How to Survive Getting Lost in the Woods

It can happen to anybody: you are out on a hike and become distracted. You follow a trail, an animal, or the sound of water, and before you know it, you have no idea where you are or how to get back to where you came from. You are lost. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, hearing of lost hikers and day-trippers was commonplace. I even found myself in a precarious situation once when I went off-trail at a National Park. It happens easily, quickly, and it is incredibly frightening. But the woods are a very survivable habitat and if you keep your wits about you, you’ll get through it. Here’s how:

The First Thing
The second you realize you’re lost, you need to stop moving. Do not look for a way out, but rather, collect yourself. That old adage about panic being your worst enemy is true. Take however long you need to calm down. Once your breathing is regulated and your mind is no longer racing, look around. What is near you? Is there water? Dense forest? Light cover? This is important because this may become your new base camp. Most people who try to find their way back from being lost only stray further from the trail than they already were. This makes their rescue that much more difficult. Wandering aimlessly will also waste valuable energy you might need later. Instead of searching, just stay put. It is your safest option.

First mark the area that you are in. Use spare clothing or non-essentials to make a circle around your new area because this is your reference point for the rest of your stay. If you are in a meadow, when going into the woods to get supplies, never lose sight of the area.

The Rule of Three
In the woods, three of anything is a distress signal. If you shout three times in a row, build three (safe and contained) fires, make three large marks in a field or make a triangle in the sand. These should all be noticed by rescue helicopters. Banging rocks in threes or whistling in threes (whistles are excellent to bring into the woods) is also a good method to use. Hopefully someone from the trail will hear you and be able to come to your aid. But if nobody comes, don’t go looking. Keep your energy and stay put. If you let people know where you were headed (and you always, always, always should) then somebody should come looking. Never rely on your cell phone but certainly try to use it if you can.

I See Nothing but Forest Around Me! What Should I Do?
There is an order of things that you should worry about while lost. The first one is shelter, the second is water and the third is food. Hypothermia will destroy you faster than dehydration or starvation. Unless you have a food-related disease (like diabetes), it is the last thing you need to worry about.

Constructing a shelter in the woods is easier than you think We’re not asking you to build a log cabin. Just a place that will keep raw elements off you. For a basic shelter, you should look for a fallen tree or some kind of low construct you can lean sticks on. Boulders work nicely as well. Then look for sticks and place them close together against the structure. Cover with leaves and other foliate. Like this:

You can also use leaves and debris on the inside for insulation when you are sleeping.

Preparing to Spend the Night
You are going to want to light a fire for warmth. To construct a decent fire pit here is what you will need:
-medium sized rocks
-combustion source (Always take matches and a lighter with you on a hike. Always.)
-dead, dry wood and leaves from the size of twigs to logs
Find an area that is bare soil (or simply sweep until there is bare soil), then arrange the rocks in a circle. If most of your fuel is small (branches and twigs), then build a tepee fire. That means you place the small fuel (twigs/leaves) in the middle and put the smaller branches around it in a tepee formation. Light the mound in the middle and viola. If you have larger fuel (like logs), then it’s often better to build that same pile of small fuel but instead of a tepee formation you’ll crisscross the logs on it.

Another thing you can do to keep warm is place small rocks (make sure they are not wet or they could explode!) in the fire. After your fire dies down, you can carefully bury them in the dirt under your sleeping area. They should help keep you warm for the night.

The hardest part about sleeping in the woods will be the mental and psychological effects it has. Remember that you are fairly safe there. Some animals may investigate but the chances of an attack are not likely. Just keep any food safely out of reach (string it up on a high branch in a closed container in bear country), and remember that the hours of 3am-4am are the hardest. After that, birds start to chirp and your mental state will improve. Just hold on.

Finding Water
Your next order of business after securing a shelter and a “home base” is to find water. Your best bet is a stream. Make sure you mark your trail so you do not get lost further. If you find a stream, use a sleeve or other piece of clothing as a filter for twigs and sediment. If you bring a tin cup and some garbage bags with you, you can take loads of water back to your campsite and boil it on the fire. Most streams have bacteria in them, so boiling water for a good 15 minutes prior to drinking it is preferable. However, if you have no purification method and it’s between serious dehydration or a water-borne illness, it may be better to risk drinking it straight.

