How a Quick Walk Turned into a 17-Day Survival Ordeal in the Hawaiian Jungle

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Author of Be Ready for Anything and Bloom Where You’re Planted online course

More than 2 weeks ago, the news was abuzz about Amanda Eller, a 37-year-old physical therapist/yoga instructor who took a walk in a Maui forest and never came back to where her car was parked. Theories abounded about Amanda because she’d left her water bottle, cellphone, and wallet in her car. People wondered whether she’d been kidnapped or murdered.

The official search was called off after only 72 hours, leaving the hunt for Amanda in the hands of hundreds of volunteers who combed the forest. As well, people all over the world made donations to help fund the search.

The Makawao Forest Reserve is a 2000 acre area on the north side of Maui that is surrounded by even more thousands of acres of dense forest, steep ravines, lava rocks, and vegetation so thick that it often must be hacked with machetes to get through it.

There’s a lot we can learn from the survival stories of other people and Amanda’s story also has many lessons. While I’ll point out a few mistakes, keep in mind that nearly every survival story begins with something going sideways. Amanda survived a situation many people could not, and did so barefoot and with a fractured leg. Amanda did a few things wrong but did a LOT of things right.

Before you head out on your next hiking trip, read Amanda’s story and then brush up on these tips for safe hiking.

How did she get lost in the first place?

Amanda told reporters she didn’t take her water or phone because she was planning only a quick walk. One thing Selco drummed into us during our course is that you don’t even walk across the street without a layer one that contains at the least some water purification tablets, a lighter, a whistle, a trauma bandage, and a knife.

According to news reports, Amanda intended to walk a quick three-mile trail. But when she stopped to rest, she got turned around and that was when things went wrong.

‘I wanted to go back the way I’d come, but my gut was leading me another way — and I have a very strong gut instinct.

‘So, I said, my car is this way and I’m just going to keep going until I reach it.

‘I heard this voice that said, “If you want to live, keep going”.

‘And as soon as I would doubt my intuition and try to go another way than where it was telling me, something would stop me, a branch would fall on me, I’d stub my toe, or I’d trip. So I was like, “O.K., there is only one way to go”.

‘The whole time I was going deeper into the jungle, even though I thought I was going back where I came from. (source)

Unfortunately, her instincts led her astray. Anyone who regularly walks in wild areas should learn the basics of navigation using the sun, or better yet a compass,  (You can get watches that have compasses built in. Be sure to calibrate your compass with a known accurate compass.)

How she survived

Amanda told reporters she hiked for about 14 hours the first day hoping to get back to her car. She was only wearing a tank top and capri pants. Temperatures in that area drop to about 60 degrees at night.

By day 3, she stopped looking for the trailhead and began searching for water. Generally, when you’re lost, water should be a resource you look for sooner due to the immediate risk of dehydration. This was the same day she fell off a cliff and injured her leg, fracturing it and tearing her meniscus. The following day, she found water indeed when a flash flood swept her shoes away. Now, injured and barefoot, she was not moving as fast, and she was crawling instead of walking, but the entire time, she was moving deeper into the jungle. From her hospital bed, she said, “I heard this voice that said, ‘If you want to live, keep going.”

She covered herself with ferns and leaves at night. She slept in the mud, and another night in the den of a wild boar. (It’s interesting to note that boars are the most dangerous wildlife on the island. Aside from boars, there aren’t any large predators.)

She ate wild strawberry guavas, berries, and moths for 17 days. Fortunately, she had learned enough about the local flora to know what she could safely eat. She stayed by a stream, from which she drank water.

But she was beginning to lose hope. “I was getting so skinny that I was really starting to doubt if I could survive,”

The rescue

Even though officials gave up on the search after 72 hours, the locals did not. Volunteer search parties combed the area near where Amanda’s car had been found.

Meanwhile, an army of volunteers turned seemingly every stone looking for her. They rappelled into ravines, searched caves, free-dove into pools and navigated fast-moving streams looking for Ms. Eller. Others killed aggressive wild boars and checked their intestines for human remains. At least one volunteer was attacked by a boar. (source)

A friend of mine in Hawaii joined the search and told me that the volunteers were searching miles and miles on foot, day and night, despite the lack of official support. Finally, by sheer good fortune, Amanda was out in the open when a search helicopter flew over.

