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What to Do If You Get Lost on a Hike

What Is This "Stay Calm" You Speak Of?

By

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If only finding the way back were always this easy.

Photo © Lisa Maloney

Nobody sets out to get lost on a hike, but sometimes things go wrong -- like the time an eagle swooped right over my head, then zipped off across the mountainside. I just had to follow it and see what had drawn its attention. I didn't realize I was lost until I tried to find my way back to the trail... and couldn't.

Here's what you can to prepare before you go hiking, and what to do once you realize you're lost:

Before You Go

  • Create a safety net. Tell somebody you trust where you're going, when you expect to be back, and who to alert if you don't show up on time -- then stick to your original plan. If something does go wrong, someone will know where to start looking for you.

    The Friends of YOSAR website suggests leaving even more with your trusted friend: a recent photo, scent articles, a description of your vehicle plus its license plate numbers, and a record of your sole pattern and size.

  • Pack an emergency kit. Pack a map and compass (among these other essential items), and know how to use them -- they might be just what you need to get un-lost. A GPS can be helpful too, but there's a lot that can go wrong when you take advanced technology into the wilderness; ultimately, a map and compass are more reliable.

    Your emergency kit should also contain some means of signaling for help. If you're lucky enough to be hiking in a place with cell phone service, you might be able to phone for help -- but phone batteries die or service can cut out, so carry a backup method of signaling for help, like an emergency whistle.

    If you get lost and have to spend an unplanned night outside, having a few other small, light items in your emergency kit -- like a space blanket and fire-starting materials -- can make a big difference. And remember, every single thing you have on you becomes a potential tool; even your trekking poles can be put to use as part of a splint or an emergency shelter.

  • Stay aware of your surroundings. Once you're out on the trail, use these lost-proofing tips to stay oriented and keep yourself from getting lost in the first place.

I'm Lost. Now What?

You might still be able to get yourself un-lost. But first, follow the STOP acronym:

  • Stop. If you move around without a good plan, you're likely to get even more lost. So for now sit down, take a few deep breaths, drink some water, and remember that because you shared your plans with a person you trust, somebody is going to come looking for you.

  • Think back to the last time you were sure of your location. Mentally recap everything you did since that moment. Did you pass any landmarks that you can use to guide yourself back?

  • Observe your surroundings. Can you see or hear any clues that might guide you back onto the right path? Consult your map: Are there any roads, or major terrain or water features, that you can orient on? Can you see or hear them from where you're at?

  • Plan your course of action. Even if you're confident that you can now navigate your way back to known terrain, choose a nearby, easily visible landmark to help guide you back to your starting point in case things go wrong. If it's getting dark or you're not sure you can make it back to your starting point at need, staying put may be your best option.

While You Stay Put

  • Whistle or call for help if you haven't already, then listen for a response. (Don't keep shouting for a long time, because your vocal cords will get tired quickly. Use a whistle if you have it; three blasts is the universal signal for "Help!")

  • Find dry shelter. Put on extra layers, if you have them, and find a dry, sheltered spot where you can hear or see rescuers coming. A carefully tended fire can both keep you warm and make you more visible to searchers. But be careful: You don't want to burn down your shelter or cause a forest fire.

  • Make yourself visible from both land and air. Attract searchers' attention with something that's obviously human-made, like spelling "HELP" or "SOS" with rocks laid in a clearing. Hang brightly colored clothing, or something shiny, from tree limbs to draw extra attention.

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