What to Do if You Get Lost in the Woods While Hiking

Staying warm

Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock

Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock

Pressing your body up against another human is a commonly cited method of staying warm. Some choose the classic spooning method while others, like 19-year-old Tommie Henricks and his companions, opt to do stuff like stick their toes in each other’s armpits — which they did when they were lost for two days in Cross Couloir, Colorado.

If you’ve got canine companions, they’ll keep you warm too, as they did for Annette Poitras when she got lost on Eagle Mountain in British Columbia. Chloe, her pet collie, and Bubba, her pug mix, took turns laying on top of Poitras to keep her warm.

Lacking a pet or another person, you can also do calisthenics in your sleeping bag, like Jorge Joachim did while he was lost for nine days in Jasper National Park, Alberta. Or find moss to pile on top of yourself as an unnamed lost hiker did in Bear Lake, Oregon.


What They Drank From

Natural body of water: 24 percentSnow, rain or puddles: 16 percentRationed their own water: 13 percent

Other sources of hydration that survivors listed included drinking urine, going without water or licking leaves, moss and grass.

10 Things to do if you Get Lost While Hiking

Source: app.pickit.com
Source: app.pickit.com

If you are wondering what to do if you get lost in the woods while hiking, you need to check out the following tips:

Getting lost in the wild is one of the scariest feelings in the world. Confusion, fear, and loneliness can overwhelm you and worsen the situation.

Therefore, the first thing that you need to do if you get lost while hiking is following the S.T.O.P rule.

The S.T.O.P rule tells hikers to stop, think, observe, and plan. Instead of letting fear and confusion overwhelm you, you need to stop for a moment. Give yourself the time to think, observe, and plan.

Read: 10 Amazing Places to Visit Before You Have Kids

The next thing that you need to do if you get lost while hiking is to stay calm. Do not panic as it will make you take wrong decisions. The trick is to calm your mind and give yourself time to think.

Instead of wandering here and there, sit in a comfortable place and have some water. If you are hungry, eat something to feel better. Once you feel physically better, your mind will be able to take better decisions.

The next thing that you need to do is check your map and review your surroundings. Take out the map from your bag and try to locate yourself. You will be able to understand the point where you are and where you ideally should be.

The map can help you go back safely to your campsi

The map can help you go back safely to your campsite. You should use a pen or pencil to mark the exact position of the campsite on your map when you begin hiking. If you find a few familiar landmarks, you can start traveling in the right direction.

When you get lost in the woods while hiking, you need to trust the compass. Using a compass will prevent you from walking in circles.

If you trust your compass while heading towards the campsite, you won’t get lost again. As you won’t have a proper idea of the cardinal directions, a compass will help you walk in the right direction.

One of the most important things that you need to do if you get lost while hiking is checking your resources. See how much water and food you have. Limit your water and food intake so that you do not deplete your stocks.

You don’t have to hunt for fruits or drink water from streams until you are left with no other choice.

Also See: Reasons Why Running in Cold Weather Is the Best

If you are unable to understand which direction you should follow, take out your cell phone and see if the network is available. If there is phone coverage, call the authorities and ask for help.

Put your phone on power saver mode so that the battery does not get exhausted soon.

If you feel you are in danger, use a whistle to communicate with the locals. This is one of the most important things that you need to remember if you get lost while hiking. Blowing a whistle is a better idea than yelling your lungs out.

Blow the whistle three times. It is a characteristic distress signal. Repeat it after every few minutes.

It is scary to get lost while hiking and scarier to be unable to find your way out. Therefore, look out for signs of human beings when you are traveling towards your destination.

Some common signs are smoke, car horns, church bells, farm animals, barking dogs, heavy machinery, trash, and footprints. If you notice any such signs, it will convince you that you are walking in the right direction.

Look for more clues if you spot any such sign. Try to determine the direction of the footprints.

If you want rescuers to find you out, you have to make yourself noticeable. If you get lost while hiking, you need to choose a place which can be spotted clearly from the air.

If you have a bright colored object or clothing item, take them out to provide visual cues to the rescuers.

See: 10 Best Places to Snorkel Around the World: Top Snorkeling Destinations

Spending the night alone is the biggest challenge of getting lost while hiking. During sundown, you need to find a safe spot where you can spend the night. Gather wood to light a fire.

