Imagine this: You’re hiking in the woods and suddenly, you can’t find your way back. You spent hours looking for a trail marker or a landmark that you passed but found nothing. The sun is going down and it’s getting dark. You’re lost in the woods.
What do you do?
Chances are, if this happened to most hikers, they would panic. This is when things start to get really dangerous for them because their body starts shutting down as the adrenaline slows down.
But you can survive if you get lost in the woods. Up next, we discuss five tips that can help keep your cool if you get lost in the wilderness.
1. Stay Calm
Panicking will only make things worse for you because it can cloud your judgment and sap your energy. It’s important to keep a clear head if you want to be able to find help or get home safely.
The reality is that, once you’re truly lost, there’s no need to rush. Doing something now or five minutes from now won’t have a major impact on your situation.
So instead of rushing and getting yourself flustered, stop, sit down, and take a deep breath. Assess your surroundings to see if you can find any good places to spend the night or to see if there are any obvious signs of human travel, like footprints and sawed-off branches.
Put on a warm jacket, get out of the direct sunlight, and take a sip of water. Keeping your emotions in check now will help you make better decisions as you work to find your way toward home.
2. Decide If You Should Stay or Go
Next, try to determine whether or not you should move toward safety or stay in the same place.
If you’re in immediate danger, if it’s getting dark and you are exhausted, or there is a storm approaching that will make the night unbearable, then moving toward safety might be your best bet.
Alternatively, if you can stay put for the night, search and rescue teams might have a better chance of finding you. This is particularly true if you’re near water, a clearing, or another major landform that would be an obvious place for rescuers to look.
Of course, sitting around and waiting for someone to find you can be an anxiety-filled experience. But if you’re not confident in your own navigation skills, or if it’s getting dark, it might be best to stay put for the night and wait for daybreak before you make your next move.
3. Find Shelter From the Elements
If you are going to set up camp for the night, then your first priority should be finding shelter from both wind and rain.
Ideally, you would have an emergency shelter, tent, or bivy sack with you at all times while hiking (shelter is one of the hiking 10 essentials!). However, if this isn’t the case, you’ll need to make a shelter using the resources you have around you.
If you are near a natural cave, then that can be an ideal spot. If there is nothing like that around, then try to find the closest thing and use branches or rocks to block off any openings to help insulate you from the cold. You could also collect leaves or grasses as bedding for your shelter because they are great insulators and can help keep you warm.
This is also an appropriate time to make a fire because it can be used for heat, signaling purposes, cooking food (if you have any), and keeping animals away from your campsite.
It’s important that the first thing you do before night falls is get yourself out of the elements so you can rest and recover your energy for the next day.
4. Inventory Your Gear & Supplies
Whether you decide to stay the night or move toward your next camping location, you’ll want to take a quick inventory of your gear and supplies. Doing so will give you an idea of what resources might be available to you while you wait for help or while you self-rescue.
In particular, you want to check whether you have enough food and water on hand. If you don’t have enough water, it may be worth searching for a stream or lake near your current location. However, don’t get yourself even more lost in the process.
As far as food goes, your foraging options really depend on where you are and what time of year you’re going hiking. During the mid- to late-summer, many places have wild berries and fruits that can make for a great snack while you wait for help to come.
But, take caution while you forage, especially if you’re not familiar with the edible plants in your area. When in doubt, take a conservative approach to foraging, even when you’re lost. Making yourself sick certainly won’t help your situation.
5. Make a Plan & Stay Found
Getting lost in the woods is scary business, but staying calm and making a plan can go a long way toward helping you get found.
If you’ve decided to get up and move toward safety, be sure to create a solid action plan before you start walking. Decide what direction you’re going to walk in, what terrain features you’re looking for, and how far you’ll walk before you stop for the night. This will prevent you from getting yourself into a worse situation than you’re already in.
Alternatively, if you’re going to stay put, make a plan about what you’re going to do to survive the night and what your action steps are the following morning. Where will you sleep? What will you eat and drink? Are you going to stay where you are after sunrise? Do you have a cell phone or a satellite messenger like a Garmin InReach that you can use to call for help?
Taking the time to think through these questions will help you make better decisions while you’re lost in the woods. Otherwise, you might find that your decision-making is guided more by emotion than logic, which could stymie your efforts to get home.