What to Do if You Get Lost While Hiking | Return Home Safely

Nature is a beautiful gift that can change from heaven to hell in no time. Trees and mountains can quickly look the same, fooling you and getting you lost.

So it’s a good thing that you’re reading this article because this knowledge can save your life or at least make your experience less traumatic.

How do people get lost while hiking?

Every year about 2,000 people get lost while hiking, and knowing how these people lost their way can be very helpful. It tells you what to avoid and what you should pay attention to. SmokyMountains used 100 news reports to make statistics of how people get lost while hiking, check it out:

A graphic of SmokyMountains's study.

As you can see, most of them are just bad luck. However, wandering off trail is not, and this is the major cause of getting lost! So if you decide to stray off trail, keep these tips in mind:

  • Mark your path by taping trail tape to the trees. Don’t forget to remove it when you don’t need it anymore!
  • Don’t wander off while high on drugs or alcohol.
  • Don’t walk around like a zombie, pay attention to your surroundings and try to remember distinctive objects such as strange-looking trees or large rocks. Also, look back once in a while so you know what the return route looks like.
  • The moment you’re lost, backtrack your steps.

This study also shows that you should pay extra attention to bad weather, not falling off trail, staying close to your group and getting back before dark.

Why day hikers are more vulnerable than backpackers

Andrew Herrington, a survival instructor who works in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, claims that 90% of the people who need to be rescued are day hikers.

So why is that?

It’s quite simple. Day hikers are often not carrying the essentials. Backpackers on the other hand, have everything they need: a tent, extra clothes, fire and lots of food and water. 

So suppose that you wandered off trail and suddenly got lost. What should you do then? Do you have to look for a shelter or make one yourself? Look for food or water? Keep moving or stay put? 

a stream in a forest

What to do if you’re lost while hiking

The art is to wait for rescue without worsening your situation. SmokyMountains’s study shows that 77 percent got rescued while only 23 percent found their way out. Therefore, you should only move if you have a good reason:

  • Nobody’s coming for you. If you didn’t share your route or expected return date with your family, nobody’s coming to rescue you. You’re on your own and finding a way out is your best chance.
  • You’re in a dense forest and a helicopter won’t notice you. In this case, you should relocate to an area where a chopper could see you. 

Make sure you have something to draw attention from the chopper, like a mirror or colored clothing. Wave your arms because this will make it much easier for the pilot to notice you. If you have a campfire going on, you can throw on some green plants to make a lot of smoke.

a lot of smoke

Whatever you do, follow the STOP-principle

The STOP-principle is something that all lost hikers should follow:

  • Stay calm – panic is your worst enemy in a situation where you need to think clearly. It will only worsen the situation because you’ll run around like a headless chicken. 
  • Think – Try to remember the way you came. Were there a lot of twists and corners or did you walk in a straight line? How long have you been walking off trail? Were you heading east, west, north or south? Ask yourself these sorts of questions because the answers could be the solution.
  • Observe – Take out your compass and determine which way is north. This is going to help you a lot but only if you took the necessary precautions (I’ll explain later). Do you see any footprints? If you do, it could be smart to follow them.
  • Plan – Now determine which direction you should walk. Track your progress with stones so you can always come back to your starting point. You can also stick twigs into the ground or anything else that makes it stand out. Everything is okay as long as you follow the Leave No Trace principle

a sign that says 'stop'

Walk uphill to find landmarks

Landmarks are awesome because they make it obvious where you are. If you’re standing on top of a mountain, your chances of finding a useful landmark increase significantly. Therefore, find the highest point in your area and look for familiar landmarks. If you don’t find any, don’t worry, there are more ways to get out of this situation.

Travel downhill to find water and civilization

If you can’t find any landmarks, and you know that nobody’s coming for you, you may want to travel downhill because that’s where people tend to settle. You might encounter a river or stream that you should follow in the direction the water is running. It may lead to a town, populated lake, road or trail, and you’ll always have a source of water. 

While it’s not advised to drink unboiled water, it’s a fact that most people get rescued within three days. So maybe you should consider catching an infection instead of dying from dehydration. You could also come prepared and bring a mini water filter. It’s small, doesn’t weigh much and does the job.

a water mill

Look for human activity

While looking for landmarks or traveling downhill, keep your eyes out for signs of people. It could be anything from cigarette butts to plastic bottles. I’m sure you know what human activity looks like. 

Trash often means a trail or humans are nearby. Observe your surroundings and try to determine which way the hikers went. If you have no clue, choose one direction and start walking. Just make sure you keep track of your progress. If you’re quite certain it’s not that direction, go back to your starting point and try another direction using the same method.

Also, keep an eye on what you can hear. Maybe you can hear a car or church bell. So stop hiking once in a while and focus on what you can hear.

a pile of trash on top of a mountain

As the day comes to an end…

You’ve tried the STOP-principle, searched for landmarks, traveled downhill and looked for signs of people—without success. The day is making room for the night, which means it will soon be dark and cold. What should you do?

Navigating a dark forest is not only a waste of calories, but it’s also extremely dangerous. You’ll need to stop and start thinking about the four most important elements in survival.

The four elements that determine your survival

Warmth, shelter, food and water – the four things that determine whether you’ll live or die. If you can’t find your way out before sunset, these are the things you should pay attention to.

Warmth

You should always bring something that can keep you warm because hypothermia can spread faster than you think. Wet clothes combined with 65°F can still cause hypothermia. That’s why you may also want to bring a puffer jacket or space blanket and make sure you don’t sweat in cold weather. Stay cool when you’re hiking and warm at rest by adjusting your clothing layers. 

But there are other possible sources of warmth. SmokyMountains’s study shows us how the survivors kept themselves warm:

A graphic of SmokyMountains's study.

