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Lost in the Woods While Hiking: How to Get Home Safe

Updated: Feb 28

Try to avoid it...


The adage “Failing to plan is to fail” is appropriate here, as it is in all aspects of outdoor recreation. The more variables you can eliminate, the better off you will be. This isn’t just about having the right gear, it also means thinking about different scenarios that may arise.

Having a mental “gameplan” for what you would do in a given situation will aid you greatly if that ever becomes reality. In your mind, think about what you would do if you find yourself on an unfamiliar path, or truly lost.


The US Forest Service teaches the acronym STOP, which stands for Stop, Think, Observe, Plan. We will discuss this further later because it is only effective if you truly understand each action. The first step to avoiding getting lost, or dealing with actually being lost, begins with knowledge and playing out hypothetical scenarios long before they ever become a possibility.


Plan for success on your next trip by planning out ahead of time.

"One thing you can do right now is concede to the fact that you will probably be lost in some capacity in your life of adventuring."

Map it out


The definition of lost is “being unable to find one’s way, or not knowing where you are.” Having a map is a great way to avoid being lost, and in today’s day and age, there are many options for maps, both physical and digital.


No matter the advances in technology, the classic paper map will likely never truly go out of business. They don’t need batteries, and are still updated and printed often by forest and park services. Maps from the internet can be downloaded and printed off, making for a quick and cheap guide.


If you use a paper map, make sure you know how to read it, the symbols and the distances. Ensure that there is a compass rose on it, and if not, research the area and add your own. That will be vital in pathfinding later on. Highlight the path you want to take, and make note of landmarks, forks, and other potential things that may help you see where you are. Pack these kinds of maps in a waterproof case and keep it handy for reference at a moment’s notice.


Along with a physical map, it is equally important to carry and know how to operate a compass. Maps may include landmarks which can make it easy to tell where you are, but a compass will ensure you are facing and heading the correct way.


In a world of amazing technological advances, hikers, backpackers, and outdoor enthusiasts have the ability to view maps of virtually anywhere in the world on their phones. A myriad of websites and apps allow you to download maps onto your device to use while “offline”. Even while miles away from cell service, you can access your guide and keep on track. The obvious downside to this is the reliance on batteries. If you have a solar-charging rig, you can feasibly rely on your tech, but it is still prudent to have a physical hard copy with you just in case.


Another example of technology aiding in direction finding is a GPS device or watch. Dedicated GPS units can use satellites to show you where you are going, and help you find your way back as well. Once again, the dependence on batteries can be problematic if you are out for many days at a time. GPS enabled watches can leave digital “breadcrumbs” in the way of coordinates, and can map out a rough trail of where you came from, which aids in navigation on your return trip. Because this method only “pings” the satellites every so often, it does not drain much battery, and can last a long while.


Let nature be your guide


Ages before there were digital maps, GPS devices, or even compasses, people navigated trails and paths using only what nature provided. Stones stacked on top of each other are typically called “cairns”, and are used for marking trails. When travelling, you can make finding your way back easier by making your own cairns. However, make sure to follow the “leave no trace” principals by deconstructing them when you pass by them on your return trip. Also, be careful of preexisting cairns that may have been made for artistic purposes rather than for wayfinding.


Landmarks are prominent and distinct features of the environment that are not likely to change appearance in major ways. Make note of landmarks on your trip and reference them to give yourself a vague idea of which way you are going, or where you came from. Seeing these landmarks can be reassuring while you trek, and can also help you find your way back to a path if you do indeed get lost.


Leave no trace


A major tenant of the leave no trace principal exhorts you to stay on premade trails. This prevents damage to the area you are in, and it will also keep you from becoming disoriented and lost. It may be tempting to leave the path for various reasons, but doing so will involve the risk of being unable to return to the trail.


Let there be light


One of the most likely times for you to get lost is during the night. If you are still travelling in the evening as it gets dark, you can easily lose track of where you are or where the path is. The ability to only see several feet in front of you will play havoc on your senses. Combat this danger by bringing a light of some sort. The most popular for backpackers and hikers is a headlamp, which allows free use of your hands. Not only should you pack a light, but bring spare batteries, as well as a back-up light.


Follow the sun


As elementary as it may be, the sun is a tool you can use to stay true to your course. It rises in the east and sets in the west. Use this knowledge, coupled with landmarks, to make sure you are travelling the correct direction. Is the sun at its apex in the middle of day? Grab a seat in some shade and enjoy a break and a snack.


Take note


As you travel along a path you may encounter a hiker’s nightmare; the fork in the road. The seemingly simple 50-50 choice can be a place of confusion, doubt, and wrong turns. Before starting you trip, make note of any forks or intersecting paths and write down which direction you should go.


On an “out and back” trip, if you come to a “y” in the trail, you can take a picture of it, and denote which way you went. Upon returning to this section, consult the photo and be on your merry, and correct way.


Once it happens...


One thing you can do right now is concede to the fact that you will probably be lost in some capacity in your life of adventuring. Even with the best planning, packing, and years of experience, you will likely be disoriented and feel hopelessly lost. It is the nature of being out in the wild, without roads and street signs, away from any signal that can relay google-maps’ turn by turn directions. That self-reliant excitement and possible danger is part of why you are out there in the first place!


Be a safe and effective traveler by planning for what to do WHEN you get lost; it may very well prove to be helpful! What follows are some basic items to bring and consider when conceding that you may find yourself in this situation one day. Some may seem a bit frivolous, but it is better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.


Pack for it


Bring at least one piece of clothing that is a bright color. In the event you are lost, or stuck somewhere off trail, it will make finding you a much easier task. It can also make you visible while traversing popular hunting grounds.


A whistle is another simple tool to bring that can help you be found if injured or stranded. They also can be used to communicate between hikers that get separated.


A flashlight or lamp, although mentioned before, is worth repeating in this section as well. The very act of becoming lost may happen in the daytime, but night could come sooner than expected, and a light will help you find your way, or be found.


Extra food and water is essential, the extra weight is worth the effort and is negligible during a day hike.


S.T.O.P.


The USFS teaches the acronym STOP to be used if you are lost. Here is a brief summary of each tip provided from their website.


Stop


As soon as you realize you may be lost: stop, stay calm, stay put. Panic is your greatest enemy.


Think


Go over in your mind how you got to where you are. What landmarks should you be able to see? Do not move at all until you have a specific reason to take a step.


Observe


Get out your compass and determine the directions based on where you are standing. Do not walk aimlessly.


If you are on a trail, stay on it. All trails are marked with signs (where intersections meet) and diamond blazers or marker. However, signs are sometimes vandalized or stolen.


Plan


Based on your thinking and observations, come up with some possible plans, think them through then act on one of them. If you are not very, very confident in the route, then it’s always better to stay put. If it’s nightfall, you are injured, or you are near exhaustion, stay in place.


Before beginning your trek into the wild, remember to plan for success. Have multiple maps available to guide your way, pack lights and snacks, then safely enjoy the trail before you. Happy hiking!




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