How to keep from getting lost in the wilderness

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Anyone can get lost in the wilderness. Whether you’re an experienced backpacker or a day hiker, one wrong turn could send you to a wild place where you’re forced to rely on limited supplies and your own skill set. But if you hit the trail with the right tools, a clear plan, and a little extra know-how, you’ll be able to find your way back to civilization with poise and aplomb no matter where you end up.

Don’t panic

If sunset is fast approaching and you turn a corner you thought for sure led to a trailhead that’s nowhere in sight, your first reaction might be panic. For most, the mere notion that you might be lost is enough to trigger anxiety, but it’s imperative that you remain calm. Decisions made out of fear are almost never constructive and drastic measures taken without level-headed consideration can often make a bad situation worse.

Instead, Lindsay McIntosh-Tolle, a wilderness survival and navigation instructor at outdoor gear retailer REI, suggests you S.T.O.P. That means:

  • Stop moving, because if you continue wandering you’re likely to get more lost.
  • Think objectively so you can accurately assess the situation and avoid panic.
  • Observe your surroundings, including the weather, available resources and any immediate risks.
  • Plan to deal with the situation once you’ve got the full picture.

Keep in mind that not all wilderness threats are created equal. The most dangerous is a lack of oxygen, which could be the result of an avalanche or cave-in. The second is exposure to temperatures that are colder or warmer than your body can stand. A lack of water comes third, followed by a lack of food. Assess and address each risk in order of severity to increase your chances of survival in a serious situation.

Whether you can safely stay put and wait for help or daylight may depend on how well-equipped you are to combat these threats.

Decide if you’re staying or moving

To decide if you should bunker down or get moving, consider what you know. Do you truly have a sense of where you are in relation to where you’re supposed to be? Do you think you may have simply made a wrong turn a few minutes back and are just a bit off-course? If you’re confident you knew where you were a mile ago, head back to that point and start over. But if you’ve entirely lost your bearings and fear you’ve been heading in the wrong direction for hours, it might be best to wait. Blindly wandering may lead you to a place where rescuers already looked, prolonging your evacuation.

“If you have absolutely no idea where you are but you’ve told someone where you’re going, it might make more sense to stay put,” McIntosh-Tolle says. “You know somebody will be looking for you.”

Even if you think you know where you are, but it’s getting dark and you don’t have a flashlight, consider building a shelter and starting over in the light of day.

Ultimately, your decision to move will depend on your knowledge of the area. If you know you parked your car on a road that runs north-south and you know which way is east, you can probably find your way home. Likewise, if you know how to get to a familiar river or can see a landmark in the distance, those features can guide you.

Be prepared for anything

The risks you face outdoors, no matter how long you plan to be out there, are mitigated by preparation, even if you think there’s no chance of getting lost or trapped. In our day-to-day lives, we rely on technology and battery-powered navigation to help us on our way, but there’s rarely a reliable signal in the woods. Besides, because batteries die and cell service is spotty or non-existent, “the last thing you want to rely on when in the backcountry is something with a battery,” says McIntosh-Tolle.

Start by gaining general knowledge of the region you’re traveling to. Studying maps can help you familiarize yourself with the area, and McIntosh-Tolle suggests doing so before you take off. The better you know the place you’re going, including its terrain and landmarks, the better off you’ll be if you get a bit turned around.

Her essentials for every outdoor excursion are navigation tools such as a map and compass, a headlamp, sun protection, a first aid kit with water purification tablets, a knife, a fire starter, an emergency shelter, extra food, extra water, and spare clothes.

Extra food and water will ensure you won’t go hungry if you spend an unexpected night in the woods, spare clothes will protect you from unanticipated weather and temperatures, and something as simple as an emergency blanket can function as a shelter. McIntosh-Tolle prefers a headlamp over a flashlight because it allows her to use both hands while doing something like erecting a shelter or starting a fire in the dark. But really, any source of light will help if you’re stuck out overnight.

She also recommends a whistle in case you get lost, as the sound travels farther than your voice and uses a lot less energy than a cry for help. For reference, three blasts is the universal signal for distress.

But possibly the most important thing you can do before your trip is to share your plans with friends or family. That way, rescuers will know where to focus their search. Plus, simply knowing someone will miss you if you don’t check in can go a long way toward reducing panic.

Arm yourself with knowledge

woman hiking trail
If you’re hungry, those trees might look tasty, but don’t chow down unless you really know what you’re doing. Pixabay

Some backcountry knowledge is just good judgement. For example, don’t forage for food if you aren’t absolutely certain which plants are edible. Some mushrooms can be safely eaten, but others that look almost identical may be deadly if consumed. Likewise, take cues from your environment. Full, leafy plants are often found near water, so if your canteen is dry, flourishing plant life can help guide you to a refill.

But other information must be learned. The most important skill to acquire may be navigation, as there are many pathfinding misconceptions that are likely to hurt, not help, you. These include the belief that moss grows on the north side of trees or that running water leads to civilization. In reality, running water only leads downhill and moss grows on whatever side of the tree is wet, McIntosh-Tolle says. To avoid falling victim to such myths, stick with what you know to be true: the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west.

And if you want to get more advanced than that, numerous companies and organizations that support outdoor recreation offer classes that teach this essential skill. Some may even offer sessions focused on using the stars to find your way at night.

“A lot of [navigation] comes down to effectively knowing how to use your compass,” says McIntosh-Tolle. “A compass and the ability to read a map are core skills. Simply having them in your pack isn’t enough.”

One helpful navigational technique is “aiming off,” which suggests that if you know your car is east, you should head farther south than you believe necessary. That way, when you eventually turn east and hit a road, you’ll know your car is north of your current location. This will keep you from wandering in two directions, unsure of whether you should head north or south to find your car.

You’ll also need to keep track of your course and direction as you hike, preferably before you get lost. And if you’re traveling with a group, never allow only one person to know how you got where you are. If you have to split up, it’s much easier if you’ve planned, navigated and mapped your trek as a team.

Even after all this preparation and education, McIntosh-Tolle says hikers still need to rely on their intuition.

“Trust your gut. If you’re in a place where you’re lost and something doesn’t feel right, don’t wait another mile to start questioning that,” she says. “That keeps small problems from becoming big problems.”