Lost on a Hike: Prepare for When You Lose Your Sense of Direction

Get­ting lost on a hike is eas­i­er than you think. A patch of fog, a path that you thought was anoth­er trail, an out­dat­ed guide book, a par­tic­u­lar­ly engag­ing conversation—all could eas­i­ly lead you astray.

If you find your­self lost on a hike, don’t pan­ic. A sim­ple com­bi­na­tion of prepa­ra­tion and knowl­edge can get you back on track.

hiker lost on a trail in a valley

1. Do Your Research
The eas­i­est thing to do is not to get lost in the first place. Do this by edu­cat­ing your­self and research­ing the heck out of your hike.

Study a map, have a com­pass (and know how to use it) and, if avail­able, have a charged GPS receiv­er. You’ve heard it before, but we’ll say it again: don’t rely on your cell phone! If you’re get­ting your direc­tions from a web­site or an old­er guide­book, cross ref­er­ence it with oth­er sources to ensure that the instruc­tions are accu­rate.

Addi­tion­al­ly, it’s always best to check with park offi­cials to know what they rec­om­mend. Depend­ing on the park, rationing food and water may not be advised, and it’s best to know what the best prac­tices are.

2. Make a Plan, Share it With Oth­ers
Always share your plans with some­one who will not be join­ing you on the hike—a fam­i­ly mem­ber, a neigh­bor, a friend, etc. Let them know when and where you’re going and when you’re plan­ning on return­ing. Leave them a copy of the trail map and high­light the route you plan on tak­ing, and stick to your plans!

3. Be Pre­pared
Along with nav­i­ga­tion­al gear, make sure you have packed hik­ing essen­tials, includ­ing lots of extra water, food, spare dry cloth­ing, and a whis­tle. This extra weight is well worth it—think of it as insur­ance in case you end up hav­ing an impromp­tu overnight trip.

4. Pay Atten­tion
Con­tin­u­al­ly take in details of your sur­round­ings: a tree stump you hopped over, a stream you passed, a big rock on the side of the trail. Iden­ti­fy­ing land­marks will help you stay on course on your return trip.

5. Adhere to “S.T.O.P.”
Stop­ping is the first step: If you think you might have gone off course, stop. It’s tempt­ing to “keep going just a lit­tle fur­ther,” but you’ll often get even more tan­gled if you keep going.

6. Think
Put the feel­ing of pan­ic aside. Stay calm, and try to approach the sit­u­a­tion ratio­nal­ly. Con­sid­er what made you real­ize you were lost—a com­pass read­ing, a trail that sud­den­ly dis­ap­peared, or the absence of a land­mark that you are sup­posed to see. Stay put while you think, and assess the situation—moving is more like­ly to make things worse.

7. Observe
Check out your sur­round­ings and con­sid­er what land­marks might help you sit­u­ate your­self. Com­pare your obser­va­tions to your map, which could help you get reori­ent­ed. Con­sid­er how the weath­er looks, what time of day it is, and what sup­plies you have on hand. All of these fac­tors will help you devel­op an action plan.

8. Plan
Brain­storm poten­tial next steps and decide on a plan. You might choose to camp out overnight, wait­ing for day­light to make your next move. If you feel con­fi­dent that you can get back on track, leave a trail mark­ing the path you take (like a bread­crumb trail, but use rocks or some oth­er mark­er).

9. Stay Where You Are
Stay­ing put and wait­ing for help can be a very good plan, espe­cial­ly if you are able to call for help. If help is on the way, mov­ing will only make things worse. While you wait (or to act on your plan), stay busy, stay hydrat­ed, and try to stay rest­ed. Final­ly, stay vis­i­ble to res­cuers. (If you have a bright­ly cov­ered lay­er or back­pack, put it on!)

It’s also smart to be mind­ful of region­al rec­om­men­da­tions for lost folk. Get­ting lost in the Pacif­ic North­west is dif­fer­ent from get­ting lost in Joshua Tree Nation­al Park. If you get lost in the desert, it’s usu­al­ly advised to stay put dur­ing mid-day and trav­el at dawn and dust. This pre­vents you from get­ting over­heat­ed.

Final Words
The most impor­tant take­away from this arti­cle is STOP! Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan. If you need to, write it on your arm with a mark­er. These sim­ple steps will help you stay on track if worst comes to worst.