Updated: Jul 7
Hiking can be a fun and refreshing experience. Getting outside in the fresh air, away from the hustle and bustle of our lives, is like a mini-vacation that we all could use more of. But there is also a dangerous side to hiking that you don't read about too often. Getting lost. Like most other sports activities, with hiking, the more experienced you are, the less chance you will make rookie mistakes. But under certain conditions, even the most experienced backpacker can get disoriented or even lost. What separates the experienced hiker from the rookie is how they react when they realize they are lost. The best tool you can have to survive in the wilderness if you get lost is a plan, actually, a pre-made plan that you made before you ever left your house. Many experienced hikers do not plan for the unexpected - unexpected weather, terrain, or even a semi-severe injury.
In April 2019, National Geographic published an article that mentioned a study that analyzed 100+ news reports over the last 25 years to identify the most common way adults in North America got lost while hiking in national parks and wilderness, what they did to survive, and how they made it out alive. 41% of the survivors began their odysseys, (which ranged from a half-day missing to 90 days,) by accidentally straying from the trail.
Another 16% fell off the trail and couldn't find their way back. How easy is it to stay on a beaten path, right? Well, it is easy, but think about when you're out there hiking and you stray a little off the path to get a great picture or a closer look at something. Straying off the trail is not dangerous in itself, just remember the further off the trail you go, the more you risk not being able to find your way back. Remember the pre-made plan I mentioned earlier? According to the US Forest Service the essentials of that plan should include:
More than enough food and water for the activity you plan
A compass that you know how to use. You may want a GPS device but those sometimes do not receive a signal or the battery fails. Cell phones also likely will not work because of a lack of signal.
Appropriate maps. Study the terrain and your planned route. Know where you are going and how you will return.
Sturdy hiking boots, clothes that you can layer depending on the weather conditions and additional socks in case the ones you are wearing get wet.
A blanket, flashlight, matches kept in a water-resistant container, and other items that will help you survive overnight if necessary.
Check with the local ranger district or forest office for special warnings, such as fires in the area, bear sightings, flooding, trail or road closures, etc.
It’s also important that once you have planned your outing, tell someone. Give them exact details of where you are going, the trail you plan to follow, when you will return, the vehicle you are driving (and where you plan to park), and how many people will go with you. If you are a beginner it's a good idea not to go alone.
If you do become lost it is very important to keep a positive mental attitude. Keeping a good attitude will help you relax and think more clearly. From the moment you realize you are lost, every move from that moment on should be calculated and intentional. The US Forest Service has an effective acronym that they suggest every lost hiker should follow: S.T.O.P
As soon as you realize you may be lost: stop, stay calm, stay put. Panic is your greatest enemy.
Go over in your mind how you got to where you are. What landmarks should you be able to see? Do not move at all until you have a specific reason to take a step.
Get out your compass and determine the directions based on where you are standing. Do not walk aimlessly.
If you are on a trail, stay on it. All trails are marked with signs (where intersections meet) and with diamond blazers or markers. However, signs are sometimes vandalized or stolen.
As a very last resort, follow a drainage or stream downhill. This is often a difficult path but could lead to a trail or road. Again, this could be very dangerous.
Based on your thinking and observations, come up with some possible plans, think them through then act on one of them.
If you are not very, very confident in the route, then it’s always better to stay put.
If it’s nightfall, you are injured or you are near exhaustion, stay in place.
What to do if you have to stay the night in the wilderness
If you are lost and will have to spend a night or two in the wild, your two worst enemies are exposure and thirst. In most cases you will need those extra layers you brought when you planned your outing. The body can go without food for up to three weeks, but cannot last more than three days without water! When you are lost, tired, and thirsty, water is worth its weight in gold and could literally be the difference between dying out there or making it out alive.
Start a fire when it's light if you can. Starting a fire in the wild can be more difficult than you think even if you have matches. If you can't see what to gather for a fire because it's dark, even matches won't help you. Try to stay warm and dry. Unless it's mid-Summer in a place where the temperature doesn't fluctuate that much, it might get very cold at night after a hot sun has dehydrated you and made you sweat all day. Solve little problems before they become big problems like a wrinkle in your sock that could cause a blister. T
Take care of a cut or laceration before it becomes infected with dirt and sweat. Lastly, your emotional state is just as important as your physical. Try to keep a positive attitude. You are going to be lonely, stressed, and scared. They are only feelings - they are not the best gauge of your overall situation. Remember, most people who get lost in the wild are eventually rescued. By following a few simple rules, you can drastically improve the odds of making it out alive. Please see below our fact/safety sheet you should consult before all of your outdoor adventures. Keep Climbing!