If you cannot find a stream, you may want to collect morning dew. You will not get a lot of water but if you are dehydrated, any bit can help. What you can do is take a thin piece of cloth and wipe it over non-poisonous plants. Wring the water from the cloth out in your mouth or a bowl.

If you are far away from water, you should also make a solar still. It is easier than you think and will help keep you alive. This is a basic diagram:
First you first dig a conical hole. Then you put your water pot at the bottom and cover it with a plastic sheet. Use heavy rocks to secure it on the side, and a light to one pound rock just over your water pot. Water vapor will collect on the sheet and drain down into the water pot. On hot days or cold nights you could collect up to a pint of water. However, if you are in the woods for any period of time, you must move the solar still every few days.

If you find a stream, your best source of food will be the fish that inhabit it. It may be hard to catch a fish but it can be done by standing in the shallows with a sharp stick. It should also be noted that minnows can be eaten whole. Insects are also a good bet. While somewhat mentally disturbing they are a source of fantastic protein and nutrition and should never be overlooked. Do not eat any bright caterpillars or insects. Also, please do not pull a Bear Grylls and eat them alive. Insects can harbor dangerous parasites that can kill you. Cook them to make sure it is safe to eat (also it might be easier to eat them if you know they are dead).

If you happen upon a non-venomous snake a good rule of thumb (if you are able to kill it–and please do not put yourself in conflict with a poisonous snake for a lunch) is to cut off the head, then cut off another head length to make sure you won’t be exposed to any of its venom sacs. Cook it well.

In the way of berries, the general rule is that white and yellow berries are poisonous 90% of the time, Blue and black are okay to eat 90% of the time, and red berries are a 50/50 shot. Berries with bumps (aggregate berries like raspberries) are always safe. Remember it is better to starve than be deathly ill. You can usually survive up to three weeks without food.

The Business of Your Business
Let’s face it, if you’re there for more than one night, it is likely that you will need to use the toilet. Sorry, no toilets here! So how do you poo or piss properly while in nature’s realm? Well, you’ll want to make sure you do it at least 50 yards away from your campsite. These odors could attract animals and you don’t want that in your immediate camping area. For urinating, you can find a decent place to pop a squat (make sure your campsite is not downhill from there) and go to town. For pooing you’ll want to dig a hole that you can cover up to smother the smell. It should be at least six inches deep and can be dug out with a strong stick. You can use leaves to clean yourself (or water if you have plenty available), but please be mindful of any poison oak or ivy around you.

I Must Leave the Area, Where Should I Go?
Never just head off in any direction. Always pick a route: uphill or downhill? If you go uphill you may have a decent vantage point from which to observe. If you go downhill, you will most likely find water. However, going either way has its own set of problems. Cliff faces should not be climbed up or down unless in an absolute emergency. You should also never just jump in a river (even if you find a makeshift boat) when headed downhill because there’s a great chance of rapids and waterfalls that could fatally injure you.

Hearing Help
If you are in a fair amount of cover it will do you well to have a fire ready to light at all times. Preferably one with some wet leaves so it creates a lot of smoke. That way if you hear a helicopter, they will notice your signal. You can also use a mirror and the sun to create a bright reflection for them. If you hear rescuers combing the woods, shout out and make a ruckus. If you are very weak, a whistle will be invaluable.

Also tie any brightly colored piece of clothing to a visible-from-the-air location. If there is a nearby field or the top of a tree you can easily climb, then do so. Any signal that you are somewhere below will help aid your rescue sooner rather than later.

