Personal Safety

The Do’s and Don’ts of Getting Lost in the Wilderness



The Do's and Don'ts of Getting Lost in the Wilderness

No one plans on getting lost, but if you prepared accordingly knowing how to react and what to do in order to get rescued starts at home.

Check out our list of Do’s and Don’ts when finding yourself lost in the woods.

1. Packing

Don’t: grab a bottle of water and an energy bar, stash it in your pack and hit the trail. After all you’re only going to be gone for a few hours right?

Do: When you’re packing, you need to ask yourself, “Do I have enough supplies to spend the night out if I had to?'”

Know and carry the 10 Essentials:

Also pack a basic survival kit containing an emergency blanket or a large plastic garbage bag for shelter, an extra fire starter (flint and waterproof matches and/or butane lighter), a water filtration method like potable aqua or katadyn filter, a signal mirror, and an 8-by-8-inch square of heavy-duty aluminum foil for making a cup or rudimentary cooking pot.

2. Planning

Don’t: Test your brand-new navigation skills, GPS, or other gadget on an unproven route–by yourself.

Do: Know your limits and plan trips that feature mileage, elevation gain, and terrain that you can handle. Set out with a map and compass or GPS and a good description of your route. Rehearse the route well before you leave and make sure you have a good idea of what the terrain has in store for you.

Before you go, determine direction is guaranteed to lead you back to civilization should you lose your way and make sure you know how to find that bearing.

3. When deciding to take a hike

Don’t:  You’ve had a rough day and just want to clear your head, so you just grab a bag of supplies, strap on your boots, and head out the door. You are only going a couple of miles and you don’t want to be bothered, so there is no reason to let anyone know where you are heading.

Do: Let someone know where you are going, whether it is friends, family, or park rangers if you hike somewhere that has them. Be sure to Include your intended route, expected return, and what time they should initiate a rescue if they haven’t heard from you. Even if you just leave a note or shoot a quick text message to a friend you absolutely must tell someone where you’re going. If you tell no one, they have no idea where to start looking for you should something go wrong.

4. Hiking the trail

Don’t:  You’re out here to clear your head and breathe in the fresh air, so its ok to daydream as you hike, paying little attention to your surroundings. More and more people are getting lost each year simply by assuming their GPS units or cell phones will guide them back.

Do:  Keep an eye out for any major landmarks as you go. Verify your location on a map. Take a mental note of bridges, boulders, and trail junctions.  It is a good idea turn around often to study the trail from another angle. This way the trail will not seem quite so unfamiliar if you have to backtrack.

5. When you suspect you’re lost

Don’t: Keep on trekking, even though you believe you might have veered off course. The trail has to be just over the next rise, right?

Do: Stop as soon as you think you might be off course. Be alert for clues, such as the trail suddenly becoming faint or not reaching landmarks you know were supposed to be passed. This is another reason that zoning out is not an option on a hike. Keep calm and try to match the surrounding features to your topo, triangulate your position with a compass, or use your GPS to locate yourself on a map.

6. When you know you’re lost

Don’t: Panic! Turn around and head back the way you came, veer suddenly off your current path, scream or huddle and cry.

Do: Stop right where you are. Sit down, take a deep breath, and assess the situation calmly.  The moment you realize you are without a doubt lost, your adrenaline will kick in and if you act on it you are liable to do something drastic and irrational.

Find a sheltered spot and have something to have a snack and a quick drink.  Then take an inventory of the gear you have, the current weather conditions, and how far off track you think you are. Mentally retrace your steps to the last place you knew your location–can you pinpoint where you went off track?

7. Making the call

Don’t: Bushwhack across unfamiliar terrain in a rushed and panicked attempt to regain the trail or find a new one.  You will not be forced to spend the night outside alone.

Do: Stay where you are if you’re unsure of your location, night is falling, or the weather conditions are getting worse. If you try to move around in worsening conditions without a direct purpose you are only worsening your situation by wasting energy and exposing yourself to more risk of injury. Backtrack only if you’re confident you can retrace your steps back to the last milestone or landmark on the trail. Strike out cross-country only if you can see your goal and you know that there are not any types of impassable terrain that will block you, such as cliffs, valleys, or rivers.

8. Spending a night out

Don’t: Obsess over how to get find your bearings. Wander aimlessly through the wilds, panicked and without a plan. Completely ignore how low the sun has gotten and the drop in your body’s core temperature.

Do: Put on a hat and extra layers of clothing. Then build a fire and a shelter. Keeping yourself warm and dry is your top priority, followed by collecting water. Don’t worry about food just yet–the vast majority of lost hikers are found within 12 hours.

Depending on how drastically the weather changes, you can become hypothermic within minutes of exposure. When it comes to keeping warm, remember in survival the saying is “cotton kills.” Cotton will actually wick away body heat and cause you to drop your body temperature just as fast or faster than if you were stark naked. You want to dress in insulating materials such as wool or thinsulate clothing.  Thanks to advances in technology you can have the insulating warmth of many layers of wool in just a few ounces of man made materials.

9. Getting Rescued

Don’t: Stay hidden in dense trees and don’t signal.

Find an open spot and make yourself obvious: Lay bright clothing on the ground and build a smoky fire using green branches and leaves.  This will alert any air rescue that may be searching for you. Blow your whistle and signal your location with a mirror or another reflective surface, like a watch face, cell phone, compass mirror, GPS screen, or headlamp. Sitting still is a good way to stay lost.

Some of the above scenarios may seem pretty petty and you may think “oh, I would never do that.” or “that’s just silly, who would be that stupid?” but the truth of the matter is they are only on this list because they have happened before. In fact the above experiences happen all the time even to the most experienced hikers who just get a bit overconfident with themselves.

The key here is to always have a plan, make sure that if you are going out for a day hike, or if you have decided that you will trek through the woods to get to your ideal bug out location, you need to make sure you have a plan on how you are going to get there and what you are going to do if you can’t make it.

Check out these related articles from our site:

Finding Yourself Lost

Finding Water When Lost in the Wilderness

Lost in the Woods 101

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  1. Tina

    September 21, 2014 at 7:55 PM

    This is a great article and I can relate to it. I’ve had instances where adrenaline (and almost panic) kicked in after realizing that the topography looks entirely different on the way back. So I now make sure to turn around to familiarize myself with it, and take photos.
    Learn from thy mistakes…

    Also, thanks for the tip of the cotton clothing, it slipped right past me for some reason.

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