Getting lost is every hiker’s worst nightmare. Whether you’ve simply wandered off the trail or some bad weather rolled in, getting lost is not how you want to spend your next outdoor adventure.
Ideally, we can avoid getting lost in the mountains in the first place. But, if you do get lost while hiking, you need to stop moving and stay where you are. As you try to retrace your steps in your mind, you can observe the terrain around you to see if anything looks familiar. Then, you can start to make a plan for getting back to civilization.
Although no one ever wants to get lost, it’s important that we know what to do if we get disoriented on the trail. So, here are some top tips for getting yourself back home if you get lost while hiking.
WHY PEOPLE GET LOST
Let’s face it: We all get disoriented sometimes. However, when that disorientation makes it difficult or impossible to find your way on a hiking trip, things can get dangerous.
But, why do people get lost, anyway? A new study by Smoky Mountains analyzed over 100 news reports from the last 25 years to learn more about why and how people get lost while hiking.
These are the most common reasons why people got lost in the outdoors:
- Wandering off the trail 41% 41%
- Got stuck in bad weather 17% 17%
- Physically fell off the trail 16% 16%
- Got separated from their group 8% 8%
- Got injured 7% 7%
- Got caught in the dark 6% 6%
- Lost or damaged their gear 5% 5%
- Got lost due to other reasons 1% 1%
So, as we can see, the vast majority of people get lost because they lose track of their surroundings. This can happen because the trail disappears, foul weather rolls in, or they accidentally wander away from their group.
PREPARATION IS KEY
In a perfect world, we would never get lost. Instead, we always hope to stay found. But, staying found involves a lot of preparation and planning, which starts before you ever leave home. Here are some of the things you can do to avoid getting lost as you plan your trip:
TELL SOMEONE ABOUT YOUR PLANS
If you’ve ever watched the movie 127 Hours, you know how important it is to tell someone where you’re going. In the movie, Aron Ralston’s biggest mistake was that he went into the canyons without telling his friends or family that he was going out. If he had, a rescue team might’ve gotten to him sooner.
So, tell someone where you’re going. Leave a note, send a text, or call your friends. Give them an idea of where you’re going and what time you should be back. Also, give your friends an idea of when they should start to worry. While some people will freak out if you’re not home exactly when you said you would be, others won’t call the cops until the next day.
BRING THE RIGHT GEAR
The Smoky Mountains study, Safe & Found, which looked at why hikers get lost, also investigated what helps people survive in these situations. The answer? Warmth, food, shelter, and water.
Without these four basic things, hikers have a fairly low chance of survival. However, a lot of people go into the outdoors underprepared. This is particularly true of day hikers, who often carry minimal gear with them on the trail to lower their pack weight.
The study found that 22% of hikers that survived getting lost in the mountains relied on their clothes and camping gear to stay warm. Another 11% of lost hikers said that their camping gear was essential for making a shelter to protect them from the elements. Plus, 35% of these hikers survived off of their own food supplies until help came. So, having the right gear can be critical for survival should you get lost.
THE 10 ESSENTIALS
Hikers should carry the gear they need to survive an unexpected night outside on every trip. At a bare minimum, hikers should always have the ten essentials in their pack. The ten essentials include:
- Extra Clothes. Bring enough to stay warm while hiking and an extra layer, just in case.
- Shelter. This can be as complex as a tent or as simple as an emergency blanket.
- Water. Carry enough water with you and have a way to treat water on the trail.
- First Aid. Always have a medical kit with basic trauma supplies and OTC medications.
- Navigation. Carry a map, compass, as well as a GPS. Also, be sure you know how to use them.
- Headlamp. A light source is essential if you get benighted on the trail. Don’t forget spare batteries!
- Fire Starter. Pack lighters, matches, and fire starters on every outing. Consider a small stove for more remote trips. Starting a small fire at night can keep you warm and may also boost your morale.
- Sun protection. Even if it’s cloudy, pack sunglasses, sunscreen, and protective clothing.
- Food. Bring enough food for the day and then pack a bit extra, just in case.
- Knife. A good knife is an indispensable tool in the outdoors.
Pro Tip: You could also consider bringing along an emergency whistle and blowing it periodically to attract the attention of anyone nearby.
By the time you start hiking, hopefully, you’ve done everything you can to prepare for your trip. Once you’re on the trail, though, you need to do everything you can to stay found.
