How People Get Lost in the Woods and What to Do if It Happens to You

Why Do We Get Lost?

If you’ve never been lost in a national park or woods before, then you might snigger at the thought of someone losing their way.

 It’s easy to think “how silly do you need to be to get lost?” but the truth is that it happens to everyone, even people with a good sense of direction. 

How many times have you, honestly, taken a wrong turn in a familiar city?

Woodland is different to built-up areas. We are all blessed with a good internal compass. The problem with woodland is that it is dense, it all looks quite similar to those who aren’t familiar with it, and there aren’t many obvious landmarks to allow us to orient ourselves.

That’s why national parks have clearly signposted trails, and why we’re supposed to stay near to them. That’s why it’s so important that when you’re going off the beaten path you have a compass, and you identify clear landmarks (a peak, a river, or something similar) that you can use to keep yourself on the right track.

Sometimes things go wrong.

Perhaps you headed off the pathways to pitch a tent, and then you’ve woken up and panicked, because “everything looked so different when it was getting dark”. You thought you knew where you were going, and you walked for a while only to realize you were wrong. Now you have no idea where you are.

What Next?

Caution for Hikers:

When you’re out hiking, try not to leave marked pathways. If you do decide to go ‘up a hill to take an awesome photo’, mark your route so you can find your way back down. Always try to stay within sight of your party, and keep checking your map to make sure that you really do know where you are.

Be honest about your fitness level and the level of others in the group, and don’t be shy about asking for help if you’re struggling and see others on the trail.

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How To Survive While You Await Rescue

Now that you know the greatest risks to your safety, it’s time to learn how to keep yourself going while waiting on help while out in the wild. In this section, we’ll explore some of the best safety equipment and a few tips on how to remain calm, conserve your energy, and call for help.

Always Bring The 10 Essentials

Surviving when you do get lost involves a little preparation. Always, always make sure you have the backpacking 10 essentials with you when you go out hiking or backpacking:

  • Water purifier
  • Extra food and bottled water
  • Fire starter (matches/lighter)
  • First Aid Kit
  • Emergency shelter (e.g. a tarp or bivvy)
  • Extra Insulation (emergency blanket or extra clothes)
  • Flashlight/Headlamp
  • Navigation tools (e.g. compass, personal location beacon, maps)
  • Sun Protection
  • Repair kit & Tools (duct tape and multi-tool are a great combo)

Stay Calm

The realization that you’re lost can come as a great shock to your psyche. That’s why the STOP protocol gives precedence to remaining calm. Giving yourself a heart attack in the wild certainly won’t help your chances of survival!

You need a cool head now more than ever. If you’ve never practiced meditation before, now is as good a time as any to begin. Sit down and notice your in-breath and out-breath for 15 to 30 minutes. It takes about 30 mins or so for adrenaline to be broken down in your body. Allowing yourself this time to calm down will allow you to think much more clearly again.

Once your mind is calm, you can assess your situation with more objectivity. You’ll also notice that your imagination doesn’t run off to “worst case scenarios.”

Find Water

If you have made the decision to wait out and be rescued then the first priority is locating a reliable water source nearby without wandering too far off.

If you can’t find a stream or lake, consider hanging out a tarp to collect rainwater. While quite intensive, you can also use a piece of clothing to collect morning dew off plants and trees and wring the H2O out into a suitable container.

Can you drink your own urine?Everyone has seen the survival experts on TV who claim that you can drink your own urine to stave off dehydration. This is true, but only up to a certain point. If you’re generally well hydrated, then the waste content of your urine will be relatively low. However, if you’re only surviving on your urine, then you’ll obviously pass more waste than clean water when you pee. Drinking the toxins in your urine could wreak havoc on your kidneys. For this reason, drinking urine isn’t recommended as a survival strategy. It’s a far better idea to come prepared with a water purifier. This way, you can turn stream water into clean H20 and, of course, avoid drinking your own pee.

Make A Shelter

In order to effectively ward off hypothermia, you need to create a reliable source of fire and find a good shelter. Besides a cave (uninhabited, of course), the best shelter for a cold night in the woods is a tent. If you don’t have a tent and can’t find a safe cave, then try to set up camp near fallen trees or by rock outcroppings.

Anyone who doesn’t have an emergency tent with them can build a makeshift tent out of other materials like a tarp or a poncho. You’ll need to tie a rope or place a branch between two nearby trees before draping your tarp over. For extra support, place heavy rocks on the ground on the tarp’s corners.

Alternatively, with some natural resources such as fallen logs, branches and ferns you could also build your own bivouac to keep you dry and warm.

Energy Conservation

While it’s important to find and build a shelter, many hikers don’t realize that it’s equally important to rest. Far too many people trapped in the wild unnecessarily burn themselves out.

