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What To Do If You Get Lost Hiking

What to do if you get lost hiking

You’re hiking along a trail and you suddenly realize you’ve lost it. Stop where you are and try to remember how you got where you are. Can you remember any landmarks that you passed that you know were on the trail? When was the last time you saw a trail marker or evidence of trail maintenance activity like a sawn log end along the side of the trail?

Turn around slowly and look around you. Trail blazes and markers are set up bi-directionally on trails and you may be able to see one headed in the opposite direction that you walked past unknowingly. This is a useful trick on heavily blazed trails like the Appalachian Trail. If you see a trail marker or landmark you recognize, walk back to it to get back on the trail, turn around facing the direction you planned to travel, and resume your journey.

If you’re on a trail, but you don’t know which one, stay on it, pick a direction and keep going. Trails are marked with signs at trail junctions, which can help you determine your location. You’re also more likely to meet other people who can point you in the right direction. If the trail you’re following takes you to a dead-end, turn around and follow it back to its start.

If you can have no idea where you are, you’re not on a trail, and can’t see any trail markers or landmarks, the best advice is to stay put and wait for someone to find you. Search and Rescue can find you faster if you are close to a trail, even if you’re not on it. If you wander further away from the trail, then they have to do a much more involved search, which will take longer. If you have a cell phone and network access, call the state police and ask for assistance. They can determine your location from your cell phone signal. If you have a satellite locator or personal locator beacon, activating its emergency SOS beacon will also notify search and rescue services that you require assistance. If you don’t have any way to alert authorities yourself, the person you left a trip plan with should contact the authorities to look for you when you become overdue. If you don’t habitually leave hiking trip plans with someone you can trust to contact 911 if you’re overdue, maybe you should reconsider doing that.

Wandering around without a plan can be quite dangerous if you wander into hazardous terrain. Some people recommend following streams or rivers if you get hopelessly lost under the assumption that they’ll eventually lead to roads. This is a bad idea because the roughest terrain and vegetation you’re likely to encounter in backcountry areas is along the sides of streams and rivers. Your best bet is to stay put and wait for the authorities to find you.

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Written 2017.

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  1. When lost STOP:

    Stay Calm

  2. Thanks for the great tips :) As a search and rescue volunteer I can’t stress enough that lost hikers need to stay in place after contacting law enforcement for help! Which by the way in our state is the county sheriffs office. We ask for folks to call 911.

  3. If a person carries both a cell and an InReach or SPOT type device, and they can get cell signal, do you recommend calling 911 or activating the locator device?

  4. All good points, but I was surprised at how quickly we got to SOS, hunker down and wait for something that is non-trivial: an inconvenient and maybe expensive and dangerous rescue.

    After stopping and calmly accessing the full situation, you are probably going to have at least a rough idea of which direction you were hiking in when you got lost. If you are someone who reads Section Hiker you are going to have a map and compass with you. Maybe there’s something we can try before the SOS and stopping and waiting for rescue. It’s not a hard navigation skill to backtrack on a likely heading, counting minutes or steps and noticing the landscape as you go. Backtrack long enough so that you are past a point where you weren’t lost, then head at a right angle to your line of travel, using the same method of following compass and counting minutes or steps. If you want to put the odds in your favor for finding the path quicker, you originally head back to one side of the best-guess heading, so that you have a more likely right angle direction to take. You can always take the other right angle if no luck. If you still don’t find the trail, reverse the whole process to get back to approximately (or if you are good, exactly) where you were when you discovered that you were lost. You can then try again on a different heading, or send up the SOS and wait for the rescue.

    Another possibility is to look for a high point on your map and use similar techniques to find it, always keeping track of your starting point. From the high point you might be able to see the lay of the land.

    Finding the trail again this way is even easier if you were watching where the sun was in the sky as you hiked before getting lost. In years of hiking off-trail I was often in the middle of nowhere, but always knew how to find my way out.

    • 2 clarifications:

      The first method is basic compass and map reading, but the search for a vantage point can be more complicated. It probably goes without saying, but don’t do a search for a vantage point if you aren’t sure you have the compass skills to know how to return to your starting point. It’s always a good idea to practice with a map and compass in a safe area before going out where not having those skills becomes a life or death matter and makes it more likely to be dependent on others to do a search and rescue. With practice and experience you develop a natural awareness of where you are in the landscape and feel more at home in the wilderness. And it doesn’t have to be a task, orienteering on its own is a rewarding hobby.

