Getting lost while hiking can be a scary and dangerous situation. However, staying calm and knowing what steps to take can greatly increase your chances of being found quickly and safely. The key is to avoid panic, use logic and reasoning, and enact survival skills to stay alive until help arrives.
With some preparation and knowledge of techniques, you can transform a potential emergency into an inconvenience. Follow these tips and information to handle the situation if you ever Get Lost While Hiking on the trails.
“Every trail has its challenges. However, with the right preparation and mental attitude, even the most daunting situation can be managed.” – Robert Moore, experienced hiker.
Table of Contents
1. Stop Walking
The first thing you should do upon realizing you are lost is stop moving. Wandering through the woods or down trails will only take you further from where you started.
Stay where you are and get your bearings. The last known location you were at before getting lost is the key information for any potential search and rescue.
Mark the spot by leaving something visible, like a brightly colored jacket or backpack. It will make it easier for you to return to the same place if you venture out seeking clues or higher ground.
As quoted by the U.S. Forest Service, “The biggest mistake made by people who are lost is continuing to move, becoming more lost with every step.”
2. Consider Turning Off Your Phone
You may be tempted to pull out your phone and try calling or texting for help. However, depending on your location, you may not have cell service. Attempting signals can quickly drain your phone’s battery.
Instead, turn your phone off or put it in aeroplane mode to conserve battery life. You may need it later if you reach an area with reception, so save the power.
Only turn it on periodically to check if you have service and can call emergency services. Having your phone operational later in the ordeal can be invaluable.
3. Orient Yourself with a Compass
Once settled in one spot, get out your compass. Determine what direction you were last heading before getting turned around, and identify landmarks around you.
Try to orient yourself based on trails, mountains, water sources, or other geographic features. Mentally note what direction you last came from and how you need to return.
If you don’t have an actual compass, you can improvise one with an analog watch and the sun’s location. Point the hour hand at the sun and then halve the angle between it and 12 o’clock to find south.
Related Article: How to Hike Safely? 20 Master tips!
4. Gauge time and Distance
Make an educated guess of how far you may have travelled since going off course. Were you hiking for 15 minutes or 2 hours? Try retracing your steps mentally and add up the approximate distance covered in that time period.
Understanding a general radius of where you started will help narrow your location. Search teams will also find this useful.
Look for any familiar landmarks as clues that you may be able to spot from a higher vantage point. Don’t wander aimlessly; scoping things out from a nearby hill may reveal an identifiable point.
5. Try to Retrace Your Steps
If you have a good sense of how long you have been hiking and in what direction since going off course, you may be able to backtrack successfully. Use terrain features, resting spots, and trails to guide you rather than relying solely on memory.
Look for things like your own footprints, broken branches, trampled vegetation, and other traces of your path. Bits of trash, food wrappers, or dropped items are also signs you’re on the right track.
Don’t go further if you don’t see any traces after 15-20 minutes of retracing. Return to your waiting spot and reassess. Widening your search area will only make you more lost.
6. If The Memory Has Failed, Use The Senses
If visually retracing your steps proves fruitless, tap into your other senses for clues. Close your eyes and try to picture your last trail or turn. Recreate the sounds, smells, feelings, and other details in your mind.
Listen for familiar sounds like a creek, wind through trees, or traffic from a road. You may be able to follow noises back to a location you recognize. Smells can also spark memories and navigation ideas.
7. Collect Clues From The Surrounding
Making a note of details in your immediate environment can provide little bits of useful information on your whereabouts.
Look up and around to identify landmarks like mountain peaks, towers, or other distinctive formations. Note the approximate compass direction and distance of each.
If you encounter any intersections, note the trails and how they head. If you see powerlines, roads, fences, or other man-made things, make a mental note. Anything to help pinpoint your location.
8. Consider Your Options
Consider your next actions carefully after gathering your bearings and attempting to retrace your steps. Make smart and realistic choices based on the situation.
If it will be dark soon, prepare to settle in for the night and continue your efforts at first light. Wandering in the darkness will likely take you even farther afield.
If you have plenty of daylight left and are confident about the direction back, proceed cautiously. Establish checkpoints along the way so you can find your way back if needed.
9. Enact Your Plan of Action
Whatever you decide–staying put, searching for clues, or heading back–commit and follow through. Don’t second-guess or change strategies mid-way. Stick to your plan.
Before moving out, leave a note at your waiting spot indicating which direction you are headed. It will save precious time if a rescue team arrives while you are elsewhere.