Rescue workers had been combing the thickly wooded 1.5-mile radius around Ms. Eller’s car. But on a whim, the searchers in the helicopter on Friday decided to go farther, about seven miles from the central search area by air — the equivalent of 30 miles walking in such rough conditions, said Javier Canetellops, a search coordinator who was in the helicopter…

…On Day 17, Ms. Eller was near a stream searching for “some plant to eat for dinner and some place to sleep that wasn’t directly in the mud” when she saw a helicopter. She said she had seen and heard multiple helicopters fly above her during her ordeal, according to her friend Ms. York, but none had spotted her. This one did.

“I looked up and they were right on top of me,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and I just broke down and started bawling.” (source)

Here’s the footage of Amanda’s rescue.

Rescuers say that Amanda was found in an extremely treacherous area, deep in H’aiku’ several miles above Twin Falls. She was immediately airlifted to a hospital and is expected to make a full recovery. In the following video, a rescuer described finding Amanda.

Amanda had a lot to say about the volunteers who searched for her and about her “spiritual journey” while she was lost. Here’s her statement from the hospital.

And finally, this is a press conference held at the hospital updating us on Amanda’s condition.

Amanda walked with a fractured tibia, severe sunburns, infected wounds in her lower extremities, and a torn meniscus. Miraculously, her doctor said she was well-hydrated when she was rescued and that she looks great. She did not contract any issues from drinking water from the stream. Physicians expect a full recovery.

Her doctor chalks a great deal of her survival up to the fact that she was very healthy and well-nourished before her ordeal.

What do you think?

When I heard about this story and a week had gone past, I certainly didn’t expect to hear a happy ending. In nearly every survival situation, mistakes are made. Amanda’s will to live helped propel her through what must have been a terrifying two and a half weeks.

Could you survive 17 days in the wilderness? What do you think of Amanda’s story?

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3), an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

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  • What I was taught is, is that if you’re going out like that is to mark your trail with “hunters tape”. It a vynal ribbon that’s a neon orange. The only trick is to tie the next one ribbon while you can still see the last one to mark your trail. You could get away with using something like athletic tape if you had to… Almost anything that’s a color not regularly found in that specific environment.

    • You can even leave arrows made of sticks or rocks at the trailheads to remind yourself which way to return.

  • One of the first things I learned when backpacking in wilderness areas was to constantly check your back trail. Everything looks very different when you’re heading the opposite direction. If she’d checked her back trail she wouldn’t have gotten lost.

    The second lesson is, if you’re lost stay where you are. The closer you are to your last known location (her car) the easier it is for searchers to find you. Staying put is really hard to do, but it is the best strategy for survival–ask any Search and Rescue team member.

    In the end she got incredibly lucky as spotting anything from a helicopter flying over a rain forest is all but impossible. She was fortunate she was in an opening when they flew over. She was doubly fortunate the water she was drinking wasn’t loaded with giardia or some other bug as that could have made her very ill–debilitated her completely.

  • Amanda’s story is both a heart-breaker and heart-warming at the same time. The Selco advice on the minimums to carry with you even just across the street comes to mind. Amanda didn’t have even the tinest water filter, like the Sawyer mini. In many areas of the country, contaminated water would have sickened, and possibly killed her.

    Having gotten direction turned in my own town at night, and in a day time clouded over town nearby, I learned the hard way to always carry a tiny high strength rare earth magnet (on a string, and with the north end of the magnet marked with white paint) in my pocket for a compass, along with a 2 1/4 inch Signature Lite Swiss Army knife, that has a tiny LED light. (Some surgeons even keep one on a string around their neck in case of a sudden loss of power and light.)

    I also carry a pocket flat whistle. (Search on the phrase FLAT WHISTLE on eBay to see zillions of them.) You can be heard from a great distance, and for a lot longer than your exhausted vocal cords can manage by yelling, with a whistle. Most such flat whistles are made of plastic, which will not freeze to your lips in sub-32 F temperatures — like steel whistles can, unless you tape over the mouthpiece.

