Missing Hiker Geraldine Largay Had Survived 26 Days

Geraldine Largay

On the morning of October 14, 2015, the remains of missing hiker Geraldine Largay, was found.

A contractor for the U.S. Navy ‘SERE’ program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) was conducting a forestry survey on property owned by the U.S. Navy in Redington Township, Maine, and found the remains of the hiker who went missing on the Appalachian Trail in 2013.

According to her journal entries, Geraldine Largay, who was 66 years old on a journey through the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, got lost after leaving the trail on July 22, 2013, to relieve herself. She tried texting to her husband but the texts were never delivered.

After missing a rendezvous with her husband, George Largay, multiple massive search operations by the Maine Warden Service and other agencies eventually turned up nothing over the course of two years.

2 years later she was found 3,000 feet from the trail. The last entry in Largay’s journal was on Aug. 18, 2013.

In tribute to this tragedy, what can we learn from it to help others?
Here’s a bit more…

Some of the reported facts:

1. She was traveling with a companion hiker, but at some point the hiker had left the trail because of a family emergency.

2. Wardens concluded that Largay had made her way to higher ground to get better cellphone coverage, and established a camp on a knoll.

3. She set up a tent and made use of her rain gear and a Mylar blanket, which reflects a body’s heat and keeps a person warm.

4. When found, Largay’s tent was collapsed, and her body was inside.

5. The medical examiner determined she died of starvation and exposure.

6. She apparently had survived 26 days (journal entries).

7. The items found with her included trail staples such as toothpaste, baby powder, a first aid kit, cord twine, a pencil and pen and a paper trail map.

8. She had a cell phone, the battery was dead.

Some observations regarding the facts:

It is always highly advisable to hike with a companion. She evidently was. When the companion left the trail, could she have done anything differently to acquire another hiking partner? The thing is, the comfortable hiking speed, strengths, and interests along the way, are often different for people. So hiking in solitude along a popular well-traveled trail may seem reasonably safe and sound…

Obviously the issue began when she left the trail to relieve herself.

I can tell you that the forest up here (northern New England) can be VERY THICK with spruce trees and such, and one can become disoriented quickly. It is apparent that this is what happened (lost sense of direction back to the trail). One wonders how far in she went before stopping for ‘relief’ (maybe too far?). Maybe this is one important lesson learned – to NOT venture too far off the trail to do one’s ‘duty’.

It is unclear whether she had a compass (not all details were listed in the various news reports). One would assume she certainly would have a compass while hiking the Appalachian Trail… however if she did not have a compass (she had a map…), then this was a grave mistake. A simple map and compass (and knowing how to use them – which is not that difficult) would enable establishing a reasonable orientation to get back to the trail. So the next lesson learned – ALWAYS bring a compass (and map) of the terrain you’re hiking.

She had a cell phone (a good thing!), however in a mountainous area the cell phone coverage is often spotty or non-existent. Still, she did reach higher ground while searching for a cell phone signal. Her cell phone battery was obviously drained after being found several years later, however if she had brought a solar-powered charger, this may have increased the odds over time (beyond just several days of cell phone charge). Next lesson – if hiking a long trek (e.g. the Appalachian Trail), acquire a portable solar charger for your phone.

The Wardens concluded that her camp on higher ground was for hopeful cell phone coverage. This may likely be the case. Additionally maybe she was hoping to be spotted by search and rescue. One thing that she apparently did not do was to construct an SOS of sorts which may be visible from above. Could she have dragged and assembled some logs, branches, rocks, etc… to form an SOS – something that looks ‘out of the natural’ as seen from above? Lesson learned – if lost – think of how you may be seen from above during the aerial search.

Note: She must not have had a way to start a fire?? If she did, the smoke from a fire would have been visible from above… and the thermal signature of a fire would be seen at night.

It was determined that the cause of death was starvation and exposure. With variations, the human body will starve to death in about 4 weeks (with proper hydration). It seems that this was the primary issue. It is unclear how much food she had packed at any one time, but certainly not enough to survive a long period. Unless able (and equipped) to hunt or trap (still a difficult proposition), perhaps foraging for food may have provided some additional calories. A key factor would be foraging enough calories to stay alive (leafy greens generally do not contain too many calories). This would involve knowledge and identification of edible wilds, and there’s no guarantee of getting enough, depending on one’s geographical location.

How much food can one carry in a backpack, and to what extent would one go to carry ‘extra’ food beyond the planned trek from ‘Camp A’ to ‘Camp B’? Backpack weight is a priority concern on the trail… and in any event I certainly cannot criticize her not having 4 weeks of food in her pack! Instead I would carry ‘some’ extra beyond my expectations. It is not too terribly heavy to carry extra calories in high-density food bars for emergency rationing. But when you’re getting beyond several days to a week – it’s an entirely different thing…

Without knowing more details, I take away two major points from this tragedy.

1. Do not go far off the trail to relive one’s-self.
2. Make all efforts for search & rescue to find (see) you, and focus significant energies on such, especially during the time period when you figure they’ll be looking for you.

Any additional observations or input regarding items that should be carried (and/or knowledge) to help get you out of the predicament of becoming ‘lost’ in the forest?

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