Getting lost while hiking is one of the worst feelings in the world. The combination of fear, confusion, and loneliness can be overwhelming and often makes an already bad situation even worse.
Take it from me. I managed to get lost at about 9,000 feet in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California after I became disoriented on a trail section that was still covered by snow in early June. That on a day when I had already done everything wrong.
Because it was a reasonably short hike on a well-established trail, I ignored virtually all of the basic tenets of hiking safety.
I was alone. I headed out at the last minute and didn't tell anyone where I was hiking. I hadn’t packed any spare supplies or extra clothing. Then I thought I could make my way down by bushwhacking and hiking off trail. That led to a few nasty slides down loose scree, harrowing traverses of several waterfalls, and a particularly nasty encounter with stinging nettles.
Maybe everyone needs one of these experiences during their hiking career to learn the right lessons. But the real question isn’t what to do when you get lost. Rather, you want to figure out how not to get lost in the first place.
Before You Go
Have a plan. Everyone loves to be spontaneous but you really should make a decision about your day and then take the necessary steps to make that happen.
Know where you’re going. Pick a trail, then check a map and familiarize yourself with the terrain where you’ll be hiking. Are there stream crossings? Are there multiple junctions or intersecting trails that could be confusing?
Charge your phone. There’s no guarantee that you’ll have cell coverage on the trail. But you definitely won’t if your battery is dead.
Bring the essentials. Make sure that you’ve packed food, water, an extra layer of clothing, flashlight, compass, maps, fire starter, and whistle (more on that later).
Tell someone where and when you’re hiking. Let a friend or family member know your itinerary. Some people also leave a note inside their car at trailheads to help rescuers.
Check the weather forecast. Changing weather conditions can create problems on the trail. Rain swells rivers and makes crossings more difficult. Lightning is a major danger and by attempting to find a safe location, you might stray off the trail. And In cooler months, sudden snows can obscure trails and cause you to get lost too.
Don’t go out too late. If you’re hiking in the afternoon, check to see what time the sun will go down. Fading daylight can lead to a feeling of panic if you start becoming disoriented and will increase the risk of making bad decisions that exacerbate the situation.
On the Trail
Keep yourself oriented. Trails can look remarkably different depending on which way you’re hiking. Turn around frequently and take note of prominent landmarks and try to identify them on maps to keep track of your location. When you do get lost, your ability to recognize landmarks will help you determine that you’re actually on the right course back.
Pay attention to boot prints. You’ll often end up in areas where short-cutting hikers have created side trails and also spots where you arrive at a junction that you hadn’t anticipated. The main trail will typically show more wear and foot traffic. If any junctions are particularly confusing, create a small marker from rocks or branches to help with directions and then remove it on your return.
Avoid extended side trips. While responsible hiking means that you should always stay on established trails, many hikers do end up straying off to take photos, catch a view, or to find a place to sit. Don’t travel too far off the main trail and always keep track of where it is.
Trust your gut. You can often avoid getting lost by paying attention to your anxiety level. If you begin to sense that you’re losing your bearings, stop before you wander even further off course and try to reorient yourself.
What to Do When You’re Lost Hiking
Follow the STOP Rule. Easy to remember: Stop. Think. Observe. Plan.
Stay calm. Panic is the enemy and will lead to bad decisions and wasted energy. Find a comfortable spot, drink some water, have something to eat, and center yourself before taking any action.
Take inventory of your resources. Determine how much food and water you have and limit your intake to avoid depleting your stocks. There’s no need to start foraging for berries and grubs or drinking from streams until you absolutely have no choice.
Assess your situation. Take note of the location of the sun. And assuming you brought a map, look for landmarks and use your compass to see if you can figure your out your approximate location before making any moves.
Try to retrace your steps. Don’t go any farther down the trail and try to determine where you were last aware of your exact location. Assess whether you can work your back to that spot. If you can get there, you might then get reoriented and can hike back out on your own.
Check for phone coverage. If you’ve determined that you’re truly lost and can’t hike back out, see if you have cell phone coverage and call the authorities. And make sure that you’re not running any apps that could drain your battery.
Use your whistle. Other people in the area are more likely to hear a whistle than yelling, plus you’ll save your voice. Blow three distinct whistle blasts (a recognized distress signal), then wait a few minutes and repeat.
Make yourself noticeable. Find a clearing where can be spotted from the air. If you have any brightly colored objects or clothing, take these items out to provide additional visual cues for rescuers.
Start a small, contained fire. Smoke, even from a small fire, can draw attention to your location. But carefully tend the fire because lost hikers and hunters have sometimes accidentally started large wildfires. Which is a whole other problem.
Spending the Night
Find a sheltered spot. You may reach a point when you realize that you’re going to have spend the night outdoors. Plus if you try to push on after dark, you’re only likely to make things worse. Even in fairly mild conditions, hypothermia is a danger, so put on any extra clothing and locate a spot that’s out of the wind and any rain. Remember too that cold air sinks to the bottom of valleys.
Keep all of your senses engaged. Don’t wait until it’s already dark to find your spot. Gather wood for a fire and assemble some kind of shelter while you can still see. And avoid setting up camp near running water. The sound of a river may make it impossible for you to hear any rescuers.