, they may just be looking for some simple peace and quiet. Whatever the motivation, the ‘Wanderer’ can similarly be distracted from their thoughts and head off on an unintended tangent to become lost in the wilderness of space or mind.

What happens when you lose track in the bush? Apart from a whole lot of obvious scenarios, all related to either perishing or surviving, there are also other unexpected behavioural phenomena. I am only going to briefly focus on one, which is more unexpected than others, and that is the feeling of ‘bewilderment’. Unlike the home-based person who has lost track, the experienced and confident wilderness traveller may feel anxiety and shock at the lack of control and the heavy hit to confidence in being ‘nowhere’ in the middle of a vast 'somewhere'.

Think about it in the home-based alternative, you are a little bit worried that you have lost track of doing something that might have been important, but at least you can retrace your steps through recollecting signposts, thoughts and your direction of travel, but in the bush, it is never that easy. Jon Coleman, Professor of History at Notre Dame University in the introduction to his modern written masterpiece ‘Nature Shock’ at one point refers to it as “…the inadvisability of going back and the treacherousness of proceeding forward.”[6]

Losing track in the civilised (sic) world:

In the home and relationship environment, if we are exposed to more than ‘bite-size’ bursts of verbal narrative, we may drift from losing focus to ‘switching off’ and totally losing track. In extreme cases, when we are supposedly engaged in ‘listening’ to others and we do not it can be catastrophic and lead to irretrievable separation from direction and purpose or a valuable and loving relationship. As an example, in my household I always wonder why my wife sometimes starts a ‘snappy’ conversation with, “You are not listening to me?”

Who loses track?

The simple answer is ‘everyone’ loses track, there are generally no individual exceptions and certainly no category of human that is immune. There are many examples of people from all walks of life who have lost track, including those well experienced in navigating the bush or staying on focus.

In the natural setting many an experienced hunter or hiker has lost track, often when distracted by something as simple as focusing on the long path of a game animal or unusual bird, only to regain focus in unfamiliar surrounds without landmarks or signposts. The hunter or hiker in this case knows what he is doing and why he is there, what he does not know is where he is and how to get back to familiarity. For the hunter, it is not about distraction from his quarry but more about the quarry distracting the hunter’s ability to recollect how he got there.

The dilemma facing the hunter or the hiker watching butterflies, is sometimes, maybe, as simple as an anglerfish wiggling its distracting bait to lure unsuspecting little fishes into the danger zone. Perhaps the deer or the rare bird is partially and unwittingly responding to an innate call to lure distractable humans to perish and ultimately feed a whole host of bush creatures?

(What do you see in the image above?)

How do you avoid losing track?

You must expect the presence of the unexpected to avoid it, but how? Just like the saying, “We don’t know what we don’t know”[7] it is a realisation that there are things ‘out there’ that can create a challenge or risk, the biggest of which is ‘self’. Others have yet to be identified, but being aware that they exist, whatever they are, is way ahead of the next person who wanders or tracks without a thought of where they are going and which direction they have taken to get there.

Most of us are born with the innate ability to use our senses, all somehow connected to the brain. The hippocampus is what houses the ability to recollect and make decisions, with children this part of the brain is developing and with the elderly it is deteriorating, hence perhaps the reason many children and aged persons get physically lost[8].

But what of the rest of us, do we use our senses enough, or do we just blunder into our unpredicted destinations of thought and location, unaware of the pathways taken or risks narrowly missed.

Perhaps we are being too distracted by thought or deed to note much of anything along the way. Maybe we are ‘tuned’ into ‘earbud’ music or chat, or perhaps we are just thinking about something totally disconnected to the surroundings or action we are undertaking. Whatever the distraction it can lead to losing track, and ultimately to bewilderment.


Many people reading this article will say, “not my problem, in the wilderness I will have GPS and compass on my smartphone as well as a dozen ‘cannot get lost apps”, the more primitive among us will have a map. Others, in the home and urban environment will say, “not a problem, I have a reminder on my smartphone and devices that can answer all of my questions, as well as see in the dark and tell me when it is too hot, too cold, or the approach of potential danger…” My response to those comments is, “Congratulations you will likely never know who you are and what you can do, because you have just made your senses, brain and most of your muscle power redundant…”

It is true that since the beginning of time humans have designed and used tools, and over the centuries those tools have evolved into robotics and other high-tech instruments and devices. Communication has evolved from sitting opposite each other around a campfire to ‘pinging’ anonymous messages to unknown others across the internet. It is equally true that we can go for a walk in the wilderness and simultaneously listen to music, whilst we chat away with someone a thousand miles away, but when do we take time to sense what is around us and think about its purpose and relationship to everything else, including ourselves?

I am not discounting the value of technology or devices that can save lives, nor the wonder of following butterflies. What I am saying though, is that to minimise the risk of losing track, not only with where we are going in the ‘trail’ sense, but also of where we are heading as humans, we need to maintain our senses, our thoughts about ‘what we are looking for and what we are looking at’, and continue to evolve our creativity, understanding of complexity, relationships, and emotional rather than just artificial intelligence. The alternative is to allow the distractions, whatever they may be, to take over our direction and ultimately, our destiny.

Note: This article is written by Valentine Smith CEO and Founder of MiPerNet [9],

[1] Valentine Smith © 2021

[2] Cambridge on-line dictionary

[3] Oxford on-line dictionary

[4] Oxford Dictionary (Lexico)

[5] 'Walden or Life in the Woods' by Henry David Thoreau (1854) Ticknor and Fields Boston.

[6] ‘Nature Shock, ‘Getting Lost in America’ by Jon T. Coleman (Yale University Press 2020)

[7] Donald Henry Rumsfeld US Secretary of Defence (retired) 2001-2006

[9] MiPerNet is a developing network providing contact and knowledge exchange amongst specialists and others interested in the investigation and response to missing person reports.


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