Now, if you just bring a knife, matches and firestarters, and keep them safe from water, you won’t need to cover yourself with dirt or do push-ups all night long. 

How to start a fire in the rain

Shelter 

While shelter is closely related to warmth, a fire can’t protect you from wind and rain. If you need to overnight in the woods, you want to have a shelter one way or the other. Let’s again take a look at SmokyMountains’s study. What were the most common types of shelter?

A graphic of SmokyMountains's study.

The most obvious solution is bringing an emergency tent. Alternatively, you can find a natural shelter or build one yourself either with:

  • a tarp, paracord and tent stakes (you can make them yourself from wood)
  • or sticks and pine branches

a pine branch

If there are no pine branches around, you’ll have to collect as many sticks as possible and use additional leaves. Your goal is to create something that blocks the wind.

Whatever you do, build your shelter at least 200 feet away from a river or stream. Animals use these as a natural highway for navigation, and since you’re already having a hard time, I think you want to avoid meeting a bear.

Below you can find a few videos that show you how to make a shelter. 

How to build a shelter with a tarp, paracord 

While you need something to pitch a tarp to the ground, tent stakes are not essential items. You can make them yourself with a knife, or you can use heavy stones to secure your tarp.

There are many ways to build a tarp shelter, but this technique is great because it allows you to make a campfire right next to it.

How to build a shelter with tarp, paracord and tent stakes if there are no trees around

If you don’t have the luxury of having trees around, you can’t make a ridgeline, which means the above video is useless to you. Check out this video to make a freestanding tarp shelter with just a few sticks, paracord and (self-made) tent stakes. 

How to build a shelter with sticks, pine branches and paracord

In case your emergency tent is damaged and you didn’t bring a tarp, you could make a shelter with sticks, pine branches and some paracord. This video shows you how.

When your shelter is up, you can begin building your bed out of leaves, grass, pine and moss. Make it at least eight inches thick to stay warm.

Water

Water will be your priority because you can’t live without it for long. You can purify it by:

  • Letting it boil for at least one minute. At altitudes above one mile, you should boil it for three minutes.
  • Use a (mini) water filter.
  • Use chlorine dioxide tablets.

However, you shouldn’t dehydrate yourself if you can’t purify it. Most people get rescued within three days. Besides, catching an infection sounds way better than dying from dehydration, right?

But what if you don’t have a water source? Well, in this case, there are a couple of things you can do. Again, let’s take a look at the results of SmokyMountains’s study:

A graphic of SmokyMountains's study.

If you came prepared, you can also drain some trees as shown in the video below. Tree sap is very nutritious and can give you a natural energy boost. Just be sure to boil it for a few minutes if that’s an option. 

Food 

This may come as a surprise to you but finding food is the last thing you should think about. That’s because the average person can live off their calories for about 30 days.

You could forage acorns, walnuts, pine needles, wild onion and garlic. You want to be careful with this though. Avoid berries and mushrooms if you don’t have the necessary knowledge. It’s pretty hard to know whether they’re poisonous or not because there are a lot of deadly look-alikes. 

an amanita muscaria
A toxic mushroom: the Amanita Muscaria

Plants are something else you have to be careful with. If you’ve seen the movie Into The Wild, you know they’re even harder to identify. This movie doesn’t end well for the main character. Supposedly, he confused wild sweet peas with Eskimo potato, which meant the end for him. Just don’t eat anything risky until you really have to. 

Roasted insects could also be a source of food. It sure doesn’t sound tasty, but you won’t think twice about it in emergency situations. 

Here are the results of SmokyMountains’s study:

A graphic of SmokyMountains's study.

Before heading out into the wilderness, take the time to read a guide on foraging food in the woods.

How to avoid getting lost while hiking

  • Bring the essentials. These items could save your life or make your experience significantly less terrifying. 
    • Navigation – map, compass, GPS system and the knowledge to use it properly
    • Sun protection – sunglasses, sunscreen and hat
    • Insulation (depends on the temperatures at night) – jacket, hat, gloves, rain shell and thermal underwear
    • Light – headlamp and extra batteries
    • First-aid kit – check out this first-aid kit checklist
    • Fire – matches, lighter and fire starters 
    • Repair kit and tools – duct tape, knife, multi-tool
    • Extra food, water and clothes – simply carrying one day’s extra worth of food, water and clothes can save you a lot of misery
    • Water treatment supplies – a mini water filter, chlorine dioxide tablets or a canteen cup to disinfect water by boiling it
    • Emergency shelter – emergency tent, space blanket and a tarp (+paracord)
  • Share your route and expected return date with friends or family (at least 2 persons).
  • Plan your route and study the terrain and wildlife. Work out a route to a linear trail, road or creek.
  • Be up-to-date with the weather (including overnight in case you have to stay out).
  • Wear moisture-wicking clothing like merino wool and synthetics. Puffy jackets and Gore-Tex shells also keep you warm.
  • Know how to make a fire (in the rain)
  • Know how to build a shelter with branches and a tarp
  • Use trail tape whenever going off the trail. Make sure you remove it from the trees when moving on.
  • Check with the local ranger district if there are any special warnings such as fires, flooding, bear sightings,…

The thing that could save your life

A personal locator beacon (PLB) sends out a signal that can be tracked from anywhere in the world. If you’re spending a lot of time in the backcountry, you should seriously consider buying one.

Final words

Now that you have finished reading this article, you should feel more confident about going into the wilderness. Losing your way can be terrifying, but you should either be rescued or find your way out within three days.

You should especially remember that preparation is key. Simply bringing the essentials will significantly increase your safety, comfort and chances of survival.

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