Mon, 11 Mar 2013 09:31 CDT
© ollyy | Shutterstock
Despite our best efforts, it can be surprisingly easy for humans to get lost.
In 1996, a ranger flying a helicopter over Death Valley, Calif., spotted a minivan in a wash near Anvil Canyon. That was ominous for several reasons: There was no road leading up to the spot, and the area wasn't passable without a four-wheel vehicle.
After investigating the vehicle, park rangers determined that four German tourists - a man, a woman, and their two sons, ages 4 and 11 - had last rented the minivan. But there was no trace of the family itself.
Their remains were not found for about 15 years, until Tom Mahood, a physicist-turned-adventurer, retraced their steps. As he recounts on his website
, a series of reasonable mistakes, such as misreading the steepness of a canyon descent and being led astray by culturally confusing map landmarks, likely led to the decisions that ended in them separating, then dying in the scorching desert heat.
The story reveals how easy it is for people to become hopelessly lost in the wilderness. Humans get lost in part because we don't pay attention and have lost ancient ways of reading the environment to navigate. But humans' way-finding abilities are also less precise than the abilities of other animals.
While innate navigational ability
differs, "just about everyone can get better," said Daniel Montello, a geographer and psychologist at the University of California Santa Barbara.