Don’t walk around aimlessly for hours on end. Always think through your strategy before wasting your energy. You really need to watch how much energy you exert if you don’t have a huge food supply.

When you need a break, then sit back, drink some water, eat something, get in your sleeping bag, and rest. Some hikers find it’s better to take catnaps throughout the day instead of sleeping all through the night. This is especially the case if you have trouble falling asleep in the woods after dusk.

Signal To Rescuers

This may be stating the obvious, but make sure you are ready to signal potential rescuers. This could take many forms, such as blowing a whistle (which I hope you have in your pack), flashing a mirror (or shiny metallic object) or even spelling “help” on the ground in an open area.

If lost in the mountains, you should use the appropriate signals to alert mountain rescue plane or helicopter teams.

How They Stayed Warm

Clothes: 12 percentBuilt fires: 10 percentUsed camping gear: 10 percent

Other methods of keeping warm mentioned included using body heat of fellow lostees and dogs, hikers covering themselves, exercise and digging in.

Assess the Situation

Now that you’ve stopped walking and acknowledged that you are lost, you can assess the situation.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you still on a trail?
  • What are the chances that someone else will come by, such as if you are in a popular hiking area?
  • What supplies do you have with you?
  • Can you recognize any landmarks, like a mountain ridge?
  • Does anyone know that you are hiking and is expecting you back? How long will it take before they realize that I am lost in the woods?
  • Is it almost night? What are the weather conditions?
  • How prepared am I for survival?

Hiking Advice From an Expert

The site also asked Andrew Herrington, a survival instructor, search and rescue team leader, and Wildlife Ranger in the Smokies, for his expertise on avoiding this nightmare in the first place. Here is what he recommends.

Be Prepared

• Carry the Ten Essentials• Leave a trip plan and check in time with two trusted people• Study your maps and identify a “bailout” direction in the area you’re exploring• Check the weather forecast (including overnight in case you’re forced to stay out)• Always use high quality clothing: Merino or synthetic base layers, mid layers, synthetic or dri-down puffy jackets and Gore-Tex shells• Practice lightweight tarp shelter building at home• Print off free maps at sartopo.com• Download a backup GPS app, like Avenza• Practice fire making and carry the gear (including petroleum jelly soaked cotton balls and fatwood sticks)• Look into Personal Locator Beacons and Satellite Messengers for cutting edge signaling options

Avoid Getting Lost

• Identify features on the ground and find them on the map as you go• If you’re off-trail, work out how to reach a linear trail, road or creek• If you’re unsure of your location, start breaking branches in the direction you’re traveling, or skin a 6 inch cut on a sapling with your knife. The inner bark shows white and is easy to follow

Stay Warm

• Avoid sweating into your clothes in cold weather• Stay cool when you’re active and warm at rest• Monitor for hypothermia signals in the group• Warm up with sugary foods, exercise, or a big fire

Create a Shelter

• Use your tarp, puffy jacket and quilt to create a warm cozy shelter• Keep a 55 gallon trash bag in your pocket in case you’re separated from your pack• If you have no other option, build a lean-to shelter (framework of sticks, covered with leaf litter, evergreen branches, or bark – whichever is most available) and heat it with a 6 foot long fire• Build a bed out of leaves, grass, or pine needles, at least 8 inches thick

Prevent Dehydration

• Use a lightweight filter, Chlorine dioxide tablets, or a steel canteen to boil and purify water• In the worst case scenario, just drink the water – statistically in the US, you will be rescued within 24 hours – death from dehydration is a bigger risk than infection

Carry High-Calorie Snacks

• Pack high calorie foods like almond butter and coconut oil packs• If you have no food, don’t try to hunt, trap, or forage – it just exposes you to potential injury• Instead, fast: the average person has over 30 days of calories to survive on• Prioritize building a camp, staying warm, and hydrated

Move or Stay Put?

• If you left a trip plan and someone knows you are missing, or if you’re stranded in a vehicle or on a trail, old road, or creek – stay where you are• Consider “self-rescue” if you didn’t tell anybody where you were going, and have no way to signal• Navigate to an open area, high ground for cell signal, or your “bailout” direction, leaving a trail as you go

How to Get Rescued

• Use brightly colored tarps and clothing• Call 911 on your cell phone, even if you don’t have service. By law, any tower that you can connect with will transmit that call• Use signal mirrors or three blasts on your whistle to attract attention• Add green plants to your fire to create a smoke signal• Movement and contrast are the key to being seen if you hear a rescue plane or helicopter

And I always thought the secret was leaving a trail of breadcrumbs … you really do learn something new everyday. For more, you can see all the research, and some personal accounts of being lost, at smokymountains.com.

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