Put on extra clothing to stay warm. Be alert and attentive. Do not set up camp near a river. The sound of running water will make it impossible for rescuers to hear you.

Image: app.pickit.com
Image: app.pickit.com

The Biggest Risks To You If You Get Lost

If you can’t determine your location, or navigate your way back to civilization, then you are best to STAY PUT and await rescue. While waiting for help to arrive, you should be aware of the biggest risks that you are likely to face and how to effectively handle them.


You can only survive three days without water. This timeframe, however, could be even shorter if you’re hiking in humid environments. 

On most trips, you’ll likely have brought H2O with you, but packing a water purifier such as the lifestraw could help save your life by allowing you to drink safely from wild water sources. Alternatively, if you have brought a stove or are adept at making fires, then boiling H2O from a stream will also make it safe to drink.

To save time and energy, if possible, set up your shelter by a stream or river. Although you might feel more hunger pains than symptoms of dehydration, you should always prioritize hydration over hunger.


Sadly, many hikers underestimate how easy it is to die from hypothermia. The onset of hypothermia is usually gradual, so you have to watch yourself carefully before the debilitating symptoms take hold of you.

Officially defined as a drop in body temperature below 95°F, hypothermia produces symptoms such as extreme shivering, weakened pulse, delirium, and poor balance. It’s far easier for you to contract hypothermia at night, especially if you’re in an area that’s damp.

If you feel your temperature dropping, remove any wet clothes you have on because these only increase your risk of developing hypothermia. Use your emergency blanket and light a fire nearby to provide external heat. You can also warm yourself internally by boiling H2O and drinking it slowly.

Heat Exhaustion

For people lost in hot environments, one of the main concerns is going to be heat-related problems like heat stroke. This problem, of course, goes hand-in-hand with dehydration.

Once again, you have to be in tune with your body and notice if you start to experience any sudden muscle cramps. Cramps are an early warning sign that you’re dehydrated. As these symptoms appear, try to find a shaded area and drink purified water.

Once you start to experience symptoms like nausea, clammy hands, of a fast pulse, you must lie down in the shade, sip a drink slowly, and sprinkle cool water all over your face and body.

Finally, to avoid sunburn and eye damage, a container of high-grade sunscreen and a pair of sunglasses are musts if you’re hiking in high temps or areas where you’ll be exposed to the sun.


While not as crucial as water, food is important for giving you the energy you need to create and maintain your shelter, or to hike out to safety. Take stock of the food you’ve brought with you and work out how to stretch out your supply for as long as possible.

The best way to reduce your need for food is to reserve your energy only for necessary tasks. With more energy in reserve, you’ll naturally require less food to survive.

As you probably already know, a case of the munchies can seriously impair your thinking. Whenever hunger cravings overwhelm your mind, just slow down, relax, and remember that humans can survive three weeks without food. After a few hours, your mind should become significantly less stressed.

Staying Safe While Lost In The Woods

When you realize you’re lost, the single most important thing that you should do is STOP.

Stop moving:

You have determined that you don’t know where you are. There is no point in moving in a random direction. The further you go, the more lost you will get.

The chances of moving in the right direction if you keep traveling are minuscule. You will probably just make it harder for rescuers to find you. If you are in a dangerous place right now, move until you can find somewhere safe to sit down, and then stop.

Think, think & think! Don’t Fret.


Take several deep breaths to clear your head. If you have some supplies on you, eat a little bit to bring your blood sugar back up, and drink a small amount of water. When you can think clearly, try to figure out where you are.

Few questions:

Can you remember what direction you were heading? Can you see any landmarks that make it easier for you to tell where to go next? If you notice something that jogs your memory and you are sure that you are correct, then start moving in that direction. If you’re not certain, then don’t move.

Again, if you keep moving you are making it harder for rescuers to track you down.


If you have a compass and a map you should use them to try to re-orient yourself. If you don’t have them, or you aren’t confident in your ability to really read them (which could be why you got lost in the first place), then spend some more time looking for landmarks.

Is there a river nearby that you could follow to try to get back to civilization?

