What To Do When You’re Lost In The Woods

It’s happened to me on more than just a few occasions.  I’ve been hiking along a well-marked trail just enjoying my time in the woods when I suddenly notice that I haven’t seen a blaze in awhile.  Dang.  I’m not on the trail.  At some point I’ve wandered off and now I’m lost.  LOST!

It’s pretty easy to do, and it happens to most of us. I have a feeling that a number of hikers reading this blog have their own “lost” stories (fee free to share them below!  I’d love to read them.)

Years ago I had a conversation with a thru-hiker on the AT about this topic.  He laughed and told me that he finds himself off the trail nearly everyday!  That made me feel a little better.  If a seasoned hiker like that guy wanders off of the trail, how much easier might a guy like me do the same?  However, when you discover that you’re lost in the woods, it does little good to realize that you’re not alone – because the truth is – YOU ARE ALONE!

The first piece of advice that I have to offer is in the way of preventative care.  By taking a few prophylactic measures you will GREATLY reduce your chances of getting lost, or at least insure a speedier return to the trail in case you do.

  1. Take a map.  Maps are worth their weight in gold if you need one.  If you don’t have one for the area, then print one from Google earth before you leave.
  2. Download a map of the area from Google maps onto your mobile device.  Google allows you to store offline maps in case you have no network connection.
  3. Learn how to mark your location on a mobile device’s map.
  4. Mark your starting point on your offline map so that you can return if you have to.
  5. Always let someone know where you are going and when they should hear from you (extremely important!)
  6. Take a moment to reorient yourself.  Practice doing this whenever you stop for a drink, snack, or take in a view.  Or – and this my favorite trick – every time you pass gas ask yourself if you know where you are.  For some crazy reason this really works.

But, what if you haven’t taken these measures and find yourself lost in the woods?  What should you do?

  1. Do NOT panic.  Panic will NOT help you.  It clouds your thinking and generally drives you in the wrong direction.  Sit down, take a drink, and get a snack.  Calm yourself down before making any decision.  Take stock of what you have.
  2. If you’re on a blazed trail look behind you for markings.  Carefully retrace a few steps while looking for blazes that you might have missed. Perhaps you’re still on the trail.
  3. Begin recalling anything that caught your attention, like trees, rock formations, or anything that stuck out.
  4. When we’re you last sure of where you were?
  5. Make a plan only after you are calm.
  6. If you have a mobile device with network connection immediately mark your current location and examine your surroundings.  If you have connection consider calling for help.
  7. Stop and listen for sounds of traffic or indicators of the presence of others.
  8. If you are going to retrace your steps, do it very, very slowly.  Keep an eye on your surroundings in case you have to return.
  9. Stop for the night. Do not attempt to find your way out in darkness.
  10. Build a signal fire if you think others may be looking for you.

There’s no single trick to getting out of the woods when you’re lost.  However, by remaining calm and taking charge of your senses you will increase your chances.





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