PARIS, VA., NOV. 23 -- A 7-year-old boy was found safe in a rural Warren County subdivision more than 10 miles from here this afternoon, ending a massive 20-hour search that authorities said began when the boy wandered into surrounding forests during an afternoon hike with his mother.

Michael Hitchcock, wearing a light winter coat, sweatshirt and jeans, told law enforcement officials and reporters that he survived temperatures in the teens by huddling between two logs in the forest. He appeared unharmed this morning in the First Blue Ridge Mountain Estates, where resident Mary Davey said she heard dogs barking, went outside and found Michael walking along her street.

"I asked if he was lost and he said, 'Yes,' and he said he was hungry," said Davey, 59. "He was calm. He said that his mother had walked ahead of him and that he lost track of her."

The Blacksburg, Va., boy disappeared about 3 p.m. Sunday during a stroll at the Sky Meadows State Park near here with his mother, 31-year-old Deborah Reyna, and a friend, Robert Tomlin, officials said. The park is about 50 miles west of Washington in the northern section of Fauquier County.

The disappearance prompted a dramatic rescue operation involving nearly 150 searchers using bloodhounds and helicopters with heat sensors.

"The only time I was scared is when a cricket jumped in front of me," Michael calmly told a gallery of reporters gathered for a news conference after he was found.

"When I camped under a log, there was another log and I got between them," the boy said. "I was thinking about finding a possum when I slept under the log. I went to sleep earlier than I do at home."

Some search officials said they were astonished that the youngster was able to survive Sunday night's frigid temperatures.

"We were very skeptical after all the {rescue} teams came back with nothing," said Paul Fries, a volunteer from nearby Marshall. "It's hard to believe a 7-year-old would do very well after dark, especially considering he was not prepared and not well-dressed. How he walked as far as he did in that type of terrain, I just don't know."

Charles Murray, Fauquier County Sheriff's Department spokesman, said yesterday that he suspected no foul play. "He's just an amazing kid, extremely intelligent," Murray said.

Teams of rescuers, including about 70 soldiers from the Vint Hill Army Station, searched for Michael in a seven-mile radius, saying they did not think the boy would have traveled far from where he had disappeared.

Early in the search, law enforcement officials approached the case cautiously. While the search teams worked the mountains, Fauquier County sheriff's deputies gave a lie detector test to Reyna and Tomlin, former coworkers at TRW Inc. in Fairfax County. The tests turned up nothing suspicious, officials said.

"I just want to thank the Lord that brought him back," said Reyna, who is a graduate student in botany at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, and is separated from her husband who lives in Fairfax County.

According to the boy, his mother, and Tomlin, the episode began when Reyna was returning to Blacksburg after spending the weekend with her parents in Fairfax County. Lunch at Tomlin's Fauquier County home was followed with what the group said was supposed to be a short walk in the park.

During the hike, Michael stopped to admire horses grazing in a pasture, they said. Reyna and Tomlin said they walked ahead, unaware that they had left the boy behind.

About one minute later, according to Tomlin, he and Michael's mother realized the boy had lagged, and returned to find him. But the youngster was nowhere in sight, possibly having headed down another trail, Tomlin said.

"It's a fantastic situation," Tomlin said. "All our {search} actions involved him being just a minute ahead."

About 5 p.m., after searching the woods for about 90 minutes, Reyna said she called the Fauquier County Sheriff's Department from a pay phone behind the state park's visitor center.

Less than an hour later, dozens of sheriff's deputies, firefighters from four Virginia counties and rescue squad members from as far away as Norfolk arrived at the visitor center. The center, a three-story 19th century house on a hill called Mount Bleak, quickly was transformed into a command base.

Search teams, combing the forests with bloodhounds, spread out along the mountain trails that wind through the 1,100-acre state park, which is two miles southeast of the Shenandoah River and bordered by the Blue Ridge Mountain Range. Some of the park's trails lead to the historic Appalachian Trail.

Helicopters equipped with infrared, heat-seeking scanners to detect signs of life hovered over the icy woods from about 10 p.m. to midnight.

Michael said yesterday that he fell asleep shortly after dark and never heard helicopters or the searchers who called out his name.

With the temperature rapidly dropping, rescuers feared Michael would suffer from hypothermia.

"The weather makes it extremely difficult to concentrate on the task," said Chris Metzler, a member of the Appalachian Search and Rescue squad that supervised the search for the boy. "The ground is frozen out there, which means there are no tracks to trace, and the people going out there have to be much more worried about their own safety."

At 1 a.m. yesterday, nearly 50 people crammed inside the dimly lit command center, pacing as the radios on their hips crackled with updates. Dozens of other volunteers, with rescue equipment on their backs and small spotlights on their heads, returned to the trails.

"You got people falling over each other out there, they're trying so hard to find that kid," said Robert Altizer, a Centreville resident who joined the search effort after other rescuers knocked on the door of his hunting cabin near the park, seeking Michael. "The kid just doesn't seem to be out there. But we have to keep trying."

As the dogs tied to the back porch whined and growled, rescuers warmed themselves by gulping hot soup and coffee through the early morning hours. Some raised doubts about the rescue effort.

"It just doesn't make sense so far," said Terry Davis of the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office with his bloodhound Rusty at his feet. "He picked up a scent from the kid's socks . . . then went right after it. Must have gone for about a mile. Then just stopped. Just looked up and looked around, like he didn't know where he was."

At 4:10 a.m., Todd L'Herron of the Appalachian rescue team brought in a can of apple juice discovered by a search team. There was hopeful silence in the room, but police said the hiking party did not have apple juice. "Oh well," L'Herron whispered later, "we always joke that we do the best job of cleaning the woods than anyone else around."

In an adjacent room, at about 5 a.m., Paul Torrence of the Appalachian Squad knelt over an area map. He made color-coded circles that gave priority to parts of the woods. About a dozen men later voted, by secret ballot, on which area to assign highest priority in the search for Michael.

Near dawn, many coordinators and rescuers slept briefly. Some woke suddenly about 6:30 a.m., when a search team radioed in about a "serious dog alert." People leaned to the edge of their chairs.

"We had a serious dog alert," the rescuer shouted over the radio, "but it didn't turn out to be anything." Deputies sat back, yawning and rubbing their eyes.

The radio coordinator began calling back the search squads shortly after that exchange, but spent an apprehensive 30 minutes looking for three groups that did not respond to radio messages.

After 7 a.m., as the sun rose over the hills, firefighters leaned on a picket fence, staring at cows and nervously twisting toothpicks in their teeth. Deputies scrutinized the mountain ridge with binoculars. "I'm laying odds that poor kid's not alive," one man told a deputy. "That cold had to get him."

Michael's grandparents, Charles and Ruth Hitchcock, arrived at 9 a.m., and cried with their daughter, Reyna, in the kitchen.

Davis patted his bloodhound Rusty beneath a tree. "We're going out again," he said. "We're going to make heads or tails of this yet."

Katherine Nesbitt, cooking since 2 a.m., reminded searchers to eat.

"When something like this happens out here," she said, passing out food, "you can bet what you'll see is good people coming together. Just look around."

As unofficial word trickled out that the boy had been found, there was a sigh of relief from many of the searchers.

"I'm just glad to see that he made it," said John Newhouse of the New Baltimore Volunteer Fire Company. "I know all of us worried that if he was out there, that he might not be alive."

Ruth Hitchcock said that the night had been "hell, if there is such a thing as hell." She added that the story closed "with such a happy ending." Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.