You’re hiking deep in the wilderness and decide to leave the trail to search for food, water or camp. After an hour or two, it starts to get dark. You go to hike back to the trail, but aren’t sure which way it is. You find nothing when trying to head back in the same direction. You keep hiking and everything starts to look familiar as it gets dark. Still, you find no trail. You’re definitely lost in the woods. This scenario is some people’s greatest nightmare.
The next morning you hope things will be clearer, but they aren’t. Again, you start to hike in the same direction. At this point it’s been almost a whole day since you’ve seen a trail or any sign of civilization. You start to think about your family and if you will ever see them again. You start to lose hope. It’s important to discuss how to stay calm if lost in the woods so you’ll know what do if it happens.
Do Not Panic
The absolute worst thing you can do in this scenario is panic. Like with any animal, you have a fight or flight mechanism when threatened. Your body fills veins with adrenaline to prepare you for the upcoming challenge. Unfortunately, this also clouds your ability to think clearly. This isn’t a situation you can fight or run your way out. Keep your head clear and calm. Take deep breaths to lower your heart rate before you make any decisions. Remember that the vast majority of hikers lost in the woods make it home just fine. Losing your head won’t help you in any way.
One of the worst mistakes that you can make when lost in the woods is to try to hike their way out with no strategy. You’ll walk aggressively with no particular direction in mind when panicked. This makes your panic worse and often moves you further away from rescue. In addition, it depletes valuable calories and dehydrates you. The best thing to do when lost is to sit down where you are. Take a good long break and catch your breath. As your mind clears, think back to the last time you knew where you were. Think of any clues that might help you get back there. In many cases, your best bet is to actually set up camp right where you are and wait for rescue. Without a strategic plan, continuing to hike will accomplish nothing.
Assess the Situation
To effectively find your way back to civilization, calmly look at where you stand. Look around at the environment. Are the topography and foliage the same as the last place you remember knowing where you were? Listen to the sounds around you. Can you hear any traffic, people, planes, or water? Look at the ground. Do you see any game trails or boot prints? Smell the air. Do you smell any exhaust? These can all be valuable clues.
Check your pack and pockets to inventory the resources that you have on hand. Think back to the last time you drank water or ate anything. Check to see if you’re sunburnt or injured in any other way. Think about who might know that you’re hiking in this area or anybody that might notice you missing. Finally, check the sun to estimate how much daylight you have and potentially your cardinal directions. This can be a lifesaver.
To estimate daylight, hold four fingers at arm’s length between the sun and the horizon. Each finger is about 15 minutes. For example, if you can fit your hand between the sun and horizon four times then you have four hours of sunlight. Build a sun compass or just consider that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West to estimate cardinal directions. Think about a map of the area in which you’re hiking. Think about whether you turned right or left off of the trail. You might be able to remember a cardinal direction to take back to the trail or to a large water source or road.
Devise a Plan
Often your best plan is to stay where you are. It’s very common for people to become lost less than a mile from their trail. Any way you have to signal for help will be effective in this case. You can build a signal fire and find litter to make the smoke black. Use anything reflective to signal vehicles if you’re out in the open. You can always yell for help, but a signal whistle is less taxing and louder. Anything brightly colored can be used as a flag for signaling. You can also use natural materials to spell out a giant SOS in the open. Make sure to use dark materials on a light surface or light materials on a dark surface.
If you genuinely have a solid plan to find civilization, take the proper precautions. This means you have a specific direction of travel along with a target to reach and enough daylight to reach it. For example, you remember that your trail was primarily heading West to East from the parking lot. You turned right off of the trail and walked perpendicular to the trail. Right now the sun is showing that you have three hours of daylight and it’s hanging to your left. This means walking forward will take you North. In theory this will take you back to the trail. You can hike three miles in an hour with your pack, so that’s nine miles before dark. You know that there is no way you could have been lost for nine miles. Now you have a solid plan for hiking out.
Make a large distinct arrow on the ground that shows your direction of travel before you leave. In addition, you need to blaze your trail. This means using your blade and chopping a section of bark off of a tree every 20 to 30 yards. This exposes the white inner bark and acts like breadcrumbs to help rescuers follow your trail. You can also use this to find your way back to the original spot if there’s a navigation error.
Whatever plan you choose, stick to your plan as long as possible. Having accepted a plan will give you a calming effect that will prevent panic. If the decision is to stay put, keep doing that until you are running out of resources and have no option but to hike out. If you decide to hike out, keep to your plan unless new information shows a mistake. Uncertainty breeds panic. Don’t let that happen.
Sure, being lost in the woods can be scary. Remember that bravery isn’t the ability to avoid fear. It’s the ability to feel fear and move forward anyways. Slow down, take a deep breath, and remain calm. Take the time to run through these steps before you actually become lost. The right plan will come if you’re able to control your emotions and think clearly.