Lost in the Woods? A Guide to Get Back on the Trail

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You are walking down a trail. The woods are quite stunning. They rise and fall like the waves on the ocean, but they look a bit different. Uh oh! It looks like you are in an unfamiliar area! You are lost in the woods. Every year in the United States, 2,000 or so people get lost outdoors. Many of them return to civilization, but a fair amount do not.

If you are going to be one of those who makes it home, then it is important to know this guide, so you can make it to your friends and family safely.

The Top 5 Tips When You are Lost

If you are looking to get a basic overview of everything you need to know, then these 5 tips will be sure to help you. I skim articles too so I understand, but the rest of the article will go into more depth.

  1. Let someone know your plans. It is fun to go hiking on a whim’s notice. Sometimes I do that too. Just let someone know you are going on a hike and where you will be going. It will take less than five minutes. It is the number one thing you should do to stay safe. When you tell your plans to someone you care about, then you know they will do the right thing if you are not back in time.
  2. Wear proper clothing and bring supplies with you. In a previous article, I wrote about Hiking Basics and the gear you will need to carry with you. In general, you want water, a rain jacket, backpack, multi tool, hat, whistle, compass, flash light, topographical map, and proper footwear. That article will explain everything in greater detail.
  3. Stop, sit, and think. It can be quite frightening to find out you are lost, so there is a tendency to rush off in one direction or another. Sit down and slow down. You do not want to get yourself deeper into trouble. Take a bit of time to calm down and make a plan of action. What would Bear Grylls do to get out of this situation?
  4. Make observations of the area. Listen for sounds. Is that the noise of a car engine? Look for worn paths. Maybe someone took that way before. That tree you see looks familiar. If you see something familiar, then you can help yourself get back home. Even when you are starting on your hike, it helps to take note of major landmarks.
  5. Learn how to navigate. If you want to save yourself, then it helps to be able to navigate terrain. This can be as rudimentary as a map and compass or something more complex like a portable GPS.

Important Skills You Should Know

When hiking by yourself or with others, the best person to save yourself is you. As such, if you know these skills listed below, then you are a lot more likely to be found.

Navigation Tools, a Way out of the Forest

Many people get lost because they do not trust their compass. It is a time tested tool. You can rely on it though. In combination with a proper topographical map, you can create and follow a path to lead you out of the forest. If you want to learn how to use a pair, then check out some classes at your local REI or search up a YouTube video.

If you do not want to deal with a map and compass, get a GPS and bring extra batteries. Extra batteries will save you if you leave it on and the battery drains out. Set a way point where you started. If you get lost, then a GPS will take you back home in no time flat.

Know how Search and Rescue Works

If you do get lost, it is essential to understand the thinking behind professional rescuers. Firstly, there is only so far a person can travel in a given day. They will not transverse 30 miles if they do not think you can do it. The sooner you are reported lost, the smaller the search area. The later you are reported lost, then the larger the search area.

Secondly, there is no time threshold for calling in a search and rescue team. If you are late home, then you are seen as an overdue hiker. It happens all the time. Law enforcement likes to give about 24 hours of missing time before sending in search and rescue, so time is of the essence.

Thirdly, every search and rescue is situational. They plan out their operation based on what they know. When you are aware of your own situation, you can plan out your actions to increase the liklihood of you being found.

Learn how to Make a Quick Campfire

If you get caught overnight, the temperature can drop like a rock. A campfire will help you keep your core warm. Consequently, be sure to bring waterproof matches or, at the very least, a lighter with you. There will be plenty of materials to burn as needed when out there. Remember that dry wood burns best.

Learn how to Create or Find Shelter

Personally, I always carry an emergency tent when I go hiking. It sets up in less than a few minutes and is inexpensive. If you find yourself without one though, then you will need to either find or make shelter. Your best bet will be to make some shelter. You do not want to wander too far.

Accidents to Worry About

When lost in the woods, there are three big accidents to worry about. If you are stuck overnight, then you have to worry about staying warm. When it comes to water, you have to find some, disinfect it, and conserve all you can. If you are not careful, you can break a leg. Avoiding all these fates could mean the difference between coming home or not at all.

Hypothermia

If you fall into the water, stay out in the cold for too long, or sleep on the cold ground, then your core temperature can drop like a rock. To stay warm, keep your torso warm as much as possible and cover the top of your head. Both those parts of your body are the key places to keep you warm. Your head is a major point of heat escape.

If you have extra room in your backpack, then it will help to have some emergency hand warmers. They may seem like a frivolous purchase, but you will be sure to thank your future self. When your hands are cold, warm fingers feel like quite the luxury.


Dehydration

Your body can only go three days without water. If there is one thing that is key to your survival, it is water. Without it, you will shut down. In response to this issue, be sure to bring plenty of water and a means for disinfecting water like a filtration system, iodine tablets, or a boiler. If you forget a disinfectant, then you can use your clothes as a filter. It does not work as well as one of those listed above, but your t-shirt will work best when you have nothing else.

Injury

Injuries are quite commonplace when out in the wild. When I run on trails, I have to watch where I place my next step or else I could sprain my ankle. The same could happen to you too, so be sure to take care when you hike. It could be the start of how you get lost. You also put yourself at increased risk of dehydration of hypothermia when it happens.

