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What To Do If You Get Lost In The Woods

How To Survive Being Lost In the Woods

Getting lost in the woods is a nightmare scenario that around 2000 people experience every year.

What if this happened to you? Could you survive a night or several days in the wilderness? The purpose of this article is to arm you with some basic knowledge to improve your chances of survival.

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Depending on your experience level, you may think that there is no way that you would get lost on your rucking or hiking trip. However, nothing is 100 percent controllable when dealing with any wilderness setting.

As the saying goes, sh*t happens. Becoming lost in the wilderness can be a terrifying and humbling experience.

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Steps To NOT Get Lost In The Woods

Let’s start the article by telling you how not to get lost in the woods. Hopefully you will never need to use the advice in this article. Never getting lost in the first place is the best way to survive being lost.

Let People Know Where You Are Going

This should go without saying. If you are going on a hike then you should let people know you are going. Tell your friends and family where you are going, when you are going, how long you plan to be gone.

That way if they haven’t heard from you they can inform the authorities that you may be missing and where they should begin searching.

Stay On The Beaten Path

Know your hiking route. If you are heading out into the wilds then you should have a map of the area and a compass. You should know where your trailhead starts, where it diverges, ends, or circles back. Follow the signs and don’t leave a trail, especially if you are new to hiking.

There are plenty of apps such as All Trails and Gaia GPS that not only provide trail maps but also offer GPS tracking.

Go With a Buddy or a Guide

If possible go with a friend or family member. If you do not know the area that well consider joining a Hiking Club. This is not only a great way to hike new trails but meet other hikers as well.

Learn Basic Land Navigation

Take a Basic Land Navigation Course in order to familiarize yourself with how to navigate with a compass and map. Udemy offers a wide array of courses including the highly rated course linked above.

Relying on a GPS watch or other forms of electronics is great. They are highly accurate and can make navigating a trail easy. But what if they fail? Always carry a map of the area and a compass

Steps To Surviving The Wilderness

Utilize the STOP Method

Use the STOP Method if Lost in the woods

The sudden realization that you have become lost in the woods can be harrowing. The last thing you want to do is panic. Not only does panicking not help your situation, but it can make it worse.

Panicking can drain your mental and physical energy. This can cloud your judgment and make you prone to make mistakes. When you realize you are lost, use the STOP method.

Stop what you are doing. 

  • Fear is the mind killer. When you allow fear to take over you decrease your chances of survival.

Take a few deep breaths to calm down.

  • Breathing is the best way to calm yourself. It not only sends fresh oxygen to your brain but signals to the rest of your body that you are fine.
  • Breathing can reverse the fight or flight response you are feeling when you realize you are lost.

Observe your Surroundings.

  • Now that you have calmed down observe your surroundings.
  • Ask questions such as:
    • “How did I get here?”
    • “How long have I been moving?”
    • “What is my food and water situation?”
    • “Closest fresh water source?”
    • “How long till nightfall?”
    • “Where to set up camp.”
    • “Weather conditions?”

Plan your next actions.

  • Concentrate on the essentials
    • Secure water
    • Secure shelter
    • Secure food
  • Decide if you should keep moving or stay put for rescue.

Figure Out Your Location

Pinpoint your location

Once you have calmed yourself down, one of the most important things to consider is attempting to figure out where you are. This is where a map and compass come in handy.

First try and mentally retrace your steps. What direction were you traveling when you got off trail? Try and remember if there were any notable land marks, like a super tall tree of remember able rock formation. See if your map has any of these locations marked.

If you re able to, find a higher location to get a better view of your surroundings. However, if this is dangerous or you will expend to much energy doing so then do not attempt this. It is probably better to stay in your location.

From your vantage try and locate water, roads, open fields, structures, or any other land mark that will provide you a direction of travel. Mark down the direction from your compass.

Travel Downhill

Hike Downhill

Traveling downhill can greatly increase your chances of finding roads, water, or even a town. Statistically, the longest you would have to walk is 20 hours before you find some sign of civilization.

This is important if you find a stream or river that you follow the path downhill. Most settlements throughout human history were built near sources of water. Chances are by following the water you will come across people.

Another reason why you should head downhill is that is it is easier on your body. Energy conservation is very important and you should expend as little as possible.

As always if you are not confident if you are traveling downhill then you should not attempt this and stay where you are.

Be on the Lookout for Signs of People

This should be self-explanatory. If you are lost, you want to find other humans. Listen for voices, vehicles, smoke from a campfire. Any sign that you are near humans means you are one step closer to no longer being lost.