Leave trail markers as you go so you can find your way back. Piles of rocks, bits of fabric on branches, or stacked sticks work well.
10. Prepare For The Night Before It Gets Dark
If you determine that spending the night lost in the woods is a possibility, use the remaining daylight to get ready.
Look for a shelter location offering warmth, protection from wind and rain, and visibility for rescuers. Caves, thick trees, and rock overhangs are good options.
Gather dry tinder, branches, and rocks to build a fire circle. It will provide light, warmth, and a rescue signal. Have everything ready to spark quickly once dark.
11. Be Prepared Beforehand
Getting lost hiking out is always possible, even for experienced outdoorsmen. So, it is wise to take precautions before you hit the trail. Being prepared can make a world of difference in an emergency.
Carry a well-stocked first aid kit, extra layers, plenty of water and calories, a flashlight, compass, whistle, and fire-starting kit. Having these on hand will keep you safer and more comfortable.
Give someone your hiking route and estimated return time. When you don’t show up, they can alert authorities immediately instead of hours later.
Study your route carefully ahead of time. Identify key landmarks, trail intersections, potential shelters, and high points. Familiarize yourself as much as possible with the terrain.
12. Bring Out Those Nomadic Skills And Stay Alive For Rescue
While waiting or searching for your way back, tap into fundamental survival skills to meet your basic needs. Providing shelter, water, warmth, and food will help you get through until you are found.
Look for natural shelters if you haven’t prepared one already. The ground, a hollow tree, or dense shrubs can shield you from wind, rain, and cold. Leaves and branches increase insulation when used as bedding.
Stay hydrated from water sources like streams, ponds, collected rainwater, or snowmelt. Boil water first, if possible, to prevent illness.
Keep moving, limit sweat, and change into dry clothes for warmth. Huddle into a tight ball or squish into a small shelter. Light a fire if possible using your emergency kit supplies.
13. Create Signals
While waiting for rescuers, it’s crucial to make yourself visible. Use bright clothing, fire, or reflective items to draw attention. During the night, a flashlight or glow sticks can be used. Loud noises, such as whistle-blowing or banging metal items together, can also alert rescuers.
“A clear signal in the wilderness can pierce through the noise and guide rescuers to you.” – Mountain Scout Survival School founder Shane Hobel.
If you’re unable to make a phone call, physical signals can help rescuers locate you:
- Build a Signal Fire: Smoke from a fire can be seen long distances. However, always ensure the fire is under control to avoid wildfires.
- Use a Mirror to Reflect Sunlight: This can catch the eye of aerial rescuers.
- Wave Your Arms and Shout: If you hear or see people nearby, make yourself as visible and loud as possible.
14. Call Emergency Service
If you regain cell service at any point during your ordeal, immediately call emergency services like 911 or your local search and rescue team. Many areas have quick response teams ready to assist lost hikers.
Be prepared to provide your name, number of people in your party, approximate location, details on terrain, time elapsed, and any injuries or issues. Provide any other details requested clearly and concisely.
Follow any directions given closely, stay on the line if asked, and confirm when you will call back with an update. Keep your phone handy and battery-charged.
15. Climb To A Higher Ground
Once you have settled in and prepared yourself for spending the night, hike to the nearest high point in the waning daylight.
A hill, ridge, rock pile, or tree can elevate your line of sight and also make you more visible. Maintain close awareness of your surroundings so you can locate your base again.
Patiently scan the landscape, looking for any identifiable landmarks or traces of trails. Use the added height to reorient yourself and plan the best direction to head at first light.
Observe for any searchers. Wave clothing, shout, blow your whistle, or signal with a flashlight or fire to catch their eye if seen.
16. Retrace Your Steps Back
When daylight comes, enact the plan you made the previous evening to work your way back to civilization. Follow any trails, markers, or landmarks guiding you toward identified points.
Use the clues and information you observed earlier to move in the general target direction rather than randomly. Stop periodically to reorient yourself and stay on course.
Keep leaving trail markers in case you need to turn back. Stay aware of how long and how far you have travelled. Turn around if you haven’t found anything after 30-45 minutes.