Become Obvious

When you are lost, you become unlost as soon as people find you. For them, it’s a game of “Where’s Waldo?” The good news, though, is that you can boost the game in your favor by being loud and knowing hand gestures.

Bring the Noise!

People are only going to find you if they can hear you, so make plenty of noise. When hiking, be sure to bring a whistle; 3 whistle blows is the universal noise for a call to help. If you forgot a whistle, then use your voice. Scream, shout, and do all you can to get the attention of others.

Know the Double Wave Arm Gesture

I read a story about a man who got lost in Alaska and was seen by a plane. He ended up dying out there because he only used the one hand wave on the plane, indicating that he was alright. If you see someone, do a double arm wave above your head. It lets people know you need help.

Final Thoughts

The woods can be quite the scary place if you are lost in them. It feels like everything is closing in around you and your world is spinning. Now though, you are prepared. When it feels like you are in the wrong place, you know what to do so you can get back on the trail and be homeward-bound.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or think I missed anything, do not hesitate to comment below and please do share this article. Thank you so much and I hope you make it a great day!

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14 Comments on “Lost in the Woods? A Guide to Get Back on the Trail”

  1. Alex, I have decided that I really need to go hiking with you. You bring out such great outdoor information and in an easy to read format.

    I have all kinds of lists and gear and I know most of the things you bring up but you make me scratch my head from time to time and wonder how I forgot that one thing.

    Thank you for sharing this and it really is a great source that more people should pay attention to as this could save their life or limit problems that could occur in the wild.

    1. I appreciate the compliments Rick. It means a lot to me.

      When packing for a trip, it is not uncommon to forget something. I do it from time to time. Lists make remembering items a lot easier.

      Thank you so much for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  2. That was a great article. You can really tell that you know what you are talking about. I always thought you were supposed to stay put and wait for rescue. I can now see it is much smarter to go prepared than to get caught stranded and not know which way to go.
    Thank you.

    1. Yes Deborah, there is more to getting unlost than most realize. You definitely need to be prepared.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  3. Getting lost in the woods isn’t fun! Getting lost period isn’t fun, though. I’m really surprised that 2,000 people get lost in the woods each year.

    I know it sounds a little weird but what about using the GPS on your cell phone? Wouldn’t this help you from getting lost in the woods? I mean if you’re getting really lost you could always pick up the phone and call someone and report that you are lost. I believe they would be able to ping your cell phone and locate you.

    That’s a good idea to bring extra batteries for your GPS. Something a lot of people usually don’t think of.

    However, what about wild animals and such. Is there anything you can do to safeguard yourself so you don’t get attacked by wild animals?

    1. Hello Garen,

      You are quite right that getting lost is not fun! People, though, get lost each year. They think they are on the right path, but then it happens and they are surprised.

      Yes, you can use the GPS on your cell phone, but there is one key issue with that. The cell reception may be nonexistent. Plenty of trails take you far away from cell phone towers. If you can use your cell phone, then by all means use it. Your phone can help you.

      If you are bringing a GPS, extra batteries are crucial. Many people forget them.

      When it comes to wild animals, check out this article I wrote on wild animal safety tips. You will find it answers all your concerns. Wild animals are definitely something you should be prepared for when outdoors.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  4. Hi Alex, when it comes to letting people know where you are, are there any apps available that do that, or other technology solutions that you know of?

    You provide some excellent tips here. For someone like me who has absolutely no idea when it comes to a compass, a GPS is a must. Do you have a preferred model of GPS that you use?

    Thanks for your practical tips here.

    1. Hello Melissa,

      Unfortunately, apps are not really an option. They rely on a cell phone signal to let people know where you are. Otherwise, a satellite phone and GPS will be our best bet. The former tends to expensive, but they work like a charm. For most people though, a GPS will be all they need.

      I appreciate your question on GPSs. If I had to go with one, it would be a Garmin GPS. Check out this review I did of their GPSs. They are all quite good. I hope this helps you.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  5. Really impressed with this guide Alex. I feel like you should make this a PDF for people to download and keep. Or better yet maybe an App with other useful information as well.

    I know how someone could get disoriented with where they are, but with a calm mind all is not lost. It does help yes if other people know that you are hiking and when you should be back, who you are going with, etc.

    I did wonder though whether there is an GPS app that you can download or would a special GPS device be better?

    1. Wow Owain, that is quite the compliment about making this a PDF or as a downloadable app. I appreciate it a lot.

      You are right that many people do get disoriented where they are. Remaining calm is key.

      When it comes to choosing between a GPS or an app, your best bet will be the GPS. They are more durable and designed to be used in the outdoors. You can expect them to be of a high quality whereas your phone is much more fragile when hiking. I hope this helps you.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  6. Thanks for this important information. Getting lost is one of my biggest fears as I have NO sense of direction at all. I especially appreciate the hand signals section – I did not know that it matters how you wave at an aircraft when lost.

    1. It is good to know you found this information helpful Kathee. It can be quite scary to get lost. The hand signal point is important. The distinction matters a lot. It could mean the difference between making it out alive or not at all.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

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