What to do when you’re lost

No one ever plans to get lost in the woods. How hard can it be, just walk on the trail, don’t go off of it, and you’ll be fine. Not true. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get lost. You can take a wrong turn, miss a turn, or not realize there was a turn there at all. Flash floods can cut off, or eradicate trails altogether. Unhappy animals can necessitate going off trail to get around them. Foul weather can reduce visibility to near zero. Sickness can disorient.   All these things can and eventually will get you lost in the woods. This is how you should respond to the situation.


As soon as you realize that you’re lost, stop. Take a minute to sit down, and think about the situation. Relax, and realize that you’re not in any immediate danger. These things happen. Panicking is the worse possible action. By taking a short break, you’ll be able to process the situation, and take the proper action, without running around like a lunatic.


SAM_1498Your most valuable tool is your mind. Check your map if you have one (you did bring one, right?). Look for spots where you could have went wrong, and try to identify where you are. Pay special attention to trail crossings and side branches. These are where most people make mistakes. Think back, and try to remember where you were the last time you knew you where on the right track.  Think of landmarks, like streams, waterfalls, ponds, forks in the trail, and rock structures that can help you pinpoint your position. How long has it been since you recognized something or knew where you were?  If you’re just a couple minutes from the last position that you absolutely knew where you were, you can try to backtrack. You may have just missed a small side trail, or made an exit on an animal path. However, do not backtrack if you have no idea where you are. You could get even further off the path, making it harder for people to find you, and put yourself in a much worse position. If possible, move to a higher location or area with better visibility to help determine your location, but do not leave the trail, or move far from your location. If you must leave the trail, keep it within your vision. he further you move when you’re lost, the longer it will take someone to find you. Listen for clues of civilization, like traffic, horns, airports, etc. Take time to process all this information, and see if you can make an informed decision on where to go. If you’re not sure where to go, don’t go.


This is the hardest part. Waiting. If you’re completely lost, and have no real idea where  you are, especially with no map, just wait. This is particularly true if you are not comfortable and experienced with navigation. You should have let someone know where you where going before you left, and when you plan to be back. If they’re reliable, they’ll send people for you when you don’t return. If you have cell phone service, call for help. If not, try sending a text. Even if you have no bars of service a text can work its way out with almost no signal, and your phone can ping off of distant towers, sending your location to search crews.


If it’s getting dark, you should go ahead and plan to spend the night. Staying put is much safer than trying to navigate out in the dark. Your first concerns are, in order, water and shelter. Dehydration can pose an immediate danger, so you’ll want to find water if you are out. Normally, you wouldn’t dream of drinking from a stream unfiltered/treated, however, this is a different situation. Bacteria and viruses can take days or weeks to affect you. Dehydration can take hours.  If you have food, but no water, don’t eat. It will speed dehydration. Find a place out of the elements, avoid rain, wind, snow, etc. Don’t worry too much about food. Chances are you will be spotted within 24-48 hours, and  you’ll survive weeks without food. It’s better to go hungry than to eat something poisonous or toxic out of desperation. Put on brightly colored clothes, and get to a location where you can be easily seen. Scatter other brightly colored items in tree limbs or on rocks to enhance your chances of getting spotted. Anything you can do to catch someone’s attention will help. If possible, make a fire and camp out near a stream or water source.


Remember, the sun rises in the east, and sets to the west. If it’s late evening, put the sun to your left, and you will be facing north. If it’s morning, put the sun to your right, and you will be facing north.

Look for areas with dense vegetation, and in valleys for water sources. Rock can trap water for days after a rain. Dried out streams and riverbeds often have water hidden under the surface. Check low spots first.

If you’re off trail entirely, determining which way civilization is can be easier than you think. If you entered the wilderness from a road that runs only north to south for miles, and you entered the trail head walking west, it’s probably a good assumption that heading east will get you back to the road, eventually.

Stay on trails if at all possible. Trails always lead somewhere, and you’re chances of being spotted are infinitely higher on trial.

Any shiny surface, a cell phone screen, mirror, polished pop can, or emergency blanket can be used as a signal.

Use a whistle to attract the attention of hikers or rescuers within earshot. Many backpacks have whistles built into the chest strap, and you can attach your own.


2 thoughts on “What to do when you’re lost

  1. Excellent post! I’ve managed to stay “found” most of the time with a few exceptions. Panic most always seems to be the downfall of lost hikers/hunters/woodsmen, etc. Good call on reminding people to stop and calm down. I often remind people to “stay calm” regardless of the situation (usually concerning medical emergencies) as panic makes people really, really dumb. One thing I’ve been considering is a whistle. I’ve heard of people carrying them and using them to signal while lost or during emergencies but have never put much thought into it but think that it is probably a worthwhile investment.

    1. It’s so true. I’ve had several people get panicked when they even thought about being lost…and it’s terrible.
      The whistle is actually a fantastic idea. I take them for granted as I have them built into my chest strap buckles on my backpacks. I actually forget I have one.
      I’ve used it in the past to coordinate with large groups when some of them got off course. It really helped.

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