16 proven tips if you get lost while hiking
|Stop Walking||Stop moving immediately when you realize you are lost to avoid getting more lost.|
|Consider Turning Off Your Phone||Conserve phone battery life by turning it off. Only use periodically to check for signals.|
|Orient Yourself With A Compass||Determine your last direction and identify landmarks to pinpoint your location.|
|Gauge Time And Distance||Estimate how long and how far you’ve traveled since going off course.|
|Try To Retrace Your Steps||Use terrain features and traces of your path to guide you back.|
|Use Your Senses||Listen, smell, visualize to spark clues in your memory.|
|Collect Clues||Note details like landmarks, intersections, man-made things.|
|Consider Your Options||Make smart, realistic choices about staying put or heading back.|
|Enact Your Plan||Commit to a strategy and follow through completely.|
|Prepare For Night||Gather firewood, etc. before dark and get ready to camp.|
|Be Prepared||Carry proper gear, leave an itinerary, study the route.|
|Stay Alive For Rescue||Use survival skills to meet shelter, water, food needs.|
|Create Signals||Make noise, use fires, reflections to stand out.|
|Call Emergency Services||Provide key details and follow instructions if you get cell service.|
|Climb To Higher Ground||Spot landmarks, trails, and rescuers from an elevated vantage point.|
|Retrace Your Steps||Use clues, landmarks, and markers to work your way back.|
What to do if you have to stay the night
If it becomes clear, you will need to spend the night in the wilderness before finding your way back, take steps to create shelter and stay as safe and comfortable as possible.
- Find or construct a shelter such as a rock overhang, cave, thick stand of trees, or debris structure. Look for insulated spots blocked from wind and rain and near materials to start a fire.
- Gather dry wood, tender, and rocks to build a fire circle. It will provide light, warmth through the cold nighttime hours and a signal to rescuers. Have your fire-starting kit ready to ignite it quickly once daylight fades.
- Look for natural windbreaks like boulders and hillsides that can shield your shelter from gusts and keep heat contained. Pile up loose debris to further block drafts.
- Line your shelter floor with insulating grass, leaves, pine needles, or other vegetation layers. Use this and your clothing layers to create bedding to lift you off the bare ground.
- Make sure your shelter location has visibility for rescuers to potentially spot. Stay near the entrance at dawn and dusk when aerial searches are common. Light your fire and use it to send smoke signals.
- Set up any signalling devices like flashes, reflective materials, and brightly coloured tarps or clothing items to stand out. Keep these near the shelter to maintain their visibility.
Get lost hiking? Employ The STOP Survival Strategy
If you realize you have become lost or disoriented while out hiking, enact the STOP survival protocol immediately to avoid panic and determine your next steps logically.
S – Stop moving right away when you realize you are lost. Do not wander aimlessly; this will only take you farther from your last known point.
T – Think through what brought you to this point and all the information you have available. Review the path that led you astray. What direction were you heading, and what trail markers do you recall passing? Access memories to retrace your steps back mentally. Also, think about immediate needs like shelter, water, and staying visible.
O – Observe your surroundings for clues. Look to identify any landmarks like mountain peaks, towers, or valleys that could pinpoint your location. Note the sun’s or moon’s position and where they are moving to determine directions. Look and listen for any familiar sights or sounds from trails, roads, or rivers that could guide your way back.
P – Plan your next move. Based on clues, navigation aids, time of day, etc., determine if you will stay put awaiting rescue, attempt to backtrack, build a shelter, or another sensible option. Commit to and follow a strategy, leaving markers on trails as you go. Avoid panicking and making aimless choices.
Using the STOP approach can provide a lifesaving focus when disoriented. Analyze the situation, make informed decisions, and take purposeful actions to maximize your chances until help arrives.
STOP survival strategy
|S||Stop||Stop moving immediately when you realize you are lost. Do not wander further.|
|T||Think||Review how you got lost. Consider terrain, supplies, time of day. Think through your situation.|
|O||Observe||Look around for landmarks, trails, signs of civilization to orient yourself.|
|P||Plan||Make a rational plan based on your observations and situation. Commit to your chosen strategy.|
hiker Tips On Those Common Scenarios of Getting Lost Hiking
The Biggest Mistakes Hikers Make When They Get Lost on a Trail
- Trying to push on further down the trail, thinking they will reconnect eventually
- Not stopping as soon as they realize they are lost
- Panicking and making quick, irrational decisions
- Calling out and wandering instead of staying put
- Continuing to move without leaving trail markers
- Trying to find a way back without resting, hydrating and thinking logically
- Separating from hiking partners
- Not preparing for emergencies with proper gear and knowledge
What to Do If You Are Lost in the Wilderness
- Stop moving and stay calm; avoid panic
- Orient yourself with a map/compass, and identify landmarks and directions you came from
- Observe the immediate environment for shelter, water, and food sources
- Plan the next rational steps based on time of day, weather, terrain
- Prepare shelter, fire, and signals to make yourself visible
- Retrace steps back carefully, mark trails, stay hydrated, conserve energy
What to Do If Lost in the Woods at Night
- Quickly gather firewood, kindling, and rocks to build a campfire before dark
- Find natural shelter such as a cave, overhang or thick trees to block wind/rain
- Line floor with insulating vegetation, leaves or pine boughs
- Rest, stay warm and stay hydrated until daylight
- At first light, head to a high point to scan for landmarks and rescuers
What to Do If You Are Lost in a Forest
- Climb a tree or hill to get above the tree line and scan the horizon for visibility.
