When Amanda Eller left for a brief hike in the Makawao Forest Reserve in Maui, Hawaii, she had no idea she was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. She’d traveled the trail previously—it only ran for three miles, so she figured she’d be out for a few hours, at most.
“It was simply just a hike through the woods,” she said. “I had every intention that day to make it back to my car quickly.”
Of course, that’s not what happened (this would be a fairly boring article if the story was, “a hiker went out for a hike and hiked successfully”). She got lost and ended up spending 16 days in the reserve, braving bad weather and injuries while desperately seeking help.
Thanks to well-coordinated rescue efforts and Eller’s own ingenuity, there’s a happy ending: She’s safe, sound, and judging by the number of interviews she’s taken since she emerged from the woods, she’s even enjoying a small measure of fame.
However, there’s another side to the Eller story. While some of her survival skills are commendable, she made a number of amateur mistakes that seriously endangered her life. We spoke with some regular hikers to find out what Eller did wrong—and what every person should know before heading out for a quick three-mile hike.
1. She listened to a voice (and went off the trail).
Eller’s hike was supposed to be fairly short, but she claims a voice told her to go off course. No, seriously.
“I don’t really know what happened,” Eller told reporters after her rescue. “All I can say is that … I have a strong sense of internal guidance, whatever you want to call that, a voice, spirit—everybody has a different name for it.”
When she realized that she couldn’t find her car, Eller let her inner voice tell her what to do.
“My heart was telling me, ‘Walk down this path, go left.’ Great. ‘[Then] go right.’ It was so strong. ‘Go left, go right,’” she recalled. “I’m like, great, this is so strong that obviously when I turn around and go back to my car it will be just as strong when I go back, but it wasn’t.”
After walking in the wilderness for a bit, she lost her sense of direction, so she stopped to meditate. That made her more disoriented, and soon, she was totally lost.
“Without the proper knowledge of an area or navigational tools, going off trail is usually a shortcut to getting lost,” says Paul Ronto of RunRepeat. Ronto is an avid hiker who spends more than 150 days per year on trails.
“Staying on the trail is one way to ensure you don’t get hopelessly lost,” Ronto says. “We all want to explore just past [what’s known]. That’s part of the allure of being in the woods, but sticking to the trail is a good idea. If you get lost or hurt, there may be other hikers that come across you that can help, and search efforts are easier if you’re on a trail.”
2. She assumed she was taking a short hike.
“Amanda didn’t bring much with her,” Ronto notes, as did Eller in her press conference. “She assumed this hike would be short and easy, but when things go wrong or bad weather comes in, we’re all susceptible to getting lost, hurt, or stuck out in the wild.”
Any hike can turn into a fight for survival, especially if you’re unprepared. Eller had no water, food, or supplies. When she was finally rescued, her skin had become infected after a severe sunburn, and she’d lost her shoes in a flash flood while trying to dry them out.
She might have had a much more comfortable time if she’d prepared a survival kit, which experts recommend bringing on every single hike—regardless of expected length. A typical survival kit includes first aid, extra clothing, food, water, navigation tools, sunblock, a multi-tool, a firestarter, and plastic sheeting (for creating a makeshift shelter).
Ronto notes that while these items might seem like overkill for a three-mile hike, they can be vital in an emergency.
“They really would help if you got into a situation where you were lost or hurt,” he says. “Bring at least water, food, and gear to protect you from the elements, should you need to spend a night out there.”
3. She kept moving instead of staying put.
Once she realized she was lost, Eller decided to keep moving. That was a mistake; rescuers might have been able to find her easily if she’d stayed close to the trail.
“At that point, I had no choice because everything looked the same,” she said. “I said, ‘The only thing I have is my gut. I don’t have a compass. I don’t have a cell phone,'” she said. “So, ‘Spirit,’ or whatever you want to pray to, I said, ‘I need your help right now.’”
That sounds reasonable, right?
Not quite, according to seasoned hikers. The safest course of action is to not listen to the voices in your head.
“If you are constantly moving, trying to find your way out, you may just be evading rescue efforts or driving yourself deeper into the unknown,” Ronto says. “Unless you have good information—like a map or GPS—staying put and waiting for help tends to be best.”
4. She hiked alone.
Hikers should always bring company, especially if they’re inexperienced.
