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Lost in the Woods: Why It Could Happen to You and What You Should Do

It really can happen to anyone. One minute you’re on a forest trail, you lose concentration for a couple of minutes, and the next minute you’ve lost your bearings. You have no idea at all how to get back to your path.

For some people, it could be a worrying five minutes, but for others, it could be the start of something life-changing or even fatal. Which it is, depends on your actions, both before you set out and at the point you become lost.

Let Someone Know

Before you set out on a hike, even for an hour or two, tell someone where you’re heading and when you expect to get back. That’s the first and most important safety rule. It guarantees that people will be looking for you as soon as possible in the right area if you get lost.

Survival Kit

On serious hikes, take a basic survival kit with your most essential needs. Cold and dehydration are the top risks in the wild, so your kit should include something to keep you warm, maybe a space blanket or similar, and ideally a water purifying kit, like Berkey Filters.

Some concentrated food is a good idea too, although it’s possible to survive for three weeks without food, as opposed to a maximum of three days without water. A fully charged cell phone should be taken too, even though you may lose the signal. A whistle, matches and a compass should all be in there.

Don’t Panic

Your actions at the point you know you’re lost can save you. First of all, don’t panic. You need to assess your situation and your options before you move. There are a lot of wrong directions you could take, and only one correct one. If you set off in a blind panic, you will probably shoot off the wrong way.

Having said that, a momentary loss of bearings doesn’t necessarily mean staying put till you’re found. If you’re pretty sure you know the right way back to the trail, and it’s close, you could walk in that direction, observing landmarks as you go, and leaving markers. You may be able to find the trail quickly. If not, then follow the markers to where you were before.

You may know the right general direction by looking at the position of the sun or by using your compass. If you’re confident, then you could set off in that direction, depending on distances and the terrain. But be aware of the time. If you’re not on a trail and you may not hit a road before dark, then stop in your tracks, and prepare for nightfall.

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Stay Put

If you have no idea which way the trail is or the direction you should be heading, then the best thing to do is to stay put.

Once the search is on, it will cover one area at a time. After covering one area, it’s unlikely the searchers will go back and look there again. You could be walking in circles, so you could go back into an area that’s already been combed. You are more likely to be found if you stay put.

Take Shelter

Once you’ve made up your mind to stop, think about your situation again. If it’s nearing nightfall, your priority will be to find or construct a shelter to keep you from the worst of the cold and wet. Overhanging rocks or large trees can give you a start.

A propped up bough with side struts and debris on top can provide protection from rain and a bed of leaves and needles can insulate you against cold coming up through the ground.

Then look for a water source if there’s time before nightfall. Otherwise, that’s a job for first thing the next day.

Stay Positive

Work on positive actions. That will help fight fear and loneliness. Most areas will have a local search and rescue group, usually run by volunteers, who will be alerted when someone’s reported missing.

A fire can guide rescuers. In the daylight, you can use a reflective blanket or mirror. If you hear searchers, blow your whistle or shout. Don’t run towards the sound in case you miss each other. Stay put and do what you can to make yourself obvious from the air. Collect and filter some drinking water, and work on your shelter.

Be confident that staying where you are is definitely the best thing you can do.


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Walter J Mcdaniel has worked in importing Home and Garden product business for over 7 years. He has a B.S. in business from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He has worked in Asia and Europe before he established his own company.

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