There are two main approaches to dealing with being lost: Don’t get lost in the first place, and make sure you’ve told someone exactly where you’re going and when to expect you back just in case you do get lost.
Not getting lost in the first place means having basic skills with a map and compass, and perhaps also having a GPS for backup. It also means being mindful of not getting lost—paying attention to your surroundings and being deliberate about your movement.
And consider always going out with a companion; solo hikers are much more likely to get lost than those in a group.
How to avoid getting lost
People often get lost when they leave the trail, perhaps to relieve their bladder, set up camp, or gather firewood. If you are going to leave the trail, be deliberate about it. Look at the lay of the land for notable features that can help you remain oriented, and turn around regularly to look back to make sure you know how to retrace your steps.
You might also consider using your compass to note the direction you’re traveling as you leave the trail; this is an especially good idea if the vegetation is dense or if you’re going to walk far enough to lose sight of the trail.
People also get lost easily when they’re walking at night with a headlamp or flashlight. The light ruins their night vision, effectively shrinking their world to the small circle of light. In this limited world, it’s easy to get turned around and not know which way to walk to get back to the tent.
If you need to leave camp at night, consider doing so without turning on your light; there is probably enough ambient light for you to walk a short distance away from your tent without losing sight of it. Or, if you need to walk farther and need a light to do so, leave a second light lit at camp and make sure you don’t lose sight of it as you walk. Or ask your campmate to stay awake until you get back; if you get turned around, you can shout, and he or she can direct you back.
People also get lost when they accidentally get off the trail but keep walking. As soon as you start to wonder whether or not you’re on the trail, stop walking!
Learn how to STOP
When you realize you don’t know for sure where you are, use the acronym STOP: sit, think, observe, plan.
Sitting will help you calm down and help you resist the urge to wander farther. Take a drink from your water bottle and eat a snack.
As you sit, think about where you might be. Could you reliably retrace your steps? Look at your map and think about when the last time was that you were certain about where you were. How long ago was that? Given your walking pace, how far could you have walked since then? Note the general area on the map where it’s reasonable that you could be. ○
Use all of your senses to observe your surroundings. Can you hear a highway or a river in the distance or the voices of other hikers? Do you see any landmarks? How long will it be before it gets dark? What does it look like the weather will do in the next few hours?
Survival experts disagree on whether it’s better to stay put and wait to be rescued or whether you should try to find your way out. You’ll have to make that decision based on many different factors.
How confident are you that you could find your way out?
Does anyone know where you are, and will someone notice when you don’t return on time?
Is where you are safe?
What supplies do you have with you?
Could you spend the night out and be OK?
Self-rescue or stay put?
Some experts suggest that if you are confident in your ability to find your way out or if you are sure that no one will come looking for you, you should self-rescue.
If you are relatively confident that you could retrace your steps, you can try to find your way back to the trail. If you’re going to try this, leave markers behind you as you walk so that you can find your way back to your current spot in case you don’t find the trail.
These markers could be intentionally broken branches, sticks propped up at odd angles against trees, or small piles of rocks. As you walk, stop frequently to look behind you and make sure you can see the previous marker from where you are.
If you have a compass and a good idea of which direction to walk to intersect a road, you could walk on a compass bearing. Even if your smartphone has no service, the compass will still work, as will any GPS-based navigation apps you have loaded on it.
Or you could use the North Star or the sun to figure out cardinal directions. If you don’t have a compass, you could just walk downhill; this might make sense if you are in a mountainous yet densely populated part of the world. If you decide to walk downhill and come upon a creek or river, follow it.
If you’re not confident that you could retrace your steps to find the trail or otherwise navigate yourself to safety, most survival experts would agree that it’s probably best to stay put, especially if someone will be missing you soon and starting a search.
If you stopped walking as soon as you started to feel like you weren’t confident in your location, you’re probably not far from the trail. If you stay where you are and shout or blow your whistle in bursts of three, it’s possible that another person will find you.
If a search is organized, people will start looking in the most likely places. You don’t want to inadvertently wander out of the search area. It’s very easy for people to get turned around and walk in the completely wrong direction. If you don’t have good navigation skills and a compass or clear terrain to follow, it is probably best to stay put.