- Look for breaks in the forest, landmarks like cliffs, streams, roads that can be traversed.
- Following the sound or flow of running water downstream likely leads to civilization
- Blaze trails with hatchet marks to keep circling the same areas
- Stay in one place and wait for rescue rather than aimlessly wandering
What to Do If You Get Lost in the Mountains
- Find a clear high point and carefully survey the entire visible landscape and horizon
- Identify any peaks, valleys, rivers, or other landmarks that can orient your location.
- Determine where the sun rises and sets to know general east/west directions.
- Head downhill if possible while marking your path to follow a water source
- Be prepared to take shelter behind rock formations blocking wind and rain
What to Do When You Are Lost in the Alone
- Resist the urge to panic by focusing your mind on the task of survival
- Create a shelter fire signals to establish a basecamp where you can be spotted
- Conserve energy and avoid injury and exhaustion by only moving when necessary
- Stay near camp and gather resources like firewood, water and food within earshot
- Keep your mind active by rehearsing survival skills, thinking through plans, staying positive
How to avoid hypothermia if you get lost hiking
Hypothermia is a dangerous condition that can occur if you get lost hiking and can’t make your way back to the car. It’s crucial to avoid hypothermia and stay warm if you find yourself lost outdoors. Here are some tips:
Always pack proper hiking boots, rain gear, and layers to help ensure your safety if you’re lost. A good layering system with wool and synthetics can help you avoid getting wet and cold. If you do get wet while lost hiking, immediately change into any dry clothing you have. Continuing to hike in wet clothes can quickly lead to hypothermia.
If you realize you may be lost, stop and avoid hiking yourself into exhaustion. Take out your map and compass and come up with possible plans to find your way. Adjust your hiking pace and stay calm. Scan for trail markers, drainage routes, or signs of civilization that could help you find your way back.
Make a fire and shelter to warm up and dry off. Fire is an essential tool needed for survival if you’re lost outdoors. Always pack waterproof matches and a fire starter. Seek a protected area out of the wind, collect dry tinder and fuel, and keep feeding the flames. The fire’s warmth can help prevent hypothermia.
Stay nourished and hydrated. Even a few days without water or weeks without food can impair thinking and observations needed to self-rescue. Ration whatever food and water you have. Melting snow can provide water. Streams can also be purified by boiling or filtration.
Before you go hiking, tell someone your specific route, plans, and expected return time. That way if you don’t show up, they can notify authorities. Conserve your phone battery, but turn it on occasionally to check for coverage and signal rescuers. Staying in one place will make it easier to find you.
common scenarios of getting lost while hiking
|Scenario||What To Do|
|Lost on a Trail||Stop immediately, consult map & compass, carefully backtrack|
|Lost in Woods on Day Hike||Stop wandering, signal for help, use map to relocate trail|
|Lost Backpacking in Mountains||Prioritize signaling, finding water, shelter to survive|
|Lost at Night||Quickly prep fire, shelter before dark; signal at dawn|
|Lost in Forest||Climb high to see above trees, follow sounds of water|
|Lost in Mountains||Survey landscape from high point; follow drainage downhill|
|Lost Alone||Focus on survival; build camp, conserve energy, stay positive|
Real-Life Stories of Survival and Rescue in the Wilderness
Survival in the wilderness relies on good preparation, quick thinking, and, at times, sheer luck. The experiences of seasoned hikers who found themselves off the beaten track serve as poignant reminders of the need for vigilance and the ability to adapt. Here are two such stories.
The Yoga Teacher Who Survived 17 Days in Hawaii
Amanda Eller, a 35-year-old yoga teacher and physiotherapist from Maui, Hawaii, set off on what was supposed to be a short hike in the Makawao Forest Reserve in May 2019. Venturing off the main trail to rest, she lost her way back. Stranded without her phone, wallet, or water, Amanda relied on her wits and wilderness skills to survive.
“I was in the wild, so I had to act wild.” – Amanda Eller.
She ate plants and fruits and drank water from rivers and waterfalls. When she injured her leg from a fall, she used her knowledge of physical therapy to treat herself. To keep her spirits up, Amanda meditated and did yoga. Seventeen days later, a helicopter search team, funded by her friends and family, spotted her near a waterfall. She will to survive, resilience, and quick thinking were instrumental in her Survival.
Seven Weeks Stranded in Nevada Wilderness
Rita Chretien, a 56-year-old woman from Canada, and her husband, Albert, embarked on a road trip to Las Vegas in March 2011. Tragically, their van got stuck in the mud on a remote forest service road after taking a wrong turn in Nevada. Albert set off on foot to find help but never returned.
Rita survived for 49 days, stranded alone in the van, eating trail mix, candy, and fish oil supplements. She read her Bible, wrote in her journal, and stayed as warm as she could in the cold Nevada spring.
“In those quiet moments, I cried out for strength, and it came.” – Rita Chretien.
She was discovered by a group of hunters, incredibly, still alive despite her severe weight loss and dehydration. The story of Rita’s Survival is a testament to her tenacity, faith, and the will to live.
These stories highlight the unpredictable nature of the wilderness. While seasoned hikers like Amanda and Rita survived their harrowing experiences, their stories underscore the importance of preparation, survival skills, and the indomitable strength of the human spirit when lost in the wilderness.
FAQs About What to Do If You Get Lost While Hiking?
Q: How do I find my way back when hiking if I get lost on the trail?
A: If you realize you may be lost while hiking, stop immediately and avoid getting more lost. Consult your map and compass to identify possible reasons you can’t find your way. Carefully retrace your steps back to the trailhead, adjusting your pace. Stay on the trail as much as possible. Tell someone about your hiking plans so they can send help if needed.
Q: What should I do if I get lost in the woods while on a day hike?
A: If you get lost outdoors, stop wandering right away to avoid getting more lost. Have food and water, then signal for help by yelling, whistling, or building a smoky fire. Use your map and compass to try relocating the trail. Seek high ground to look for signs of roads or trails. Stay put to make it easier to find you.
Q: What happens if you get lost in the mountains on a backpacking trip?
A: Your top 3 priorities if lost backpacking are: 1) signaling for help, 2) finding water within 3 days, and 3) finding food within 3 weeks. Seek water sources like streams and build shelters nearby. Make yourself visible for rescue teams. Conserve energy and food while waiting to be rescued.
Q: Why do hikers get lost, and how can it be avoided?
A: Hikers get lost by wandering off-trail, losing the trail, or not paying attention to landmarks and conditions. Avoid getting lost by staying on the trail, being aware of conditions, bringing maps/gear, telling others your plans, and being prepared with experience.
Q: What should be the first 3 priorities if you become lost hiking?
A: The first 3 priorities if lost hiking are: 1) signaling for help, 2) finding water within 3 days, and 3) finding food within 3 weeks. These basic survival needs greatly improve your chances of surviving until you are rescued.
Q: What are 8 key things to do when lost hiking?
A: 1) Stop moving 2) Signal rescuers 3) Find water 4) Build shelter 5) Ration food 6) Stay visible 7) Conserve energy 8) Stay positive and focused. Doing these things will help you survive and make it easier to be found.
Q: What is the very first thing to do when you realize you are lost hiking?
A: The very first thing to do when you realize you are lost is to stop moving immediately. This prevents you from getting even more lost. Stay put, get your bearings, then carefully backtrack to find the trail.
Q: How should I try to find something I’ve lost while out hiking?
A: If you lose something on the trail, mark the location and your current path. Retrace your steps to the mark, scanning the area thoroughly. If unsuccessful, widen your search in circles, maintaining awareness of directions and landmarks. If still not found, mark the search area and return after daylight or with help.
Hiking is an engaging activity that blends the thrill of exploration with the tranquil charm of nature. But, like any outdoor adventure, it comes with inherent risks. Being prepared, understanding your environment, carrying the right gear, and knowing when and how to ask for help is crucial to ensuring a safe hiking experience.
Always remember the words of naturalist John Muir: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” Equip yourself with knowledge and respect for the wilderness to ensure your walks with nature are always enriching and safe. As you navigate the trails, be they smooth or rough, let your journey be marked by caution, preparedness, and unwavering respect for the beauty surrounding you.