Remember to Always Keep Your Priorities
Your main priority should not be finding your way out. In most cases, others will be looking for you. Your main priority is to keep yourself alive and healthy. So make sure you focus on your shelter, your water cultivation, and how you will access food. It is always good to enter the woods with a couple of items already on you. Keep a bottle or two of water capped at all times in case of emergencies, a couple of power bars, and some trail mix. Some other good items to pack if you are going into the woods for any reason:
-A space blanket which can double as a reflective surface
-Waterproof matches/lighter
-reflective mirror
-tin cup
-Knife (5 inches or Swiss Army)
-basic first aid kit
-clothing that would keep you warm overnight

My own experience with getting lost was one of the scariest moments of my life. When I was in Mt. Rainer National Park about seven years ago I wandered off onto what I thought was a miniature trail. This landed me in an amazing meadow and then another little trail and suddenly I had no idea where I was. It was terrifying. Luckily I was hiking with a partner that day and I was able to find her by shouting back and forth. Had she not been there, I would have had no idea from what direction I came.

No matter how scary it may be, it’s imperative to keep a positive attitude. Humans have survived in the woods since the dawn of time. Remember that your biggest enemy out there is usually your own mentality and psyching yourself out. Stay put, create a campsite, and focus on keeping yourself warm, hydrated and fed. Keep track of your surroundings and make sure that you never just go wandering off. Keep that “just around the corner” syndrome at bay. With a little preparation and some common sense, almost anybody can survive a number of nights in the wilderness. It may not be fun, but it can be bearable, and most importantly, survivable. Happy trails!

By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

11 replies on “How to Survive Getting Lost in the Woods”

You forgot being aware of the sun’s position in terms of time and location. If you don’t have a watch or for some reason can’t turn on your phone, you can judge the approximate time of day by the sun and thus how much time you have to make a shelter, etc. before nightfall. Also, if you’re in a smallish park and know the compass direction of the entrance/exit/trail/civilization, you can use the sun to approximate the direction you should be walking in if you decide to explore. I got lost once while hiking by myself, but luckily it was a small hiking park and I was able to figure out which direction I should walk from the sun’s position.

Where I live we have a large Botanical Gardens with several miles of trails. I know them all like the back of my hand. A friend and I decided to take one of the lesser travelled ones in the middle of winter and ended up going up a giant hill into some dense forrest. We thought we knew where we were, but we were wrong, and the trail abruptly died. We’d been following the river but suddenly it was nowhere to be seen. We ventured further and further into the woods. I passed an old coke can that had to be from the 70s and that’s when I began to freak. It took us an hour, but we finally made our way back. I was surprised by how scary it was, really.

Well. I have seen Man vs. Wild so I know all about how to catch rabbits with my teeth, float around on icebergs, and hollow out camels so I have have a warm place to sleep. Aaargh.

DISCLAIMER: This comment explicitly does not claim that commenter Kit Cloudkicker’s experience is one of unaided solo survival. For example, she often mocks Bear Grylls’ show while eating cheese crackers on her couch, and does not claim to have any real survival skills of any sort.

There is a relatively small state park near my University. One day between classes I decided I’d go for a walk on the trails I was familiar w/ ’em so I wasn’t worried I’d get lost. Since this wasn’t a planned trip I had nothing with me, including my cell phone or proper shoes (I think I had ballet flats on). Anyway in the woods some trail areas get pretty steep and w/ my improper footwear I slid for quite a ways down an embankment. Its was scary for obvious reasons but even more so b/c if I had be seriously injured nobody would’ve had any idea where I was. Moral of the story wear proper shoes, let people know where you are going. Oh and bring more than an ipod with, if for no other reason than hearing the theme to Halloween play while walking through the woods is more than a little disconcerting..

At work we have do surveys which basically means hiking through forests without any trails. Granted we are usually in a decent size group but everybody is spread apart in our own transects. There have been a few times where I have been separated from the group and essentially lost. Its not a good feeling. One time I swear I was being followed by a large animal. My job is the main reason I keep Verizon as my cell carrier. Its the only one that works for me in the middle of nowhere 95% of the time.

Thanks for reinforcing these things! I always carry rain-gear, my fleece (even in summer), and a few extra snacks that would get me through the night in a pinch. In addition to waterproof matches, I also carry a fire-steel and cotton balls coated in vaseline, which makes starting a fire a heck of a lot easier.

This is also a good place to say that purchasing a good map of the area (not just the trail map, but a good survey map) is invaluable as are basic orienteering skills and a good compass.

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