Because hiking generally takes place in vast wilderness areas, it is always possible to become lost. This is particularly true of those who venture off the beaten path, but it is even possible to become bewildered while staying on well-marked trails.
And while it can be very frightening to find yourself lost, it is entirely possible to resolve such problems. You simply need to make the best decisions for your circumstances. Below, we’ll discuss some of the most important things to consider when trying to formulate a plan to find your way home and review some of the techniques and strategies that will help.
The Primary Consideration: Should I Stay, or Should I Go?
The first thing you’ll need to decide upon discovering that you’ve lost your way is your general approach to the problem. Specifically, you’ll need to decide whether you want to stay put and wait for rescuers to find you, or if you want to try to make it back to civilization (or at least a familiar area) on your own.
Both approaches have merit, and you’ll have to weigh the details of your situation to decide which strategy is most appropriate.
Staying Put: Pros and Cons
The primary benefit of staying put is that you won’t make your situation any worse. You won’t wander for miles in the wrong direction, and you’ll reduce the chances that you’ll suffer an injury or get yourself into a tricky predicament. Staying put also means that it will be easier for rescuers to find you.
Staying put is undoubtedly the best strategy for children, the elderly and outdoor novices. Such hikers should always stay put and wait for help to find them.
But staying put is not a perfect strategy, either. Staying put all but guarantees that you’ll remain in the wilderness for a longer period of time than if you successfully find your own way out of the wilderness. It can also be a bit boring, as you’ll have little to do besides sit around and think. This can lead to considerable anxiety, which will compromise your decision-making and lead to panic.
Additionally, staying put is not a viable solution in all cases. For example, if rescuers are unlikely to find you in a reasonable length of time, or nobody knows your whereabouts, you may not have the time to wait for help.
Finding Your Way Out: Pros and Cons
Finding your own way out of the wilderness rather than staying put is sometimes risky, but it is the superior option in many cases. If you are successful, you’ll often find that rescuing yourself will get you out of harm’s way more quickly than staying put will. And, because it is wise to reduce the amount of time in which you are lost, this will generally improve your chances of survival.
You are the only one that knows your approximate location, so you’ll be better equipped to find your way back to the trail than rescuers who are leaving the trail and heading into the wilderness. The adrenaline pumping through your veins will also help fuel your travel, and be proactive will provide you with an outlet for your feelings of fear.
The primary risk of finding your own way is that you may make your situation much worse. If you head off in the wrong direction, you may increase the amount of time it will take to find your way back, and you’ll be forced to travel much farther than you would if you simply stay put. You’ll also make it harder for rescuers to find you if they are already looking.
Staying Put and Waiting for Help: Strategies for Success
Staying put essentially requires you to sit down and wait for rescuers to find you. However, there are a few things you’ll want to do to help improve your chances of being located.
➡️ Stop and Hug a Tree
Camp counselors and scout leaders often coach youngsters to “hug a tree” if they become lost. This ensures that the child will not exacerbate the situation or travel deeper into the wilderness. But this is also good advice for adults that become lost during hikes or camping trips.
You needn’t literally hug a tree; the important thing is that you stay in one place and make it easy for rescuers to find you. It is, however, a good idea to find a good landmark, such as a large tree, hillside clearing or rock formation, while waiting for help to arrive.
➡️ Signal Rescuers
While waiting on rescuers, you’ll want to do everything you can to make it easy for them to find you. The best way to do so will depend upon the way by which rescuers will be searching for you. For example, if rescuers will most likely be traveling on foot to find you, you’ll want to select a waiting location with sightlines in all directions. You may also want to break small tree branches in a circle around your location.
On the other hand, rescuers operating from a helicopter or plane are more likely to find you if you arrange rocks, sticks or other items in such a way that they can be easily seen from the air. For example, you may want to make a large SOS sign on the ground with rocks.
You can also start a fire if you have the tools to do so. Place some green leaves over the fire to help produce an abundance of smoke. This may help clue in rescuers to your location. Sound can also serve to alert rescuers of your location, so consider clapping, yelling or whistling regularly to help them find you.
➡️ Prepare for the Wait
Because you may be waiting for rescuers for a long period of time, you’ll want to spend a little time gathering supplies and preparing for a few days alone in the wilderness. Collect enough firewood for a day or two, and be sure to fill your water bottle if possible.
It is also important to construct a shelter to provide you with some protection from the elements. This shelter needn’t be elaborate, it simply needs to provide you with protection from the rain, wind and cold temperatures. Build a fire if you can to help keep yourself warm, and gather plenty of things to help insulate your shelter.
