Woods & Mountains
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What to Do If You Get Lost While Hiking

Keep your head to get found, and learn how to hike smarter next time
By Mike McQuaide
Published: April 1, 2012
lost hiking
ADVENTURE CALLS – If you’re smart about heading into the unknown, you’ll improve your chances of getting back safely.
Maybe all you wanted to do was scramble up that forested hillside across the lake to see if there was a view from atop the ridge. So you headed off-trail, confident that if you just kept walking in one direction you’d soon be savoring a spectacular wide-open view. But a funny thing (that’s actually not so funny) happens.

The forest turns out to be more vast than you imagined, and the terrain changes: It climbs a bit, it dips a bit, it flattens out. Soon you realize you have no idea which direction you’re heading toward or – gulp – which direction you came from. In short, you’re lost. Now what? Just remember to STOP.


Take a deep breath. Sit down, relax and try to remain calm. Panic and anxiety will only cloud your thinking and lead to the burning of valuable resources, both mental and physical. Eat something, drink some, assess the situation. If you have a cell phone, contact someone for help; staying put will make it easier for them to find you. If not, or if you have no coverage …

Think. Where was the last place (or landmark) where you were certain of your location? Can you find it on your map (assuming you have one)? Is there any way that you can safely navigate back to that point? If not, stay put. The overwhelming likelihood is that someone will come looking for you, especially if you’ve left a hiking plan with someone (see below), so don’t waste energy and make it more difficult for searchers by continuing to move around.

Observe. Observe your surroundings. Again, does anything look familiar? Begin marking your staying-put spot with markers – a pile of rocks, a piece of clothing tied to a tree limb – anything that’s visible from a distance.

If you’ve lost your sense of direction, observe the sky: Remember that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. If it’s night, look for the North Star. Tip: To locate the North Star, find the Big Dipper and note the two stars that form the outer edge (the side opposite the handle). Using those stars, trace an imaginary line to the star at the end of the handle on the Little Dipper. That’s the North Star.

Knowing your area’s prevailing wind direction can help you determine where north, south, east and west are, too.

Legend has it that moss grows only on the north side of tree trunks, but in many forests moss grows on all sides of trees, so don’t rely on that one.

Plan. Make plans for how best to proceed. Gather wood to make a fire, not only for warmth and protection but also to help potential rescuers find you: The smoke will signal your location during the day, the flame at night. Plan where to spend the night if you need to – in a cave (if there’s one nearby), or under something constructed out of branches, brush, a fallen log or the like. Plan to search for a water supply, too.

Most importantly, if you find yourself lost, don’t lose your head. Keep busy with the above; it will keep fear, boredom and – if you’re by yourself – loneliness at bay, all of which can cause one to lose hope. Don’t overexert yourself, however. If your food is limited, it’s important to conserve your energy.
lost hiking compass
Now, how do you keep from getting lost in the first place? (Or, if you do, make it easy for searchers to find you?)

Do your homework on where you’ll be hiking. Scour your favorite outdoor store for maps and guidebooks, and the Internet for the most up-to-date information on trail and road conditions.

More than likely, the particular land manager’s website (e.g., state forest, national park, etc.) will have links to current conditions. Do an online search for local hiking clubs, too, many of whose websites boast forums that feature trip reports. Look for the most recent ones. It’s a great way to learn what to expect on a trail or area you’ve never been to before. Check the weather for the day of your hike, too.

Carry the 10 essentials, now often referred to as the “10 essential systems”: navigation, sun protection, insulation, illumination, first-aid, fire, repair kit and tools, nutrition, hydration, emergency shelter. Be sure you know how to use them all, especially a map and compass for navigation. While GPS units are extremely useful, they shouldn’t be relied upon, because their batteries can run out; also, it’s not always possible to get a signal.

Finally, while the following won’t keep you from getting lost, it will aid tremendously in helping searchers find you should you become lost: Before you leave home, always give someone a detailed copy of your trip plan. “Detailed” being the operative word. Not just where you’re going but your time of departure, the names and phone numbers of all group members, any relevant medical conditions, your vehicle’s model and license plate number, your anticipated route (both driving and hiking), and your expected return time. Leave a copy in your vehicle at the trailhead, too.

Spend enough time exploring the great outdoors, and chances are you’re going to get lost sometime. But follow the above tips, and chances are you won’t be lost for long.

Mike McQuaide is a freelance writer and guidebook author who lives in Bellingham, Wash. He can say with certainty that he has never been lost. (Though he admits to several experiences in which he had no
idea where he was.)
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