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What to Do If You Get Lost in the Woods – Find Your Way Without Help

Getting lost can be deadly.

Say you’re out for a walk in the woods, lost in thought, admiring the wild flora and fauna. Time passes like a blur. Suddenly, you don’t recognize your surroundings. Nor can you tell the direction from which you’ve come. With only a few hours until sunset, you don’t have any tools to help you find your bearings. You’re lost.

How can you survive – even without a map or compass? Here’s the good news: You don’t need to be a survival expert to find your way back to civilization. Just stay calm and remember these five tips.

Finding Your Way Out of the Woods

1. Use the STOP Method

man hiking woods lost

  • (S) Stay Calm: Panic is your worst enemy, so take a few deep breaths to calm down. The last thing you should do is hurry off in a haphazard direction, as this may add to your anxiety.
  • (T) Think: Were you traveling in a straight line or were there a lot of twists and turns? Did you pass any familiar spots or other people? Were you traveling north, south, east, or west? Try to answer these questions, as any bit of information can be useful.
  • (O) Observe: Can you determine which direction is north? How long will your food and water last? Can you see any obvious landmarks? Do you see any footprints, and if so, in which direction are they headed? Try to find any clue that might help to lead you back to your original footpath.
  • (P) Plan: Determine which direction you should walk – but do so with caution. Mark your progression with rocks, cairns, or piles of sticks. If you don’t find your way, you can always return to the point where you first realized you were lost.

If the STOP method does not get you back on the right trail, keep calm. There are other ways to find your way back to civilization.

2. Pinpoint Your Location

woman hiker view of river bend

Take a good look around. What do you see? If the answer is a dense forest, pinpointing your location will be difficult. If possible, find higher ground, giving you a better view of the surrounding landscape.

From a higher vantage point, you have a much better chance of seeing a river, lake, road, or church steeple that can help you orient yourself. Otherwise, you may end up walking directionless – and possibly in circles. If you don’t know what’s in your vicinity, you might walk by a building or landmark hidden by trees.

Sometimes it’s not easy to find higher ground. The terrain may be relatively flat, or reaching a higher altitude too perilous to attempt. The last thing you can afford is a badly sprained ankle. So choose your vantage point with safety in mind, and conserve your energy.

3. Look (and Listen) for Signs of People

abandoned campfire and rubbish

While traveling through the wilderness, be observant. Periodically scan the area for any signs of human activity – look for old campsites, cut tree stumps, fishing line, food wrappers, cigarette butts, plastic water bottles, or any other kind of litter. If you find any such evidence, examine your surroundings to determine which way they went – you may be near a trail or road that can lead you out, or a logging or hunting camp that can provide emergency shelter.

Don’t forget to listen carefully. The sound of a well-traveled road or church bell can be heard a fair distance away, even through dense forest. Stop crunching through fallen leaves and twigs periodically to see if you can hear anything.

4. If Possible, Stick to Open Country

forest clearing

Traveling in open country is a good way to find signs of civilization. This type of terrain is often a result of farming or logging, which may put you closer to other people. Plus, being out in the open makes it easier for you to be spotted by low-flying aircraft.

Be sure to have something ready to signal with before a rescue plane is nearby. Something shiny such as a mirror or brightly colored clothing can grab the attention of a pilot.

If a circling plane has spotted you, stay put. The pilot may not be able to land but can radio your position. If you must move, use branches to make an arrow on the ground in the direction you are heading – just be sure it’s big enough to be seen from the air.

Traveling through open country is generally a good idea as it can be easier to walk through than dense forest. However, if you’re lost in the mountains and there is no open ground in sight, you can still improve your chances of getting out.

5. Travel Downhill

forest stream brook flowing downhill autumn

If you are lost in hilly terrain, your best choice is almost always to travel downhill. People tend to settle in valleys, usually close to water. Unless you have seen signs of people at higher elevations, head down and out of the mountains. Besides, you can cover more terrain and conserve energy traveling downhill.

If you come across a stream or river, follow it in the direction the water is running. Water flowing in a downhill direction can lead you to a town or populated lake – and you’ll always have a source of emergency drinking water (though it is ideal to always boil the water first or treat it with a tablet of iodine to purify it). If the stream is moving slowly, drop a few leaves into the water to determine the direction of the current.

Being Lost at Night

After darkness settles in, it’s a good idea to stay put until sunrise. However, you don’t want to start looking for a sheltered area (out of the wind) after it’s already dark. Make plans to stop well ahead of nightfall, as attempting to navigate a dense, dark forest can be extremely dangerous. Properly pitching a tent or makeshift lean-to can also be difficult in a pitch-black forest.

If you have been following a river or stream, move at least 200 feet away from it before you settle down for the night. Some nocturnal animals are active around rivers, especially at night, using the waterways like a natural highway for navigation. Remember, you are the trespasser invading their territory – it’s best to stay out of their way.

nighttime in forest woods stars

Final Word

Getting lost while hiking in the wilderness is not a fun experience, but it is something you can avoid. Just be prepared every time you go out for a hike. No matter how long you plan to be out, you should always have necessary items in your backpack. At minimum, bring plenty of food and water, a hand-held GPS unit, a space blanket, a first aid kit, and a map and compass.

Have you ever been lost in the wilderness? If so, how did you find your way back to civilization?

Arto Baltayan
Arto Baltayan has the unique ability to make complex topics understandable to all. His love of personal finance, business, investing, and technology is what has brought him to Money Crashers. Arto has extensive experience as an IT professional. Today, he makes his living as a technology writer and technical documentation specialist.

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