If you must contend with very low temperatures, it may be advisable to search your immediate area for a cave or similar sheltered location, just avoid traveling too far while searching – you don’t want to wander even further into the wilderness.
Finding Your Own Way Out: Strategies for Success
There are a variety of things you can do to help find your way back to a familiar location or help rescuers locate you. Different strategies and techniques will be better suited to some situations than others, so you’ll have to use your best judgment to select the most effective approach.
Below, you’ll find some of the most effective ways to respond if you find yourself lost in the wilderness.
➡️ Check Your Map
Ideally, you’d have a map with you anytime you find yourself lost in the forest. With a map, you’ll generally be able to determine where you are and, more importantly, where you should be. Just be sure to find a few easily recognized landmarks before you begin traveling so that you can orient your map and ensure that you travel in the right direction.
Because you may need your map to help you find your way back to your campsite, it is usually a good idea to mark the position of your campsite on the map once you arrive. It is usually wise to do this with a pencil so that you can erase it later, but a pen will work if you prefer.
➡️ Trust Your Compass
If you decide to make your own way back to civilization, you’ll need to be very careful to avoid walking in circles – a common occurrence for those traveling off trail. The best way to do so is by trusting your compass so that you maintain a consistent heading.
Also, because you’ll likely have a vague idea of the cardinal direction in which you should travel, a compass can help ensure you hike in the correct direction. This will also help you avoid walking in the wrong direction.
➡️ Use Your GPS
If you have a functioning GPS and take the proper precautions before you get lost, you’ll almost always be able to find your way back to safety or civilization. Many GPS units come with maps, which will help you identify local landmarks that can help you find your way back to safety. But even GPS units without maps will help you find your way.
In such cases, the most important thing to do is to mark your campsite, car or home base as a waypoint on your GPS. This way, you can retrace your steps and find your way back, even if no maps are available.
➡️ Follow the Water
In some cases, you may find yourself lost without any navigational tools to aid you. This can be a particularly daunting scenario, but there are a few things you can do to help find your way back to safety. One of the most helpful solutions is to follow a local river or creek.
Rivers and creeks will follow low ground as they snake through the wilderness. Eventually, they’ll usually reach a lake or the ocean, which will usually provide you with options for accessing help. Additionally, you’ll often encounter civilization or settlements, as humans often build homes and businesses near water.
If you are unable to find a nearby river or creek, just try walking downhill. By doing so, you’ll almost always reach water. It is also possible to find rivers by looking for tree-lined depressions snaking through low ground, as rivers and creeks generally support more vegetation than the surrounding area.
➡️ Climb to High Ground
If you don’t have a map or GPS unit to determine your position and the direction in which you should travel, you will need to find a way to get a bird’s eye view of the land. The best way to do so is by climbing to high ground. This way, you’ll be able to see the land and potentially identify a route to safety.
Although some hikers may consider climbing a tree to obtain a good look at the surrounding land, this is generally a bad idea. You won’t get a much better vantage point by climbing most trees, and you may fall and hurt yourself – potentially severely. Instead, just look for a large hill or mountain you can climb with relative ease.
➡️ Check Out Game Trails
Animals often wear trails through the underbrush during their daily activities, and these trails may provide you with a quick route to safety. Although game trails will rarely end up at a ranger station or similar location, they frequently cross roads or end at agricultural fields.
You’ll also be able to travel on game trails more quickly than you would most other forested locations, as the animals will have already knocked most vegetation out of the way. Just be sure to keep your wits about you when traveling game trails, and be prepared for encounters with animals.
It is also worth noting that game trails may lead you to important resources, such as water or nut-producing trees. Just be sure to mark your route whenever you come to a fork in the trail. This way, you’ll be able to retrace your steps, should the trail prove unhelpful.
➡️ Be Alert for Signs of Humans
While you are traveling, keep your eyes, ears and nose peeled for the signs of humans and civilization. Such signs can help confirm that you are walking in the right direction or signal you to alter your route.
Some of the most common signs of people include:
- Barking dogs
- Church bells
- Car horns
- Heavy machinery
- Expansive clearings
- Farm animals
- Trash or refuse
If you notice any of these signs, be sure to stop and look for additional clues. See if you can determine the direction in which footprints are heading or which direction human-generated noises are coming from.
Discovering that you are lost is often frightening, but if you remain calm and make good decisions, you’ll find a way to get through the situation. Obviously, you should always strive to avoid becoming lost in the first place, but this isn’t always possible. Accordingly, you’ll want to prepare for the possibility and prepare your mind to deal with such challenges. This will help you avoid panic and allow you to find your way home or help rescuers find you.