    Amanda also did not pack the signaling basics, like either a signal mirror or the cheaper lighter weight readily available unused CD or DVD disc — which would have made spotting her from the air vastly easier. And a handful of such discs, when hung from strings high up from trees (or whatever) tend to twirl in any breeze, and can be seen at great distances by searchers.

    Amanda did not carry a bright red or orange large bandanna, which when either hung or waved, can be seen from great distances.

    Amanda did not bring along a dog, some of which have been known to go for help at some distance away.

    Amanda did not go hiking with a buddy. That would have helped.

    Amanda did apparently not tell anyone where she was going, or when she planned to return. That would have helped.

    Amanda did not bring much in the way of clothes layers, or even a lightweight tarp and paracord, in case the weather turned foul on her.

    Amanda did not have any of the basics of fire-starting gear, like a simple credit card sized Fresnel lens, or a tiny cigarette lighter, etc.

    Finally, it would be very difficult not to notice that when officialdom gave up the search after only 3 days, the community of volunteers kept on truckin’ until theiy found Amanda, just in time. There’s a huge lesson in that comparison — in large flashing lights!!!


    • Amanda’s “intuition” betrayed her over and over again. If she hadn’t been in Hawaii with readily available water and fruits to eat, and mild temps, she’d be dead. I get “chided” by my family for being “prepared” when we go anywhere….good lesson that I’m not a crazy prepper. 🙂

      • They did an experiment waay back with pilots who thought they could fly by the seat of their pants. Turned out they could not with recently developed airplane instruments.

        So trusting your gut instincts when it comes to technical matters DON’T work.

      • Exactly! Because if she was prepared, there never would have been a story to begin with. The injuries happened after she had been out for some time. Besides, she fell down a cliff or something. Did she climb that cliff or any other cliff for that matter when hiking from the car? Sounds like she let panick set in, not a gut instinct. There is the same thing on a car TV commercial. It shows a guy driving his car in the city and then he’s running out in the boonies to finally drive his car out of the boonies and how great the car is. That guy in the commercial also has nothing on him. To me, they are not prepared because they don’t know, it’s because they are part of today’s society where they will demand someone to come find them because don’t forget that in their socialist utopia “everyone is special.” So society is obligated to come look for them. If this was some little boy or girl that accidentally wandered off, that is completely different and I would put full support behind finding them. But for an adult in this situation for me, its sink or swim. She made the first wrong move before she even left her home because she left virtually everything she had at home. The mistakes piled on from there when she left her water and phone in the car. So, she didn’t even bring any food in her car even. She is not a hero for surviving 17 days, she is a person that made a lot of stupid mistakes and got really, really lucky. The fact she did survive though is awesome. Maybe she learned here lesson. Just like telling the kid, don’t touch the stove it’s hot. Hopefully the kid will learn after getting burned the first time.

  • What exactly did she do RIGHT? Sounds to me like this girl is an idiot and didn’t do anything she SHOULD have done.

      • I agree. Perhaps she’ll have to reimburse the local entities who spent time looking for her. She prepared for her hike like she was going to the mall.

        • I think that’s a little harsh. After 72 hours, nobody was forced to help – they did so because they wanted to. This is what a voluntary society does.

          Every accident or bad experience I’ve been through, there was one small turning point that would have changed everything. You miss that turning point, then things go sideways.

          • I’m not talking post 72 hours – I’m talking the taxpayer dollars spent over 3 days time looking for her. She also may end up with an eye-opening medical bill.

        • Going to the mall? When I go, I carry a 9mm, two pocket knives, a lighter and a pack of smokes. Malls are dangerous places!

    • Her father called her “smart”. Well, she would have been a lot smarter if she just carried her phone along.

  • Daisy your title may only be partially correct, but that person was not lost unless they were so injured they could not move. We have vacationed on the four largest of the Hawaiian island, and none of them would have a person so flummoxed they could not get out within one day, or even hours. There are roads all over those islands and all of them within one hour of walking, so your lead in title is totally bogus. To be fair though, if you are only relating what she stated, then you are only partly to blame. If anyone is as stupid as that woman apparently was, then they should not even get out of their car.
    Have you been to Maui? You can walk from one end of Maui to the other in a day if you move along with a brisk pace. There was something else going on with that woman that she is not informing us of. Like, was she mentally disabled, or physically disabled?

