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.
Written 2017.Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the affiliate links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.