Getting Lost and Walking in Circles

This topic may have been posted before, but the 3-dimensional topic (about walking in the desert)got me thinking about how a person supposedly walks in circles when they are lost in a snowstorm, desert, or woods. I guess this has something to do with point of reference - but why does this happen? Does it really happen or is it just a fact I’ve gleaned from watching too much tv?

Also, does this apply to being lost in the middle of an ocean with a rowboat? Considering other factors didn’t do you in first, would you “row in circles”?

If it is true, how can you compensate for it - who knows when I might next be walking in a blizzard or rowing across the Atlantic!

Throw me a link if this has been discussed - thanks!

I’m also curious to find some facts about this. I’ve been told this ever since I was a boy scout but it has all been hearsay and anecdote. The explanation we were given was that one leg is invariably stronger than the other so you walk in circles. Looking at it with fresh eyes, that explanation sounds kinda dumb.

I will say that the one time (well, one of the times) I got lost in the woods we (my brother and I) tried to retrace our path back to the road we had started from. We had only gone a hundred yards or so into the woods. We found the road but missed our start point by at least a hundred yards. So I don’t know whether we were going in circles or not but our intuition about which direction we were going was way off.

“Vandelay!! Say Vandelay!!”

follow the sun.

We live in an age that reads to much to be wise, and thinks too much to be beautiful–Oscar Wilde

Getting disoriented and lost seems abstract when you’re sitting in an office surrounded by straight lines and right angles but it’s different out in the natural world. If you go for a little stroll in the woods, really out in the woods, out of sight of camp, and don’t maintain a reference point or two it’s easy to lose sense of direction. You also can’t walk in a straight line very far if there is any terrain to speak of. Detour around a boulder and you likely won’t be walking in the same direction. Do that several times and you should not be surprised to walk by the same boulder again.

Granted you need to walk around objects as you make your way from point A to B, and agreed that the terrain will make it difficult to walk a straight line or even general direction (except in the flat desert or Atlantic ocean examples), but wouldn’t the law of averages suggest that instead of walking in circles that you would walk in large S’s?

That doesn’t seem to be the case from what I understand.

I think ‘walking in circles’ is just an expression. If we really walked in circles we wouldn’t actually have to worry about getting lost.

I’m thinking of getting one of those GPS doo-hickeys. I rarely go out in the woods, but I like gadgets. Anyone have one, and are they really all that accurate?

Work like you don’t need the money…
Love like you’ve never been hurt…
Dance like nobody’s watching! …(Paraphrased)

It is not so much that one leg is stronger, but the stride of one leg is longer, could be longer leg, stronger leg, a stff knee, a blister on one toe. In a big enough flat enough area with a blinfold on most people tend to walk in a circle,or at least an arc. Rowing a boat the effect is even more noticable. Put you in a fog can’t see the sun, no wind ,no current. Lotsa people row like that anyway. a funny thing is if you learn you tend to the right you tend to over compensate. If you say ‘wander’ in circleS when you’re lost, instead of ‘walk in A circle’ it might make more sense… You tend to cross your path a few times.Some of the ess curves are tighter, some longer There could be some reason you tend to move in one direction around obstacles too, down hill around a boulder for example.or just an unconciouss preference to the right or left. Here is an odd one for you, in view obstructing brush or forest I tend to drift to the south, when going either east or west.
That’s all for now sorry to disturb your circles.

“Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.”-Marx

<thread digression>

Mangeorge…those GPS are darned accurate. I’ve been fishing with a guide that can locate a rockpile no bigger than a few square yards 8 miles offshore.

You can plug in your position and your destination, and they’ll give you the bearings to follow and place you smack dab on the top of whatever it is you’re looking for.

The ones I’ve seen have a resolution of ten meters or so. I think there are some that are more accurate than that. I’ve also heard that the government (who owns the satellites) tweaks the readings somewhat for security purposes.

You can’t beat 'em for finding a “honey hole” and keeping it secret, though.
</thread digression>

There’s a variety of GPS out there and most of the ones a private citizen might pick up for boating or whatever have accuracies on the order of a few meters. I just went to an industry convention (geophysical) and heard claims of accuracy to within centimeters (which if true - I can’t vouch for it yet - means the governments of the world aren’t tweakin’ things that much.

Walking in circles when lost has, I’d always thought, been a sandstorm, blizzard, etc. phenomenon; i.e., a situation where one cannot refer to landmarks, the sun or moon or stars. I never interpreted it to mean one literally walks in a circle, just that you are unsure of you’re course and may meander and reverse course quite a bit without a larger reference.

<pre>I don’t need to walk around in circles
walk around in circles
walk around in circles
-Soul Coughing

and those GPSs are nice :slight_smile: I keep one in my car.