    • Or had just had a fight and was emotionally distressed. “Ill show you…I’ll self-inflict….” Like someone else mentioned, she listened to her gut instinct for her guide instead of sitting down and thinking rationally about her situation. So my question is, What was driving her forward so carelessly? At least find a high spot, sit for a while and notice where the sun is coming up and going down. This question is not meant to be critical … but sure appears to be running from something to me. I feel for that because I’m an emotional runner too.

    • Dear Rumplestiltskin:

      One of my dearest friends was a member of the search party and based on the information I received from her, I respectfully disagree with your assessment.

      Parts of Maui are pure jungle, so thick you need a machete to get through them. The forest she was in was 2000 acres and surrounded by more forest. She got turned around and instead of heading to her car, headed straight out into those thousands of acres. Then, to make matters worse, she fell into a canyon, breaking her tibia. According to my friend, it was a box canyon – tough to get out of with two good legs, much less a broken one. And having had her shoes washed away, she was also barefoot. So as to your question, at this point, she was disabled.

      Maui is 39.77 miles long if you go straight down the middle. However, there are no roads that go straight down the middle. If you follow the road from Lahaina to Hana, you’d be going 72 miles. Not to mention, it’s very mountainous. Even going from Kahalui, you’d be looking at more than 50 miles, and according to Google, an 18-hour walk. Either way, you must be keeping an incredibly brisk pace to get there in a day.

    • Actually Rumpelstiltskin, you are incorrect. I was a member of the search team and have firsthand knowledge of the search and the facts surrounding it. Amanda set off for a short hike, left the trail and became disoriented. Her high level of physical fitness allowed her to travel off course much further and much faster than the average hiker. After realizing she was lost, she continued hiking well past dark, which probably contributed to her getting furthher off course. Later she lost her shoes and a flash flood. The extremely technical, steep jungle terrain she encountered further hindered her progress. She fell, broke her tibia, tore her meniscus, had badly injured ankles and barefoot feet. When found, she was located next to a creek with vertical walls on either side and waterfalls both above and below her. Even the rescue team had to be airlifted out. It is a testament to Amanda’s fortitude and courage that she was able to make as much progress as she did and survive 17 days under such extreme conditions.

  • I’ve been all over Maui and Oahu. There are some deep places that would not be enjoyable to be in without proper protection from the vegetation. I think the farthest you’d have to walk is 5 miles without hitting civilization. This is mostly due to some of the terrain not being navigable on foot. However, that area you basically just go down or up the mountain to hit a road.

    This lady clearly shouldn’t be in the woods to take a nap without taking anything with her. I remember it being as buggy as an August day in Minnesota. Something else must have been going on.

    Most 35 year olds live on their phone.

    • I hate to say this but maybe she did what she did to get away from her boyfriend or thinking about breaking the relations only to end up, after a horrific ordeal, to have him lie down right next to you after all that!

  • Wow, there are a lot of ‘haters’ commenting here…The woman obviously isn’t a prepper, so she is very fortunate that she survived. A ‘prepper’ would have made a lot of different decisions, obviously. So let’s take this at face value, and see what we can learn from her story. How many ‘armchair warriors’ could have survived as long as she did, considering her injuries and not being prepared? It sure made ME think!

  • You would be surprised how many times people see their rescuers but they didn’t see them. Quite common. Or they could hear them and they would yell but they can’t hear you. Very strange.

    Hiking in Hawaii is very dangerous once you leave the footpaths. Thick brushes and vegetations often hide steep ravines and even cliffs and ledges that are sometimes no more than a few inches from your feet!

    People get disoriented all the time there. Thick bushes, trees, gulleys, shallow rivers all look the same.

    BTW, you not only need a compass you need a MAP too! It would be extremely helpful to have one because it could save you miles and miles of walking the LONG way.

  • I see three things she did right which are of value.

    1. She was physically fit which is the best prep in an austere situation AND for dialy life.

    2. She had knowledge in local foraging.

    3. She did not have a defeatist attitude. She persevered. Huge when it determines success especially after experiencing failure.

