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 A patch of fog, a path that you thought was another trail, an outdated guide book, a particularly engaging conversation—all could easily lead you astray.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.