“No matter how good or experienced a hiker you are, accidents happen,” explains Mona Kobishop, a hiking trainer with Colorado Athletic Club. “If you have a hiking partner, they can assist with first aid and finding help. If you are alone and you get injured and cannot move, you are less likely to make it out alive.”
That’s not always realistic—sometimes, you want to go exploring on your own, and you’re willing to take the risk—but solo hikers should always take additional precautions.
“As a hiker, we are always told that hiking is safer in pairs,” says hiker and travel blogger Viktoria Altman. “I travel alone, so I am usually hiking alone. One easy way to try to avoid a disaster [on solo hikes] is to purchase a GPS tracker and attach it to your hiking bag. I’ve never had a problem, but if you really get in trouble, a tracker can save your life.”
If you don’t have a GPS tracker and you’re hiking solo, you should pack a phone in your bag (Eller later admitted that she should’ve brought her phone along). If your phone won’t have service, make sure people know where you’re going.
“Let someone know … where you will be hiking, the time you will be starting, and expected time for return,” Kobishop says. “This way if you run into any trouble, someone knows to notify search parties and has an idea of when and where you might be found. Leaving a concrete note will help the person recall exact details if needed.”
5. She took shelter in a boar’s den.
One night, Eller decided to seek shelter in a wild boar’s den. Why? Well, it’s the year of the boar, and…uh…we’ll just let her explain it.
“This is the Chinese New Year,” she said. “This is the year of the boar. I’m a boar. So I’m like finding myself sleeping in boar’s home. And they were like trailblazing for me.”
She also followed boar tracks through the forest.
“There’s boars everywhere through there, and it’s their—that’s their home,” she explained. “I’m in their home. And so I was very respectful of that.”
The issue: Hawaiian feral pigs are aggressive, territorial, and fast. They have extremely strong jaws and are capable of running at speeds of up to 30 mph. To put it simply, you don’t want to have a run-in with a boar, especially if you don’t have any way to defend yourself.
With that said, Eller had to find shelter of some kind, and her decision obviously paid off.
“She took a big gamble using boar dens, since they can be dangerous animals [that could cause] more injuries, but it worked,” Ronto says. “Shelter keeps your core temps up and can be crucial in colder environments.”
“They help with your mental state, too. Feeling somewhat safe for the night does allow you to get some needed rest, which is also crucial when you’re spending a ton of energy trying to survive and make it out of the woods.”
Fortunately, Eller never had an encounter with an actual wild boar.
Still, Eller wasn’t completely clueless.
While Eller made plenty of significant mistakes, she also made a few keen moves that might have saved her life. She drank water from a waterfall until a storm hit, at which point she stopped drinking (the runoff water might have made her sick and worsened her dehydration). She knew how to identify edible berries and guava, so she had a reliable source of sustenance.
“She was smart to find food when she could,” Ronto says. “Having 100 percent focus on getting out can sidetrack your need for water and food, which without, can lead to a mental fog that will harm your ability to think, navigate, and stay safe.”
“As soon as you know you are really lost, [you need to] plan for shelter, food, and—most importantly—water. You can go upwards of three weeks without any food, but only three to four days without water, so she made it a priority to find water, which saved her life, for sure.”
Ronto also credits Eller for staying positive throughout her ordeal.
“She didn’t give up,” he says. “Giving up and becoming despondent is a quick path to never being found. As soon as you begin to focus on what went wrong, you are not focused on getting help and staying alive. Guilt and regret can kill when you are lost in the woods.”
And while it’s easy to criticize Eller for following voices, sleeping in a boar’s den, and failing to prepare appropriately, we should note: Most people would make the same types of mistakes (except for the whole “let a spirit guide me toward my untimely death” thing). She admits that she was wholly unprepared for her hike, and to her credit, she acknowledges that she’s not a hero simply because she was able to survive.
“You guys are the heroes,” she said to her rescuers at her press conference. “I am not the hero, I am just the girl sitting here healing my ankles.”
“They could have just forgotten about me and said, another missing person, no big deal,” she said. “I’m sitting from the standpoint of being in extreme gratitude for everybody caring so much to pull together and take time out of their own life to re-dedicate their focus of their own life towards me, whether they knew me or not.”