I’ve always heard that the reason people walk in circles is because when faced with the choice “right or left” most people will choose one or the other consistiently. Enough left turns, and you get something that, if not a circle, is a lot more circle than straight line. I’ve been told that if you are lost in the wood, can’t see the sun, and want to go in a reasonably straight line, you need to concously alternate directions evey time you have to go around somethng.

That “tweaking” is called selective ability. Because the military runs the GPS satellites, when they were launched in the mid-80’s some military officials were worried that you could guide a missile or something with it. Congress has ordered them to turn off selective ability by 2001. The GPS units that are accurate to a few centimeters are surveying GPSs. They use statistical sampling to overcome SA so they come up with answers very slowly. They were just used successfully on an attempt to gain an accurate altitude of Mt. Everest.

You know, doing what is right is easy. The problem is knowing what is right.

–Lyndon B. Johnson

The surveying GPS’s also use something called differential GPS, which requires additional ground-based transmitters, as I recall.

I thought the military shut off SA a while back. I remember there was a bit of a flap during desert storm because the military didn’t have enough GPS receivers to provide to the troops, so they had to buy some Trimble commercial units that are available to the public. And as a result, they had to shut off SA anyway.

Manda JO you have the answer exactly right.

I am an orienteer (sport of orienteering).
Sometimes when I disdain the compass and map to traverse a seemingly simple section, then relocate my position, I oftentimes find I am to the right of my intended route, this even with the self-knowledge that I in the past have generally tended to veer right. Part of the explanation I think (and I am thinking, speculating out loud here) is that my right eye is the dominant eye. When I make unconscious choices, I find I steer right around obstacles (thickets, boulder groups, etc.). At any rate, when I review my route choices, I usually find I pick the rightward path around an obstacle when the left/right choices are nearly the same. Even though I know this consciously, and try to pick left choices deliberately to even things out, it’s still a struggle to “even” them out to the desired route. With inexperienced backswoods travelers, I can easily see how a rightward tendency or leftward tendency eventually may lead to a 180 or even 360. It can be nearly impossible to tell direction on very overcast days when you are in the deep woods. Without a compass, or other directional indicators (knowledge of local terrain-streams, moss, hearing traffic noise, etc.), it can be very, very, easy to lose the sense of direction, and very quickly, too.

Just to add to the fray - I took a map-reading class in college that was supposed to include an orienteering trip. Our instructor said that people will tend to pull slightly towards their dominant side. He pointed out as a consequence that when a leftie and a rightie worked together, they would finish the course sooner, because they were cancelling each other out and therefore going in straighter lines.

When I was in the US Army, I was the compass man for a 5-mile night hike through the woods of Fort Bragg. In front of me, is the point man who goes left or right along the intended bearing as I tell him. He also gets to clear the path, tests the depth of creeks, eats the spider webs, etc. Behind me is the pace man. He knows his pace count for every 100yds. Every 100yds, he ties a knot (5-miles = a LONG string).

On this hike, I kept telling the point man to “Go left”, “Go left” “GO LEFT, DAMN IT!”. Finally, I stopped and pulled another compass out to compare bearings - they matched. So off we go again but I put another person on point. We reached our destination off by only 15 ft - not too shabby, if I say so myself.

The first point man was right-handed and at every tree/obstacle he came upon, he went to the RIGHT side. The second guy on point, I reminded him to alternate left-right-left around the trees/obstacles. Not knowing the exact cause and based on my experiences, I believe it has to do with -handedness as to why you tend to walk in an arc/cicle.

“Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”
E A Poe

Yes, it’s absolutely true. Years ago while hunting in a woods no more than a half mile square I walked in a semi-circle when I thought I was going fairly straight. It’s very easy to get lost in a small woods if you don’t know what you’re doing–and most people don’t.

You mean all people in the Northern Hemisphere don’t walk in clockwise circles? :wink: (Hey, we gotta keep that right-hand rule theme goin’ somehow.)

Whatever about circularity, I don’t understand the practicalness of trying to walk tree by tree, stone by stone. I have not idea of what orienteers are up to. But if I walk in the woods in CA-US, it’s essentially always over land of varied elevations and never in fog so dense I can’t see the lay of the terrain. No problem, except sometimes the thinkness of chaparral. A little problem when arriving, from a long hike, back at the road I’ve parked on, in knowing which way my car is. I never checked the statistics on that, as far as the percentage of times its to the right rather than the left. I have some tendency to choose up rather than down, which, at least gives me sometimes a better view of where I’m going and where I’ve been. I guess the army could have practical reasons for honing the tree-to-tree trip.

Ray (Don’t need a bee-line when I’m not lookin’ for honey(s).)