Lost on a Hike? Here’s How to Find Your Way Back

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Summer was coming to a close and I was determined to wring every last day out of it. Four weeks in Montana spent rafting, hiking, biking, camping, boating, and fishing only left me wanting more and as I made my way back home to the Pacific Northwest, I decided to swing north slightly and quickly check out the Kootenays in British Columbia. Since my Montana departure was late in the afternoon, I found myself crossing the Canadian border at 8:00 p.m., leaving me only a couple hours of daylight. Making my way north in the dark while looking for a campsite proved to be a little disconcerting. I had no idea if there were any campsites along the way, and the thought of sleeping in my car on the side of the road was not pleasing. Though I wasn’t lost, the feeling of making my way through the dark and not knowing what was ahead was just as unsettling. At 10:30, I found a campsite, quickly set up my tent, and crawled inside. But that feeling of being lost made me curious enough to do a little research to find out what to do when one actually is lost while hiking or exploring the woods.

Stop and assess the situation.
As soon as you think you’re lost, stop. There’s no reason to take another step until you come up with a plan. The farther you walk, the longer it takes for rescuers to find you. Also, statistics have shown that if you don’t know where you’re going, you have about a 75 percent chance of walking in the wrong direction. So sit down, drink some water, have a bite to eat, and think things over.

Stay calm.
Though this can prove difficult, it’s very important to remember. When you’re panicking, you can’t think straight. And if you aren’t thinking straight, you won’t be able to help yourself and others involved.

Orient yourself.
Ask yourself how you got to where you are. Which direction were you heading? If you have a map and compass, use your compass to determine directions from your present location. If you’ve located your general position on the map, identify landmarks that you should be able to see. If you’re without a map, things are a bit more challenging. To help figure out your location, remember the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

If you find yourself above tree line, try to follow cairns (piles of stones set up to mark the way). Blazes—painted marks on trees, metal or plastic pieces affixed to trees, or axe notches cut into trees—can often be found at tree line and are used to mark the way out of the woods. Look for water and follow it. If no trails are to be found, find a river or stream and follow it downstream. Downstream will eventually lead to civilization. Estimate how long you have until dark and determine the weather. Will it be getting better? Will it be getting worse? Check your water supply and decide how long it should last and use it accordingly.

Once you’ve assessed the situation, come up with a few possible plans—then choose one and act on it. If you believe you know the way out and you have time before dark to reach your destination, proceed carefully and mark your route with stacked rocks, sticks stuck in the ground, or strips of brightly-colored cloth. If you do not feel confident in a route or if nightfall is approaching, it’s better to stay where you are. Being lost in the daylight is confusing enough. Trying to find your way in the dark only exacerbates the problem.

Another way to remember the above is with the common hiking acronym: S.T.O.P. which stands for Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan.

Prepare to spend the night.
If you decide to stay put, you’ll need to construct some type of shelter. Make a to-do list to help organize your thoughts and keep you focused with specific tasks, such as collecting firewood, finding water, bedding, or insulation materials, or setting up signals, such as brightly-colored cloth easily seen from above, or gathering leaves and green boughs to place on the fire for smoke. You can construct a shelter quickly and easily using fallen boughs (confers work better than broadleaf trees) or any boughs that sweep to the ground. Lash together branches with cord, shoelaces, backpack webbing, bandannas, etc. You can also weave together the branches to provide additional protection. You can also use natural depressions in the ground and the spreading roots at the base of trees as temporary shelter. Make sure to cover depressions with small logs and branches; just be certain it isn’t susceptible to water seepage. Bolster root shelters by adding small logs and branches to the other sides. Ideally, you want the roots to be on the side facing the wind.

Call for help.
Always carry a whistle while hiking or backpacking. If you get lost, the sound of a whistle carries much farther and is more easily located than the human voice. Three short blasts is a sign of distress.

While these tips are helpful if you’re already lost, there are some things you can do to prepare before setting out that will make life a little easier if you get lost.

Always tell someone where you’re going and how long you plan to be away.

Study the area you plan to explore prior to setting out. Orient yourself with any major landmarks, such as railroad tracks, roads, etc

Invest in quality hiking socks and avoid wearing cotton, which absorbs moisture instead of deflecting it.

Prepare for rain by carrying durable rain gear.

Carry plenty of drinking water, high energy snacks, and an emergency kit. As a general rule, you should always have these items with you when embarking on a hike:

  • Map
  • Water
  • Compass
  • Flashlight or headlamp
  • Extra food
  • Extra clothes, such as gloves, hat, windbreaker or disposable rain jacket, and trash bags for shelter body cover
  • Sunglasses
  • First-aid kit
  • Pocket knife
  • Waterproof match container and matches
  • Fire starters, such as cotton balls with petroleum jelly embedded, miniature kindling, and fire starter sticks
  • Water filter with straws or treatment tablets
  • Pen and paper
  • Small Ziplock sandwich bags you can use as drinking a cup or to protect notes you leave behind
  • Whistle
  • Emergency blanket (space blankets are waterproof but very fragile)
  • Toilet tissue in a waterproof bag
  • Insect repellent
  • Small fleece blanket which can improvise as poncho, towel, and blanket
  • Plastic sheet for shelter
  • Mirror, to start fires or signal for help
  • Sun protection

I was lucky that I didn’t get lost that night in British Columbia. But my close call made me realize that there were quite a few backpack additions I needed to make. Once I returned home, I made those additions and also became the proud owner of a four seasons alpine tent. Now I’m ready for anything!


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