    17 days is crazy long to stay alive alone and without supplies. Even if it was her mistake to get in that situation and the care and efforts of others which rescued her I still think surviving 17 days in the jungle is impressive.

    I also thought her words of gratitude and seeing the positive in the situation were admirable.

    • As JW said, life is tough. It’s a lot tougher if you’re dumb.

      That said, I tell people don’t try to connect with nature. That’s how you get killed!

  • Respect for Amanda Eller who stuck it out and survived. So she made a few rookie mistakes, so what? She survived them all. Now that is WOW!

    Which makes me wonder. All the snide and sarcastic comments made by some here, I wonder if you would have survived. Anyone whom has actually faced such adversity and had the balls to survive, will never be so vilifying in their comments to others who have faced similar life threatening challenges.

    On that note. Personally I would have followed the river/s knowing that my life will become very depended on my shoes. Finding out where the sun comes up and sets. But we don’t think like that anymore. NO! Not just Amanda, I would guess more like 99% of USA don’t think like that anymore.

    Living in say South America, Australia, Alaska, Africa, you are more much more aware of nature and the risks, or is that challenges. 🙂

    • I’ve been all over the world. We survived by not doing dumb stuff. There is an off button on that phone when you want to unplug and it still goes in the pocket. I don’t have to survive 19 days because I’m not that dumb. I take my gear, tell folks where and when I’m going and I can distinguish a well worn trail used by thousands a year from the dirt.
      Every one of these “survival” stories starts from a series of mistakes. Those are the real lessons. There is a tv show where they go out and make it 21 days all the time and do little to nothing so this really wasn’t that amazing.

    • This story and the comments are so very important for this community to ponder and consider. Daisy did ask for our opinions. Seems like most of us are horrified at how it represents a general lack of common sense from someone we would expect to be
      intelligent. That’s why I feel that emotion — the voices– were driving her and keeping her confused in the beginning. If anything it shows me, an emotional person, that no matter what happens, I’ve got to get a grip on my emo so I don’t go down unnecessarily. Nature is our friend and our enemy depending on how we respect it’s power to provide for us or to kill us. We can easily die in a simple accident in the safety and security of our own homes. So. Life has no guarantees!

      Having fasted for long periods 10-40 days at a time, she wasn’t in any danger of starving. In fact, the lack of food can sharpen your perceptions by putting energy to the logical brain and not the emo brain. Sounds like she had plenty of water. As someone mentioned, the downward flow of water would lead her eventually to the ocean — a more open place to be found. Everyone knows the sun comes up in the east and sets in the west. Even being unsure of it’s rising point, one can still follow after it is high noon and follow it knowing that one is westbound. Being able to build a fire by just smacking rocks together would’ve been invaluable, even if all she got was smoke out of tinder which had been dried out in a sunny spot.

      Seems like the prepper community is the last vestige of common sense in a world of emo. Fear can confuse and kill us quicker than anything.

  • This is for those who suggested that Ms. Eller should reimburse those who searched for her and ultimately rescued her. I am a volunteer member of an Arizona wilderness SAR team. When the general topic came up for discussion in our group a few years ago, the consensus was that requiring payment would be appropriate for subjects who do obnoxiously stupid things like drive past the barriers into flooded washes or climb over the guard rails at cliff edges, but for the folks who make simple errors in judgement like not having adequate equipment or supplies, overestimating their capabilities, or navigational errors, we are glad that they had the gumption to get out and attempt something more difficult than sit around being whiny couch potatoes, and we are happy to provide what safety net we can when they get in trouble. Granted, we can’t guarantee a happy ending every time. That is a risk you take when you get off the couch. Less risky if you prepare properly, but still a risk. We hope there will always be like minded people to come looking for us if we get in trouble in the boonies.

  • This made me think! So. On Amazon, you can buy a bracelet made of woven paracord with a firestarter, compass and a whistle. Too easy. You can get a pack of 10 for $13.99. Give them to your family and friends! 🙂

  • Tim Panteleoni from Oneonta NY was missing and never found. An avid hiker and biker. I had immediately thought feral hogs. That was around 1988-ish I think.

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