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How to Handle Being Lost in the Woods

Have you ever lost your way on a hike or backpacking trip? Getting disoriented when in the backcountry is pretty common, but in some cases it can turn dangerous quickly. Today we’ll be discussing some tips and tools that can help you avoid getting lost, or at least provide good information to rescuers.

I’ll Never Get Lost

Walking in Woods

Let’s address the misnomer “I’ll never get lost,” right out of the gate. You might be a hot shot navigator with all the cool, fancy gadgets and gizmos, but what happens if you have a nasty fall and are incapacitated? There are multiple scenarios that could cause you to become stranded, even if you know exactly where you are. At that point, communication becomes the priority in order to get rescuers to your location.

Pre-Trip Communication

Calling on Phone

Light planning before a trip into the wilderness could save time and possibly lives. Before setting out, always be sure to alert someone of the general area you’re heading into and how long you approximately plan to be there. It doesn’t need to be Military Warning Order accurate, just something like “I’ll be hiking in the national forest this Saturday and Sunday, I’m planning on being in the XX area for camping.”

For your mobile phone, consider changing your outgoing voicemail greeting with the name of the location you plan to be in, or even better, some coordinates. By updating your voicemail greeting and saving it with your provider, you can ensure that information will be relayed to someone calling you, even if your device is out of signal or out of power.

You can download free GPS apps for most phones that will provide you the coordinates of your phone itself. (Bonus tip, the GPS in most mobile phones works independently of cell tower networks, so you may be able to access coordinate/map information, even if you can’t get a good signal.)

The last thing to consider for pre-trip prep is a dedicated GPS/communicator. There are several options on the market and if you find yourself outdoors frequently, you should consider one that offers communication ability, in case you don’t have good mobile service or something happens to your main device.

You’re Lost/Injured, Now What?

Lost in the Woods

Let’s say something has happened to cause you to become stuck in the wilderness without the ability to navigate out, now what? The first thing to do is take some time to calm yourself down and plan your next steps. Many people will immediately panic and begin traveling in the direction they guess is correct, only to delve further into the wild.

After you’ve calmed down a bit, you should first attempt communication in whatever format you can. A call to 911 is your first step, even if you don’t have a good signal. In many cases, standard calls may not connect, but 911 calls will. Even if the call doesn’t connect, the signal may still reach a 911 tower to assist in locating you.

If you have a signal, but aren’t able to reach 911 or connect any calls, try sending text messages, emails or other forms of light data messages. Finally if you’re able to, you should be sure to update your outgoing voicemail with your last known position, whether it’s coordinates or just a general area of where you remember being last. This can assist those trying to get in touch with you in relaying your position to rescuers, even if your phone drops out of signal.

Non-Electronic Steps to Take

Camp Fire

The most important step after becoming lost/stuck is not to take a step at all. Stay within the area you’re in, unless there’s something dangerous around. If you’re able to build a fire, get one started (because you have your Survival Kit on you) and look for any wet leaves you can add to it once it’s burning hot enough. Wet leaves will smoke like crazy, which is a good thing when you’re trying to draw rescuers to your location.

Once you’ve got a fire going, reattempt communications and then be patient. It can take hours for emergency response to reach you, especially if you’re deep in the backcountry. Hopefully you’ve packed some food and water for your trip, or are planning to the next time you go out. Even if you only believe it will be a quick hike, it doesn’t hurt to have some spare food, water and even a small shelter in case something happens.

How to Avoid Becoming Lost

Map and Protractor

While it may be tempting to simply rely on your GPS devices, learning to navigate with a map and compass is an extremely valuable skill that doesn’t require satellite reception or batteries. If you’re interested in learning the ropes of getting from point A to B, check out our Land Navigation Starter Pack.

Once you’ve got the basics down, orienting yourself if you become lost, becomes much easier using a paper map. It can also be useful to communicate your position to rescuers, by referencing landmarks on a map they’re most likely looking at as well.

While you might think getting lost or stranded in the woods will never happen to you, it’s something that’s very easy to prepare for and doesn’t require that much of a change in plans for that "one-in-a-million chance" it happens to you.