      And I used “right-angle” when “90 degrees from your original heading” would have been clearer.

  5. Having been turned around on one particular occassion I decided to go the GPS route. It is not a panacea, but it can help and has let me become “un-confused” a few times while out in unfamilair terrain, usually while hunting. I mark the location of my car, turn it off and tuck it safely in my pocket. I may turn it on to mark specific locations that, should I need un-confusing, I can get back to guicker than the car but over all it remains off unless I need it. Once I need it I have a bearing and distance to my car, adjust for Mag vs Tru ( gps usually does this ) I use my hand held compass to head back to the road/vehicle. The device remains off unless I actually need the bearings.

  6. Well there was the through-hiker (Geraldine Largay) that got last in Maine a few years back. She left the trail, got lost and then STOP and waited to be rescued. a month later she had starved to death and she was about 2 miles from the trail. I looked at the map, she could have hiked 5 miles in any direction and hit a trail or logging road. Hiking in the East Coast rarely has empty, boundless wilderness. When I hike (especially bushwack) I try to found out what are the boundaries, what is the worst case scenario if I hike in a straight direction. If you know what roads, trail, rivers are in your area you do not have to fear being lost. Calling 911 and setting off emergency beacons is usually overkill unless you are truly remote.

    • Yes, but her case has been beaten to death and trying to second guess her actions here is fruitless. I hate to be a cold rag but I’m going to nip this thread in the bud. We can’t know what her decision making process was.

      How, do *you* manage to maintain a straight line off-trail in New England without having a compass or GPS. I would have though that was impossible. It is for me.

      • Straight line without a compass? The Indians and woodsmen could do it. You can use the Sun, the stick and pebbles method, the watch with hands as compass trick, moss, and even the wind can help if you know the local weather conditions. Always be aware of landmarks in sight and even trees at a distance, and keep careful track of necessary deviations and adjust your path afterwards. And if night hiking is required, there’s the North Star.

        • I doubt it. Most people skilled hikers don’t hike in straight lines, they follow terrain to minimize their effort. Even though I know how to hike on a bearing with a compass, I don’t usually stick to them for 5 miles cross country in New England. Following an as-the-crows-flies-route is working too hard.

      • Well I cant hike in a straight line without a compass :). My general point is that if I was lost in an area bounded by roads, trails, rivers by no more than 5 miles, I feel confident using either the sun or terrain to find my way out before I starve to death. My strategy (if I did not have a compass) would be to do a series of small hikes and mark my way back to my original lost point. if that did not work I would pick the most promising direction (based on my short hikes) and start hiking early in the day and go for it. If I was in a truely boundless area and had reason to believe searchers would be looking for me then I would “stay put” and your advice is good.

        • My advice is really meant for people who hike on trails and in trail networks. If you lose a trail, you’re first priority should be to reacquire it or another one that will lead you somewhere, rather than setting out off-trail. I think you hit it on the head – a series of small hikes with the intent of reacquiring the trail you lost. Beyond that, if you’re not accustomed to off-trail hiking and don’t have a compass, I think staying near the trail (even if you can’t find it) is preferable in the dense jungle of the North woods. That is if you left a hiking plan and someone will report you overdue. There are plenty of old roads in the North Woods that you may come across if you set out off-trail. The problem is that many don’t go anywhere. They’re old logging roads they often best ignored.

      • Understood. It can be hard work if in difficult terrain. There are constant decisions to make doing it without a compass, where to go straight on thru and where to deviate and then compensate as best you can. But the general direction is always the same, and with experience even surprisingly close to a compass heading. For fun try it in a safe area sometime with a goal in mind. You can leave something noticeable hanging from a branch, take a GPS reading and follow a compass heading away from it keeping aware of where the sun and moss are, then see if you can find it without a compass.

  7. I use a GPS mostly to record the time and distance for planning future hikes I lead. The bst part is you can always retrace your route. (i also always carry a map and compass)

  8. Great idea for a post. I love hiking but my biggest fear is that I will get lost one day especially when it starts to get dark. I hike with my kids and my spouse all the time and we have always managed to get around trails just fine but it is always in the back of mind that its important to pay attention to our surroundings in case we happen to make a wrong turn or go the wrong way. Luckily, most trails we go on are maintained well in Northern California but we have come across some that are a little misleading causing us to be a little more alert especially with small children. If it ever happens we will make sure to stop and not panic.

  9. good info, thank you for sharing this very useful article

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