Take a moment to think about your situation. Do you have any idea what time it is? Do you have long before it starts getting dark? What is the weather like? If you are with other people, how are they feeling? Are they able to move or do they need rest?


Your next steps will depend on the needs of the other people in your party, and how confident you are that you will be able to get back to a marked trail. If you think that you have an idea of where the trail is, then you can try to get back to it.

However, you should move carefully, and mark your train in some way. Break branches and stick them in the ground at regular intervals, or rip up an old garment from your pack and leave strips tied to branches.

Again. Do not move unless you are extremely confident that you are going the right way.

Your Priorities

Your priorities will differ depending on whether you are stuck alone or with a group, and the age of the group, as well as their health.

  1. If the weather is cold and wet, you will need to find shelter.
  2. If you don’t have water, you’ll need to find a source of clean, safe water.
  3. If someone in your group has a medical condition, then this could make getting rescued vital. Pool resources if necessary to support that person.
  4. If someone is injured, then basic triage and first aid is a must. Stop any bleeding, use a makeshift splint to support injured limbs.

Make a Plan

How you answered the questions above will determine what you do next.  You have three basic options: Try to find your way back, Signal for help, or Prepare for survival.

Option 1: Try to Find Your Way Back In most cases, it is probably best to just stay where you are until someone finds you.  But, if you are in a very secluded place and don’t think anyone will come by soon or you think you know where you are, then you can try to find your way back.

Ideally, you have a compass.  Pick a direction and use your compass to walk in a STRAIGHT LINE in that direction.  If you don’t have a compass, you can help yourself walk straight by choosing a close-by landmark (like a tree) straight ahead and walking to it.  Once you get to the landmark, choose a new landmark and walk towards it.

Make sure to leave a “bread crumb trail.”  For example, break some branches to mark your path.  There are two reasons for this.  The first one is that you will be able to find your way back to your starting point.  The second reason is because anyone looking for you will be able to follow your trail. 

Option 2: Try Signaling for Help When you go hiking in the woods, you should always have a whistle and matches with you (read this list of things to pack when hiking).

The international hiker’s whistle code is:

  • 1 blast = STOP
  • 2 blasts = Come to me
  • 3 blasts = Come to me quickly!

To use it when lost in the woods, blow your whistle three times.  Then wait and listen for voices.  If you don’t hear anyone, then blow three times again.  Repeat.

Use your matches to create a signal fire. You’ll want it to be on a high place.  And remember that 3 is the international signal for help, so you’ll want to make three signal fires.  Read this post about how to make a signal fire.

Option 3: Prepare for Survival Hopefully it won’t come to this, but you’ve got to be prepared to survive the night in the woods if you are lost. Before night sets (big emphasis on before), make sure you have everything you need for survival.

The three survival necessities are: Water, Shelter, and Warmth.

Water: You can go about 3 weeks without food, but only 3 days without water.  So water is going to be a big priority!  Hopefully you have some water in your pack.  If not, don’t panic – but also don’t start gulping down stream or river water.  It may look clean, but it could contain pathogens like giardia.  The last thing you want is to be lost in the woods and have diarrhea!   There are a few survival tricks for finding and filtering water in the woods – like making your own water filter out of charcoal, gravel, and leaves.

Shelter: When a New Zealand woman got lost in the woods overnight, so she buried herself in dirt and leaves to stay warm.  This tactic worked well for her, but wouldn’t have been so effective if it had rained.  Instead, it is better to make yourself a survival shelter.

It is actually fairly easy to make a survival shelter, even if you don’t have any gear.  In this photo below, you can see the skeleton of an A-frame debris shelter.  After putting up the skeleton, you put a lot of leafy branches on top.  The leaves will help trap warmth in the shelter and keep you dry.  Add some more leaves inside and it will even be comfy.

Staying Warm:
 Building a good survival shelter w

Staying Warm: Building a good survival shelter will help you stay warm.  But there are other considerations too.  First off, you need to make sure you stay dry.  If your clothes are wet, take them off and get them dry.  Make a fire if you can, and gather enough branches to keep the fire going all night.  Otherwise, you’ll want to conserve your energy by resting as much as you can.

Follow these rules when lost in the woods and you’ll be found quickly – and be found alive.


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