Survival Concerns of Being Lost

If you are faced with the prospect of not being able to get yourself out of being lost then you should stay in your location and wait for rescue. Most of the time this is the safest course of action, especially if you are in an area you are not familiar with.

Once you have made the choice to stay in your location you should be aware of the biggest factors that can affect your ability to survive.

Dehydration

Lack of water is your biggest problem. Finding and securing a water source should be your concern even before finding shelter. The human body can last 3 days or less without water.

If you are hiking then you should have brought water with you. Ration what you have and be sure that you have brought Water Purification Tabs and/or a LifeStraw so that you will be able to make water you find drinkable.

If possible you should consider setting up your shelter near water. That way you have easy access and can boil water or use your LifeStraw and purification tabs. This is where an ultra-light portable Camp Stove can come in handy.

Hypothermia

Your next major concern is hypothermia. With its gradual onset, you might not realize you are hypothermic until it is already to late. It is vitally important that you recognize the signs and symptoms of low body heat.

Hypothermia is a medical emergency. It occurs when your body temperature starts to fall from its normal 98.6 F (37 C) to below 95 F (35C). Without the proper body heat, those reactions cannot occur, and your body

We are all walking chemical reactions. Lack of proper heat leads to the inability for our heart and lungs to function. Eventually, heart failure leads to death in hypothermic cases.

The reason it is important to identify the signs of hypothermia before it is too late is that it also affects your nervous system. At that point, you might not be able to save yourself because your brain can’t tell your body what to do.

The Signs and Symptoms of Hypothermia

Common Signs and Symptoms of Hypothermia

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness

If you are shivering you are already hypothermic. You will need to heat yourself back up. This means ditching your wet clothes for dry ones or even sitting naked wrapped up in blankets while your clothing dry.

If you are planning to hike in cold climates you should bring a change of dry clothing kept in a dry bag (bring 4 extra pairs of socks), an emergency blanket, heat packs, and some easy-to-start source of fire like a Jet Boil. Heating up and drinking hot water (slowly and not too hot, don’t burn yourself) is a good way to warm your internals.

If you know you are going to be stranded, you will still want to find a water source once you have warmed yourself. If you have snow around you then you have water, you simply need to melt it.

You will also want to secure firewood. In a snowy situation, you will need to find dry firewood. Heat will be your most important survival concern next to water. Keep your feet as dry as possible and change out wet socks for new pairs.

Frostbite is a major concern as well. The reason you need extra socks is to keep your foot dry and warm. Frostbite can affect any exposed skin and wet skin is more prone to it. Frostbite happens when the layers of your skin freeze like those hotdogs you put in the ice chest.

The Stages of Frostbite

It is important to limit skin exposure in these conditions. The early stages of frostbite present themselves as the skin feels prickly and/or numb, is discolored (red, white, gray, or yellow), and has pain around the exposed area.

Frostbite is dangerous because it can sneak up on you. In severe cases, you can lose fingers and toes.

Heat Exhaustion

This is the flip side of being too cold. Hyperthermia or heat exhaustion can be just as dangerous as hypothermia. Overheating your body can lead to serious health complications such as heat stroke.

Heatstroke is a serious medical emergency that can lead to permanent health problems or even death. Recognizing the symptoms of heat exhaustion is therefore important before your exhaustion progresses to heatstroke.

Heat Exhaustion Symptoms

  • Cool, moist skin with goose bumps when in the heat
  • Heavy sweating
  • Faintness
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Weak, rapid pulse
  • Low blood pressure upon standing
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Headache

These are the first signs you should be aware of that your body is becoming overheated. Heat exhaustion is your body failing to cool itself. This is usually caused by dehydration or the moisture of the air affecting your ability to sweat.

Sweating is the key to regulating your body temperature. The condensation that builds up on your skin from sweat then evaporates causing you to transfer your body heat into the air.

Heat Exhaustion Treatment

  • Get out of the sun
  • Immerse yourself with water
  • Apply cold packs (if you have them) to pits and groin
  • Loosen or lose clothing. You need to sweat.

If your environment is too humid your sweating is less effective. If you are lost in the woods and it is a hot humid day outside, you need to be especially cautious not to over-exert yourself. Take frequent breaks and stay hydrated.