Staying found is all about situational awareness. Since 41% of hikers simply wander off the trail, it’s important that you pay attention to your surroundings at all times. This is particularly important in places like Alpine Meadows, where trails tend to frequently disappear. Here are some things you can do to stay found:
- Look For Landmarks. If you spend a lot of time in forested terrain, everything will start to look the same. Keep an eye out for bridges, distinctive peaks, or anything else that’s easily identifiable. This can help you pinpoint your location if you lose your way.
- Check Your Map. Even if you’re hiking on a trail, you should check your map frequently. For off-trail travel, checking your map at least once every 5 minutes and at every break is ideal. When hiking on-trail, every 15-20 minutes is usually sufficient. Ideally, you can start to connect the terrain around you with what’s on the map so it’s easier to find your way.
- Stay With The Group. When hiking with a group, always stay within shouting distance of them. This is especially important in forested terrain, where you can easily get disoriented. Always tell someone if you’re leaving camp or wandering away to answer nature’s call, so they know where you are.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET LOST
Despite your best efforts, you might end up lost while hiking. If this happens, the most important thing is that you do not panic. Of course, this is easy to say when we’re sitting comfortably at home and less so when you’re lost in the mountains. But, panicking is the easiest way to cloud your judgment, which will make it harder for you to find your way.
If you get lost while hiking, your ultimate goal is to get found. This can be as simple as relocating the trail or as complex as a full-fledged mountain rescue. So, what should you do if you get lost? Here are some top tips:
REMEMBER TO STOP
If you get lost, you can use the STOP acronym to help you get back on track:
- STOP. Your very first course of action is to stop moving and to take a deep breath. At this point, what’s important is that you calm down enough to make rational decisions about what you’re going to do moving forward. Take your pack off, sit down, take a sip of water, and put on a layer. If you’re truly lost, you won’t solve your problem in the next 30 seconds, so make yourself comfortable.
- THINK. Once you’ve calmed down, you can start to think about where you might be. Think about how you got to your present position and consider where you might be on the map. Above all, stay where you are.
- OBSERVE. Take a look around you. What landmarks do you see? Look at the ground around you for signs of past human travel. This can include moss scraped off of rocks, footprints, and fire rings. Also look for signs of a trail, such as a blaze on a tree. Take out your compass, map, and GPS and try to determine your location.
- PLAN. Once you have a good idea of your surroundings, it’s time to come up with some possible plans. If you’re on a trail, stay on it. Otherwise, if you’re not confident in your route or your navigation skills, it’s best to stay where you are. This is particularly important if it’s late in the day as nighttime navigation can be quite tricky.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
Perhaps the biggest decision that any lost hiker needs to make is whether or not they will stay put or try to walk to safety. While conventional wisdom tells us to stay put when lost, the study from Smoky Mountains found that 65% of hikers decided to keep moving. However, the same study found that 77% of lost hikers need to be rescued, so very few people are successful in walking out on their own.
So, while you might feel compelled to keep moving, sometimes staying put is the better idea. But, both staying put and trying to walk out on your own have their advantages and disadvantages.
STAYING IN ONE LOCATION
Staying put is a good way to conserve your energy when lost. It’s also a good way to ensure that you’re not making your situation any worse. You should consider staying in one location if:
- You told someone where you were going
- You’re on a trail, road, or along a body of water
- It’s starting to get dark
- The weather is getting worse
- You are injured or are too tired to keep moving
- You’re are and are not confident in your navigation skills
If you do choose to stay in one location, keep yourself as warm as possible. Gather food and water, if possible, and take shelter to stay dry. Also, try to make yourself visible so nearby rescuers can easily see you.
MOVE TOWARD SAFETY
Many lost hikers want to get out of the woods as quickly as possible. So, people often try to get home on their own. This can be a good idea if you’re a skilled backcountry navigator, but it could make your situation worse if you accidentally wander further off your path. You should consider moving if:
- You are confident in your plan to get to safety
- It is early in the day and you have plenty of daylight ahead of you
- The terrain around you is exposed and there is nowhere to take shelter
Should you choose to keep moving, be sure to stop and rest every 30 minutes so you don’t exhaust yourself. Additionally, stop hiking long before it gets dark so you can set up camp for the night.
DON’T GET LOST, STAY FOUND
At the end of the day, surviving in the outdoors is all about good decision making. While we never hope to get lost while hiking, we need to be prepared for any eventuality.
If you have the right equipment and skills, you can often get yourself out of a tricky situation. However, sometimes, the best thing to do when you’re lost is to stay put. It’s important to stay warm, dry, hydrated, and fed whenever possible whether you choose to walk to safety or wait for help to come.