The realization is slowly setting in that you’re lost. It’s better to admit sooner rather than later that you’re lost. In a true lost in the wilderness situation this admission is one of the most important things you can for yourself. Admitting to it sooner betters your chances of coming out on top of the experience.
You can begin the next phase once you’ve taken that Herculean leap and accepted the reality of the situation. It’s time to assess your situation. Take a minute, find a comfortable spot, and sit down if you can. Naturally, the situation will dictate if this is possible. In most cases the best thing you can do in that moment is nothing. Take a seat and think about your situation.
Most people will panic once the reality is laid bare to them. This will only make their situation worse and potentially cause injury. Because in their panic people don’t think clearly or make rational decisions. They blindly stumble through the woods, often times injuring themselves in the process. That’s why it’s so important to take a forced minute and sit down. Clear your head and do a real analysis of the situation.
Consider where you are. The location will have tremendous impact on your actions. Are you simply lost in a large state park? Or are you lost on the western face of the Rockies? These two situations pose dramatically different challenges to the survivor. Again, that’s why we need to stop for a minute and think about things.
You should be going through a mental checklist by now. Ask yourself, did you tell someone where you were going and when you’d be back? That will give you an idea of the amount of time to make it through before rescue potentially starts. Next item to consider is your environment. Is it cold or is it likely to be? Are you at altitude? What’s the weather like and is there a front moving in? Is it extremely hot? Can I be seen from here? These are examples of the kinds of things you need to be thinking about.
During the first part of the process you’re going to be formulating a list of priorities. Is a shelter an immediate concern? It may not be, water may be the more pressing issue for you. Is there a possibility it’s going to get below freezing so I’ll need a fire? Am I wet? These are all immediate concerns and the prioritization needs to be sorted out, so you begin on what’s most important.
If you’re in the northern woods in a driving snowstorm, water isn’t going to be your highest priority. Fire isn’t even your highest priority. Shelter is your biggest concern in this environment. You need to get out of the wind to help protect your core temp. This may mean an impromptu shelter or putting up the tent that’s in your pack. The key here is that your situation will dictate what’s the biggest threat to you at the moment.
A number of people in the survival community list the priorities of survival as an almost ironclad set of rules. Fire, shelter, water, food. This may not always be the case, so take a moment for some self-awareness. As I demonstrated earlier, your unique situation will dictate how those items should be prioritized. Worrying about melting snow so you can stay hydrated in a blinding blizzard isn’t nearly as important as trying to get out of it. Let the situation you find yourself in establish those priorities.
Next thing to consider is, what supplies are with you? Unless you’re on a ridiculous TV show naked, you should have some supplies. Empty your pockets when you take that minute to sit down. Inventory every item you have. Dump your pack as I can’t count the number of times there’s been something in it that I had no idea was there. Which is now the reason I have a dedicated airport pack!
Everything that’s on you, is all you’re going to have. So, treat every item with due respect, even if it’s only a safety pin. You never know just what piece of kit will make the difference between success and failure. Once you have gone through everything, repack it. This is a good way to force yourself to continue to sit there.
The last part of your evaluation is the hardest. It’s time to consider yourself. What is your skill level, your real skill level? This isn’t the time for bravado or false hopes. You need to admit to yourself exactly what you’re capable of and what you’re not. A false sense of your own skill level can lead to some very dangerous waters, so be honest.
Second, what is your physical condition? Can you realistically walk twenty miles out of the mountains to that gas station or not? If so, then great. Ruck up and get on the road. If not, then it’s time to start thinking about surviving in place.
Now that you’ve established your priorities and determined what there is to work with, it’s time for a plan. Also, in this part of the evaluation your unique situation will determine just what you do. Are you with your car? If so, stay with it! Often when people get lost in their cars in the more wilder places, the cars are found before they are. If you have something as big and contrasting as a vehicle in the woods, stay with it. It’s much larger than you are and if rescue does launch, that’s what they’ll be looking for. Don’t give up such a huge asset.
If you’re on foot, the same rationale applies. Once you’re lost, stay put. Find a suitable campsite in the immediate area and set up house. Rescue personnel are very schooled in the art of tracking and they will be following the sign you left. Make it easier on them and stay put. Naturally your environment will determine if you have to move. Considerations like water and topography may well force you to move.
If you do move, leave some indication of your direction of travel. Stack rocks in an arrow. Lay sticks down in the same fashion. Break limbs over as you walk. Pull them over in the same direction you’re traveling. If you have a marker or pen, scrape the bark from trees at eye level and leave a note. Include your name, date, time, and direction of travel.
This will give rescuers a known time and place for you. This is very important for them as they work off last known position to begin or alter their search patterns. Stop and set up shop once you’ve found a place to wait for rescue. Prepare signals and continue working to improve your situation.
Of course, there is the chance that your assessment reveals that you can’t wait for rescue because there isn’t one coming. You may have to self-rescue. That’s why it’s so important to conduct this assessment in the first place. This may also reveal that you need to start moving and the sooner the better. Let the current conditions dictate what you need to do. Blindly smashing through the bush isn’t going to do that for you.
Remember though, that you never want to be in this situation if it can be avoided. Proper planning before going out will limit your chances of finding yourself in a survival situation. Then proper planning once you’re in one will increase your odds of survival. Take your assessment seriously and think it out. This isn’t the time to rush things, that’s probably what got you into this situation in the first place. Approach the issue mechanically and let the pieces of your survival puzzle fall into place as a result.