Heat Stroke Symptoms

Heatstroke Signs and Symptoms

  • High body temperature
  • Altered mental state or behavior
  • Alteration in sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Flushed skin
  • Rapid breathing
  • Racing heart rate
  • Headache

If you notice that you are no longer sweating you are in serious trouble. You have progressed into the start of Heat Stroke. If you are entering heatstroke you need to cool your body off. 

Heat Stroke Treatment 

You will require medical treatment if you have progressed from heat exhaustion to stroke. This is why it is VERY important to recognize heat exhaustion. Here are some first aid treatment options should you be in heatstroke.

  • Wet your face
  • Get out of the sun
  • Dunk your shirt in water and put it on
    • DO NOT SWIM, if you are at this stage you could lose consciousness and drown.
  • Drink fluids

Heat illnesses are best caught early and you do not want to let heat exhaustion progress into a stroke. If you have heatstroke and are lost in the wilderness, your chances of survival are very slim.

Should you survive you will find that you are more prone to heat-related illness in the future as your body’s heat regulation can be permanently damaged.

Hunger

Hunger is actually the least of your concerns. While it is important to find a food source, most people think food is the most important survival necessity behind water.

The human body can last 1-3 MONTHS without food, this is assuming you are a normal healthy adult. This means you have several weeks to secure steady food instead of 1-3 DAYS to secure water.

After you have secured a water source and shelter, then you can worry about food. You need water to live and shelter to survive your environment. The prolonged absence of food can have negative effects on you.

Starvation Symptoms

  • faintness
  • dizziness
  • blood pressure drop
  • slowing heart rate
  • hypotension
  • weakness
  • dehydration
  • thyroid malfunction
  • abdominal pain
  • low potassium
  • body temperature fluctuation
  • post-traumatic stress or depression
  • heart attack
  • organ failure

If you are under the effects of starvation and do find food. It is very important to not gorge yourself. Your body has adjusted to lower food intake and may reject an overabundance of food.

Typically eating after starvation involves medical supervision. Limit your proteins and meal portions.

This is why it is important to carry some form of sustenance in your pack when hiking. Cliff Bars are a great easy food product to carry. I typically carry 6-12 in my pack and if I am stranded then I would eat one a day.

This would leave me 6-12 days to either be found or secure food.

How to Survive Till You Are Rescued

17 Essential Survival Items

  1.  First Aid Kit
  2. Food and Water
  3. Water Purifier or Life Straw
  4. Fire Starter
  5. Portable Wood Stove (For Boiling Water)
  6. Stanley Adventure All-In-One Boil or Other Small Pot
  7. Navigation Tools (Compass, GPS, Maps, Beacon)
  8. Emergency Shelter (Bivy Bag, Ultralight Tent, Tarp)
  9. Insulation
  10. Sun Protection (Sun Screen, Hoodie, Hats)
  11. Headlamp
  12. Multitool
  13. Duct Tape
  14. Solar Cellphone Charger 
  15. Survival Book (Keep in Waterproof Bag)
  16. Heating or Cooling Items
  17. Paracord

Do Not Panic

The very first section of this article was devoted to why you do not panic. We want to mention it again. Panicking will only make your situation worse. Refer back to the STOP Protocol. 

If at any time you needed a cool head it is when you are lost. Here is a simple grounding exercise for you to practice when you feel panicked.

Before hiking, you should plan out what you would do if you get lost. Write it down and keep it in your pack.

Grounding Exercise

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Breathe in for 3 seconds and out for 3 seconds, do this 5-10 times.
  3. Open your eyes and look around.
  4. Physically ask yourself where you are and how did you get here.
  5. Talk yourself through your plan, maintain a calm and slow tone as you do so.

Find Potable Water

Ideally, your backpack should have a water bladder. If you do not have one, you should consider adding a Hydration Bladder to your hiking pack. 3 liters of water should be the minimum you should carry on you when hiking or rucking.

Finding a stream or other body of fresh water should be your priority. Failing that you can hang a tarp to collect rainwater. You can also hang a light cloth to catch morning dew and ring it out into a collection container. Mesh Cloth works really well here as the holes form pockets to trap even more water.

Remember, water found in a stream or lake will contain contaminants, parasites, bacteria, etc. Strain and boil your water. If you have a life straw and purification tabs it is still important to strain water you find in the wild.

Water Filtration Bottles are another piece of equipment you should consider. These bottles allow you to scoop water and then drink it as needed.

Make a Shelter

A shelter serves to protect you from the wind, rain, sun, and snow. This is the most important survival concern next to water. Luckily a shelter is easy to construct if you are prepared.

