I’m Lost In the Wilderness, Now What?

As a Wilderness EMT I encourage everyone to learn wilderness survival at a  survival school.  On average every year, 36% of Search and Rescue calls are for individuals who get lost in the wilderness.  The largest share of those who get lost are day hikers, not backpackers.  Why?  Backpackers who go on multiple day hikes tend to do one very important thing —advanced planning!  As a backpacker, I usually talk to others about my trip and let them know the route.  I spend time planning my water stops and where I will spend the night.  I become very familiar with the map of the area, noting where everything is and its direction from the path.  Since you can’t always predict the weather when backpacking, I plan for all types of weather.  I make sure I have a way to make water potable, and usually bring more food than I need.

However, I sometimes do exactly what gets a lot of day hikers in trouble.  I’m out for the day and see a trail that looks interesting.  I’ve not planned anything, let anyone know that I will be hiking the trail and I leave my day pack in my vehicle.  I go down the trail and see some honey mushrooms, have to go to the bathroom, or for some other reason leave the trail.  This is where the trouble starts.  Not paying attention to my direction, I lose sight of the trail and lose my direction because I didn’t keep myself situationally aware.  Your reason could be any other reason, but here’s what to do. When you find yourself lost — don’t panic!



As soon as you realize you are lost, sit down and relax.  You don’t want to panic.  A panicked running back and forth trying to re-establish your path will burn lots of energy and keeps you from thinking rationally.


Think about how you got to where you are now.  How did you lose the trail?  Assess what you have that might be able to help you learn where you are.  Do you have a compass, a map, a whistle, a mirror, a phone?  At this point don’t move on unless you have a reason to move.


How did you get off your trail?  Did you go down a wash?  Did the trail just wither out?  Can you look back and see the path you got to where you are now?  Can you determine your directions via the sun, a compass, a landmark?


Based on your observations and careful thinking about them, come up with a plan.  It may be as simple as backtracking to the trail along the wash you came down or following a compass in a direction that will cause you to cross your trail.  Be careful as it is more dangerous going cross country through undergrowth than following a path.  However, before moving be sure to mark the location and draw or layout an arrow in the direction of your travel.  This could be helpful if search and rescue tries to find you.  As a last resort, follow a stream.  Always take the path of least resistance as this is what Search and Rescue will assume you have done.

If you are unsure about the route to take and feel confident that others will start looking for you should you not return from your hike, then it is better to stay where you are.  Search and Rescue almost always finds peoplewhere they initially got lost.  It is much harder to find someone who continues to wander off the further from the trail.  Be sure to shelter in place if it is dark or if you are injured.


Be Prepared To Rescue Yourself

The best tools for wilderness survival are:

  1. Advanced planning. Let others know where you are.  If you get out of your car and go on an unplanned hike, leave a note in your car.  Anytime you enter a wilderness area you should expect the unexpected and plan as though you might get lost.
  2. Even if you are going out for just a couple of hours, take a daypack that includes a compass, whistle, mirror, flashlight, enough water to stay hydrated and a way to collect more, some energy bars, and protection from the weather.
  3. Practice, Practice, Practice! Wilderness survival skills can be honed and developed. Our survival school offers lesson from the basics to the advanced.  We also provide one and two day survival trips that are fun and let you practice your skills with an expert guide who will insure you make it back home.