Getting lost in the Wilderness
Scott Janz November 13, 2016 3

What if I get lost in the Wilderness?

One of the more popular comments we get when we teach backpacking is “what happens if I get lost”?  It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Any Search and Rescue person would tell you it’s normally day hikers, but on occasion it happens to backpackers. The Geraldine Largay who got lost on the Appalachian Trail should all remind us it can happen, and to be aware of our surroundings when backpacking, even on a well marked trail.

Before you set out into the backcountry, here are a few tips to make sure you don’t become lost. Learn how to use a map and compass. Call ahead, read a guidebook and study maps of the area you’ll be hiking to become familiar with trails, roads, rivers, streams, mountains and other features. Use these as reference points as you hike. Once you’ve planned your hike, leave your trip plan with family and friends – then make sure you stick to this plan. Learn how to use a GPS. They are good investments if you plan on hiking a lot. NEVER rely on your Cell Phone.  If you don’t have service you may not be able to call out. However, you should always dial 911 even though you cell phone say’s you don’t have service.

Take your map, gps and compass with you. That way, if you become disoriented, you can stop, refer to your map, or gps and try to reorient yourself. Experienced hikers say that most people find their way after studying a map and the surrounding terrain for five minutes, so don’t panic if you can’t immediately figure out where you are. Also, take a whistle; if you become lost, blow it loudly at regular intervals to attract attention.


You may need to be on higher ground in order to identify landmarks such as streams and ridges. Just don’t wander far from your original route; remember, this is where rescuers will start looking for you if your friends or family tell them your planned route.

Still lost? S.T.O.P: Stop, Think, Observe and Plan. Decide on a plan and stick to it. If the last known location is within a reasonable distance, try to go back to it. If you can’t find any recognizable landmarks by backtracking, stay put.


1. Stay warm and protect yourself from the elements. If possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground. Make sure that if you are in a clearing, you can light a signal fire. Fire is good, but know how to make smoke. Helicopters can see smoke, not a small fire. Just don’t burn down the forest. A reflective CD also works to alert aircraft that maybe searching for you. Just in case you can’t get a fire going.

2. Try to remain hydrated.

3. Put bright clothing on, or put out something that’s bright to attract attention.

4. Continue to blow your whistle at regular intervals.

5. Don’t lie on bare ground. Use the equipment you brought to protect yourself from the elements. Wind will make things much worse. If anything keep yourself from wind. Use leaves or pine to make insulation.

6. Stay together if you are in a group. Common mistakes are separating.

One of the things I do is to carry a small bag outside my backpack. Just in case I loose my backpack. Usually carry it on my belt. I have a small first aid kit, a space blanket, lighter, some kindling, and a piece of cotton soaked in Vascaline. A soaked piced of cotton soaked in Vascaline get can wet and still be used to get a fire going.

If you do a lot of backpacking, it’s not a bad idea to invest in a Wilderness Survival Class. They are not that expensive and will teach you a wonder of good practices for the “just in case”.

The majority of hikers, and backpackers never get lost. But it’s always good to plan and prepare. The most important part, is to always make sure people know where you are going.

Lots of websites out there to reference for getting lost. Research before going, may save your life.