How to React if You Become Lost

During one early winter afternoon in the mid-1980s, two friends drove for miles on a Forest Service road in Montana. Far from a paved road, their vehicle became stuck. The pair elected to hike into the forest rather than retrace their entry route. They eventually concluded that they were lost. Wandering along, they came across what they believed to be an abandoned ranger station. They decided that they should do something that could attract attention from afar. Their idea? Set the cabin on fire.

It turns out the cabin had been designated as a historic structure. The hikers, discovered not long after the cabin was set ablaze, were cited for destroying public property.

Better options exist for handling such a situation. These hikers, for instance, had actually found an excellent survival shelter, yet in their panicked thinking they destroyed it. In the process, they endangered the surrounding forest as well.

We hope you never become lost. If it happens, though, be prepared to calmly respond to the situation. It would have been much better for these 2 hikers if they had a backup plan in mind before they started making bad decisions.

What follows is an assortment of advice we have gleaned from experienced navigators and search-and-rescue educators. Consider making a printout of these tips and carrying it with you on your next backcountry trip.

Before The Trip

  • Always try to plan for the unexpected "what ifs?" What if I get delayed? Lost? Injured? Am I prepared to cope with that?
  • If you don't already own a compass, select an inexpensive beginners' model. Prices start around $10. Advance to a more sophisticated compass as your navigation skills improve. Keep the original as a backup.
  • Learn basic map-and-compass navigational skills. Some good starting points is reading map and compass stories at this web site.  Take a navigation class. GO frequently schedules such classes.  Community colleges or high schools with adult extension programs often offer such classes on weekends or at night.
  • Find a friend who really understands topographic maps and compass usage; ask that person to join you on a day hike and learn all you can.
  • Pick a trip, even a day hike, and study your intended route on a map in advance at home. Doing so when you're not under any pressure gives you time to become more familiar and comfortable with the unique markings of a topographic map.

Worthwhile Additional Items to Carry

  • Cell phone: Realize that rugged backcountry terrain often blocks cell phones from connecting to transmitter towers, rendering them useless in the wilderness. If you're fairly close to a city, cell phones may work high on an open ridgeline.
  • GPS receiver: These sophisticated units are great for identifying the points where you have traveled, but usually only a compass (some GPS models are exceptions) can tell you which direction you are facing — essential information for backcountry navigation.
  • 2-way radios: These devices customarily have a maximum range of 2 miles, though certain terrain features (steep cliffs, deep gorges) may limit their signals. They're handy for keeping track of independent explorers who insist on traveling at their own pace.
  • Glow stick or chem light: These items could make you easier to spot at night.
  • IMPORTANT: Let someone know where you're going, what route you plan to take and your estimated return time. If you get lost, the sooner a rescue operation begins, the better for your searchers and you, the lost party.

    Tip: Make a photocopy of a map with your intended route highlighted, then leave it with a family member, friend or a ranger. Slide one more copy under the seat of your vehicle at the trailhead. (Rescuers, racing against time, may attempt to enter your car at a trailhead in search of clues to your possible whereabouts.) If you change your plans before you start a trip, call and update someone, even if you simply leave a message on an answering machine.

During The Trip

  • Carry the 10 EssentialsConsider also carrying a spare flashlight, a pencil or pen, and a stash of emergency food (such as energy bars) that you promise yourself you won't consume during hunger attacks earlier in the trip. Tote a lightweight space blanket, too; it could help you more comfortably endure a chilly night.

  • Check your map regularly, even if you are walking on an obvious trail. Get acquainted with seeing how markings on a map depict the topography all around you.

  • Stay together! If members of your group begin hiking separately, someone might get mixed up at a trail junction and get lost.

  • Carry a whistle and keep it within easy reach. If you become lost or injure yourself, don't rely on easily fatigued vocal chords to signal for help. A whistle lasts longer and its sound carries farther. Make sure your kids are individually equipped with whistles. Some people carry whistles attached to the shoulder straps of their packs for easy access.

    Tip: Three blasts of a whistle is a universal signal for help.

  • Wear a watch and know what time sunset occurs. Autumn hikers, still accustomed to long summer days, often overestimate the amount of daylight available to them.

  • Avoid overconfidence. Some people believe getting lost only "happens to other people." Put away your ego and regularly double-check your position and your understanding of where you think you should be. If the two don't match up, stop and reevaluate. When you reach major terrain features — a trail crossing, bridge or shelter — see if you can locate that feature on your map. This will assure that you know where you are.
  • If You're Lost

    Remember an acronym favored by the Emergency Response Institute of Olympia, Wash.: S-T-O-P. Stop, Think, Observe and Plan.

    • Stop: If you feel uncomfortable with your situation, don't go any further. Don't panic, either. Young or inexperienced backcountry travelers should be taught to stay put once they feel lost. "Hug a tree" is familiar, and worthwhile, advice. The rule changes if the area is unsafe or someone in your group needs medical attention. Count to 10, drink some water or eat a little food. These acts often give you a fresh perspective and help you better assess your situation.

    • Think: Where were you when you were last certain of your location? Was it at a trail junction? A river crossing? A place where you can take bearings to obvious physical landmarks that appear on the map? Can you navigate back to that point? Can you hear or see helpful landmarks like a road or trail? If so, carefully return to that spot and reevaluate your options. Remember, you can take control.

    • Observe: Put your senses on full alert. Picture in your mind all distinctive features you spotted as you came to your current position. Remember the details or any oddities that spurred you to make a mental note. Can you use them as waypoints to guide you back to a place where you were confident of your location? If so, return to that spot. Can you connect with a known trail from that point? Do so. If not, stay put. It's easier for rescuers to find you near your original line of travel. Are there any items there that can be useful to you? Any hazards you need to avoid? When will it get dark? How does the weather look?

    • Plan: If you are with others, talk over a plan. If not, it can be useful to say the plan out loud as if you were explaining it to someone else. If it makes sense, then follow your plan. If not, revise your plan. If the situation changes as you follow that plan, use "STOP" again to improve your chances for a safe recovery.

      Tip: Are you confident that you are near a "baseline" object such as a major road? If so, and you are certain of its direction and have sufficient daylight, consider bushwhacking to that object.

    Additional Considerations

  • If you have a cell phone and can make contact with the outside world, describe your position and your route of travel as best you can. Request help, then STAY PUT — unless there is a trail or other major feature that you can see from your current location. Start your trip with a fully charged battery and treat your phone as emergency equipment; don't waste your battery.

  • Realize when you request a rescue, it could take a long time — several hours — before rescuers reach you. This is not like calling the police in a city. Most often search-and-rescue teams, while very professional, are all-volunteer units of private individuals who sacrifice their time to come to the aid of strangers. Be patient, and be appreciative of their service.

  • Make use of your 10 Essentials. Use your fire starter to ignite a manageable blaze. A smoky one is visible even in the day.

  • Position yourself in a clear area, away from trees, so you will be easily visible from the air. Laying out a brightly colored item, such as your pack or anything that is a contrast from the surrounding environment, is also a sound approach.

  • If you are going to spend the night, do not camp close to rushing water. Its sound might obscure the voice of rescuers calling out to you.

  • Always observe your surroundings at any stage of a trip. A topographic map tells you a lot, but even a topo using 40-foot contour lines may not show you a 30-foot cliff. Keep track of noteworthy physical landmarks. How will you be able to spot them on your return? Sometimes just turn around during a hike and take note of how the terrain looks from a reverse perspective. Always anticipate the course of your return trip.

  • If you use markers on your trip, always remove them during your return leg. Otherwise your old markers could confuse other travelers.
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