If you have a cell phone, but there’s not enough service to make a call, try sending a text; texts can often get through, even with only very spotty coverage. But don’t go traipsing off in some unknown direction to try to find a signal; this could get you even more lost.
Finding shelter and water
No one plans on getting lost, so even if you’re just going out for a day hike, wear appropriate clothing and fill your pack with a raincoat, a knife, a lighter, water-purification drops, an emergency blanket, a headlamp, a whistle, a mirror, and a compass.
As you make your plan to stay put, consider the rule of threes: Survival experts say that a human can survive for three minutes without air, three hours exposed to the elements without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.
Your first priority should be shelter. This doesn’t necessarily mean constructing an elaborate structure, but it does mean making sure you can maintain a safe body temperature and not damage your skin. If you’re in the hot sun, this will mean finding or constructing some shade. If you’re in a chilly location, it will mean finding insulation. If you’re in a cold, wet place, it will mean finding a way to stay dry.
Look around you to see what nature is providing that can be used to protect you from the elements. See if you can improve the spot by dragging over some tree branches to add to the roof or walls. Gather piles of leaves or pine needles to use as insulation; shove them into your clothes, compress them into the walls of your shelter, and heap them into a big pile for sleeping.
There’s no one right way to make a sleeping shelter. It could be as simple as two logs lying parallel on the ground, acting like side walls to contain a massive pile of leaves. You can just burrow into the pile when you’re ready for bed. If you don’t have much time before the sun sets, this “squirrel nest” might be all you have time to build.
Whatever you’re building for a shelter, remember that you’d really like to be found before you have to use it, so as you work, keep occasionally blowing your whistle in bursts of three.
After you’ve constructed your shelter, your next priority should be to make yourself visible to would-be rescuers. If it’s getting dark and you don’t have much time to construct a signal, this could be as simple as tying a brightly colored or shiny piece of clothing or equipment from a tree branch before crawling into your shelter to go to sleep. Then, the next morning, set about devising more elaborate ways to get the attention of would-be rescuers.
Look for a nearby place with a clear view of the sky where you can make a signal and then think of something that would draw the attention of a search plane.
Could you use your space blanket or your bright-red bandanna to make a flag?
Are there objects of contrasting colors that you could use to make a large X?
If it’s safe to make a fire, you could prepare a signal fire. But make sure it’s safe to do so—there have been several instances of lost people making fires to try to get attention and then accidentally starting a wildfire. If it’s dry or windy, pick a different signal method.
If you believe it’s safe to prepare a fire, choose a place with good visibility. Clear away any leaf litter. Prepare a fire with dry tinder that will make as much smoke as possible once it’s lit.
A mirror is another good way to get the attention of searchers. Purpose-made signal mirrors even have a sighting lens that helps you aim a flash of light at your target.
After you’ve created shelter and a way to signal to rescuers, your next priority will be water. There aren’t many reliable ways to collect water if you don’t know where to go to find surface water. There are some techniques, but they can’t be relied on to produce adequate amounts of water:
- Rig up a rain-collection system using your raincoat, a plastic sheet or bag, or even a big sheet of tree
- Spread your absorbent clothes out in the rain and then repeatedly wring them out into a water bottle.
- Or use a handkerchief to sop up dew and wring it into a water bottle.
- Look for a seep or a spring—or even a dry streambed. If you dig a hole there, it might fill in with water.
If you can find surface water but don’t have a way to purify it, you’ll need to weigh the risks. You could try digging a small hole next to the stream or pond and letting water seep into it; the soil might filter the water slightly.
If you’re not able to find water and you haven’t been rescued after a few days, you’ll need to move to try to find water or to reach a road. If you are able to find enough water, experts would suggest that you continue to stay put.
Don’t worry about food—just stay hydrated and sheltered and conserve your energy.
If you get lost in the wilderness, these survival tips should come in handy no matter where you find yourself. It’s better always to let people know where you are going and what you plan on doing when you get there. You need to take care of yourself when you’re exploring the great outdoors because nobody else will.
Useful resources to check out: