No one ever heads into the woods and intends to get lost. But, every once in a while, even the most skilled of backcountry travelers find themselves feeling a little uneasy about where exactly they are in the mountains.
In an ideal world, we would never get lost while hiking. However, it does happen, so it’s imperative that you know what to do if you ever get into such a situation.
The short answer? Stop moving, stay put, build a shelter, and make a plan for getting home. Trying to navigate in the outdoors when you’re anxious, nervous, and unsure of your surroundings is only going to make the situation worse.
If you want to learn more about what to do should you ever get disoriented on the trail, here are my 3 top tips for doing just that.
Tip 1: Don’t Get Lost In The First Place
Okay, this might sound a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I mean it. The goal while you’re hiking should be to “stay found” at all times.
Staying found comes down to being keenly aware of your surroundings at all times while you’re hiking.
Although other issues, like injury, darkness, and the loss of equipment often lead to people getting lost while hiking a recent study by SmokyMountains.com found that 41% of people who get lost do so because they wandered off the trail.
Sure, if you’re walking down a well-manicured path with blazes every few feet, then it’s hard to imagine how you could wander off the trail. In places with less-well-maintained trails, particularly in the western US, however, paths tend to disappear and reappear with little notice.
During my work as an outdoor education instructor on backpacking trips, I’ve watched so many of my students simply wander off the trail or completely lose it in a meadow. While this has a little to do with inexperience, I’ve also seen experienced guides and instructors struggle to pick up a trail in rugged terrain, too.
Moral of the story? Always keep an eye on where you are while hiking. Like I tell my students, you should have a map accessible at all times.
For on-trail travel, I recommend checking your map every 10-15 minutes, just to get an idea of where you are as you hike. This is helpful if you do get lost because you’ll be better able to identify where you are on the map than if you were just strolling down the trail without a care in the world.
If you’re traveling off-trail, you should be checking your map constantly and at least every 5 minutes. Don’t rely on a GPS to give you coordinates as these can fail. By keeping an eye on the map and the terrain, you’ll always know where you are.
Tip 2: STOP If You Feel Lost
Whether or not you actually are lost, just the feeling of not really knowing where you are is enough to make anyone anxious. If, despite, your best efforts, you get lost, use the acronym STOP to help yourself get found.
The first part of the acronym is to stop. Yep, stop moving, sit down, and take a breath. You’re not going to get home if you start making irrational decisions, so your first goal is to relax and calm yourself down.
Take off your backpack, drink some water, and put on a jacket to help you stay warm. In situations where you truly don’t know where you are, a quick 30 second break won’t make you any more lost, but it will help you make better decisions.
As soon as you’ve calmed down a bit, take some time to think about where exactly you might be. Hopefully, you’ve been following along on the map during your hike and you can see a few landmarks around you that can give you a clue as to where you actually are.
Think about where you might be on the map and try to picture the route that you took to get to your current position.
In alpine areas or unforested regions, it’s certainly easier to see large landmarks, but even if you’re in heavily forested terrain, you can normally see the tops of mountains or hear a raging brook.
At this point, you should observe your surroundings and look for signs that humans have traveled through your location. Sometimes, we feel really, really lost, but we’ve just barely wandered off the trail and we can see blazes, moss scrapped off of a rock, or even footprints that can guide us back to the right path.
Once you have your bearings, you need to come up with a plan. If you’re on what you think is a trail, go ahead and stay on it. Even if it’s not a formal trail, rescue teams are fairly likely to pick up on an unmaintained path, even in a remote area.
Folks who are confident with their navigation skills and that think they have a solid plan to get home can consider trying to find their way. However, if it’s late in the day or you’re really not sure where you are, it’s best to hunker down, build a camp, and stay in one place, as it’ll be easier for search and rescue teams to find you.
Tip 3: Know When To Stay Put & When To Hike Out
While I’ve already touched on this point briefly, the final part of STOP is to make a plan. However, the critical point here is deciding whether you want to stay in one place or whether you want to attempt to hike out on your own.
While there’s not necessarily a black and white answer here, there are some general guidelines you can follow to decide what your plan of action should be. Both plans have their advantages and disadvantages, so here’s what you need to know.
Stay Put When:
- It’s late in the day and about to get dark
- You told a friend or family member about your hiking plans so they know where to look
- You’re near a trail, river, road, or near a big body of water
- The weather is deteriorating (reduced visibility, rain, snow, high winds)
- You are not confident with navigation
- You’re injured or exhausted
If most of the above points are relevant to your situation, it might be best to stay in one place. In this instance, you should try to keep yourself as warm as possible, build a shelter, and try to hunker down for the night. You’ll also want to make yourself visible to possible rescuers so they don’t accidentally walk by your location.
Walk Toward Safety When:
- You’re confident in your navigation abilities
- You have a plan that seems reasonable
- It’s fairly early in the day
- You’re in an exposed location and there’s nowhere that you can take shelter
Making a decision to walk out on your own isn’t something to take lightly. If you do decide to hike out and you lose your way again, it may be harder for rescuers to find you if they come looking.
In the outdoors, it’s all about staying found so that you avoid getting lost in the first place. If you focus on staying found at all times while hiking, you’ll also be in a better position to get home, should you decide to walk toward safety.
Remember: When in doubt, stay put and focus on staying warm, comfortable, and visible so rescuers can find you if you’re lost.