It is important to try and make your shelter near water and in an open area that can be easily seen from the sky. In fact, the best survival tents and tarps are brightly colored.

Some paracord and a tarp or large cloth covering suspended between anchor points can serve as a basic shelter. However, shelters are also environmental dependent. Does it rain a lot? snow? Do you have to worry about high winds?

Check out this article from Primal Survivor on Constructing Emergency Shelters. Be sure to practice shelter building so that you are prepared in case you actually need to survive in one. Make it a controlled trip. Go camping and build your own shelter.

There are also plenty of Ultra Light Tents that pack down small that can serve as an emergency shelter. If you are planning a long hike be prepared.

Securing Food

Once you have secured your shelter and water, you should consider trapping for small game. Small game is the safest readily available food source. Unless you know what plants you can and can’t eat. 

However, meat is meat. Throw it on a fire and eat it. But how do you find small game? Trapping is recommended because it takes way less energy, you can set up multiple locations. This means you are not creeping through the woods hoping to chase down a rabbit or squirrel.

Trapping Small Game

Traps can be fashioned in a variety of ways and only require sticks, rocks, and or string. Deadfall traps are some of the best because they require very little setup.

A deadfall is essentially using a heavy object like a log or large rock and propping it up with sticks in a way where when the prey starts eating the bait (like some of those Cliff Bars) they trigger the heavy object to fall on them. Preferably you want to only have it fall on the head.

Check out this article on creating Survival Traps by Outdoor Life. Once again, you will want to take time to practice how to construct these traps. That way you will be comfortable with the construction and use of these devices.

Field Dressing Small Game

You can’t just throw the dead animal on the fire and cook it. All animals have internal bacteria in their organs (especially the gut) that can make you very sick. Once you have killed a prey animal you will need to field dress it.

Field dressing involves removing the skin and internal organs of the animal. It is important that you do not dispose of the organs and skin near your camp, as it can attract scavengers. Be sure to dispose of the skin and organs at least 100 yards from your campsite. Preferably you should bury it.

Check out this article from The Meat Eater on How to Skin and Field Dress Small Game Animals.

Energy Conservation

You will want to conserve as much energy as possible. This is why we say things like travel downhill when possible and use traps to hunt small game. The less energy you expend the less you will need to replace.

You need to always think if you really need to travel far from your site. Act when you have a plan. If you have trouble sleeping at night because of the wildlife then take cat naps through the day. Rest when you feel tired.

This is especially important if you do not have a steady food supply. As mentioned, the human body can last a month or two without food, but if you are needlessly burning calories on nonproductive tasks then you will burn through your energy as well.

Signal Rescuers

Most wilderness rescues involve some form of aircraft like a helicopter. The reason we recommend setting up your shelter in an open area is to make you visible to these aircraft. You want to use anything you can think of to get their attention.

Keep a fire going so they see the smoke, use a bright tent or tarp as your survival shelter. You want to be visible. Keep and use a reflective surface as a signal mirror. You can even get Hollywood and use rocks to spell out SOS or help. If you hear people, shout or blow on a signal whistle.

Wrap Up

We hope this article provides you with some useful information. Please comment below if you have any survival tips you think we should add or edit.

Please do not rely on this article. Do some research and plan out how you would handle being lost in the woods.

References

Johnson, J. (2019, May 14). How long you can live without water. In Medical News Today. Retrieved from

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325174

Hypothermia: Symptoms and causes. (2020, April 18). In Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hypothermia/symptoms-causes/syc-20352682

MCCAFFERTY, K. (2012, February 16). How To Avoid Freezing to Death by Finding Dry Firewood. In Field and Stream. Retrieved from

https://www.fieldandstream.com/articles/hunting/2012/02/avoid-freezing-death-dry-firewood/

Healthline Editorial Team. (2017, May 11). Frostbite. In Healthline. Retrieved from

https://www.healthline.com/health/frostbite

Hyperthermia: too hot for your health. (2012, June 27). In National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from

https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/hyperthermia-too-hot-your-health-1

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2020, November). Heat Exhaustion. In Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heat-exhaustion/symptoms-causes/syc-20373250

Davis, C. P. (2020, May 25). Heat Stroke (Sunstroke). In eMedicine Health. Retrieved from

https://www.emedicinehealth.com/heat_stroke/article_em.htm

Tinsley, G. (2020, March 17). How long can you survive without food?. In Medical News Today. Retrieved from

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/how-long-can-you-go-without-food

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