What to Do if You Get Lost in the Woods

Would you know what to do if you got lost in the woods?

You know how it goes. Camping and hiking and general cavorting in the woods is all fun and games until someone goes and gets lost. Then it’s not so fun, as many a Brothers Grimm fairy tale reminds us. Given that more than 330 million people visit the country’s national parks, forests and wilderness areas every year, well, sometimes people get lost.

Katherine, who grew up in the woods of Canada, gave us a great rundown last year on basic survival skills. (She also gives enlightening lessons in starting fires and shoveling snow, in case you’re interested.) But this city mouse has always wondered, how do people get lost in the woods in the first place?

As it turns out, I’m not the only one to wonder. The Smoky Mountains portal, SmokyMountains.com, mused about the same when they analyzed more than 100 news reports to find out what were the most common ways people got lost while hiking – as well as what they did to survive, and how they made it out. Here’s what the found about getting lost.

How Hikers Got Lost

  • Wandered off the trail: 42 percent
  • Bad weather: 17 percent
  • Fell off trail: 16 percent
  • Got separated from group: 8 percent
  • Injury: 7 percent
  • Darkness: 6 percent
  • Loss or failure of equipment: 5 percent
  • Other: 1 percent

Strangely missing: Selfies and alcohol, although maybe those are included in falling off the trail?

How they Stayed Warm

  • Clothes: 12 percent
  • Built fires: 10 percent
  • Used camping gear: 10 percent

Other methods of keeping warm mentioned included using body heat of fellow lostees and dogs, hikers covering themselves, exercise and digging in.

What They Used for Shelter

  • Camping gear: 11 percent
  • Caves and other existing shelters: 9 percent
  • Trees: 8 percent

Other shelters listed included self-made caves and coverings, and taking shelter in rocks, inside fallen trees and in the ground.

What They Drank From

  • Natural body of water: 24 percent
  • Snow, rain or puddles: 16 percent
  • Rationed their own water: 13 percent

Other sources of hydration that survivors listed included drinking urine, going without water or licking leaves, moss and grass.

Staying vs. Going

  • Kept moving to find their way out: 65 percent
  • Chose to stay put: 35 percent

And when it came to being rescued versus finding their way out on their own, 23 percent found their way, while 77 percent were rescued.

The site also asked Andrew Herrington, a survival instructor, search and rescue team leader, and Wildlife Ranger in the Smokies, for his expertise on avoiding this nightmare in the first place. Here is what recommends.

a hiker lost in the rainforest.

Hiking Advice from an Expert

Preparation

  • Carry the Ten Essentials
  • Leave a trip plan and check in time with two trusted people
  • Study your maps and identify a “bailout” direction in the area you’re exploring
  • Check the weather forecast (including overnight in case you’re forced to stay out)
  • Always use high quality clothing: Merino or synthetic base layers, mid layers, synthetic or dri-down puffy jackets and Gore-Tex shells
  • Practice lightweight tarp shelter building at home
  • Print off free maps at sartopo.com
  • Download a backup GPS app, like Avenza
  • Practice fire making and carry the gear (including petroleum jelly soaked cotton balls and fatwood sticks)
  • Look into Personal Locator Beacons and Satellite Messengers for cutting edge signaling options

Avoid Getting Lost

  • Identify features on the ground and find them on the map as you go
  • If you’re off-trail, work out how to reach a linear trail, road or creek
  • If you’re unsure of your location, start breaking branches in the direction you’re traveling, or skin a 6 inch cut on a sapling with your knife. The inner bark shows white and is easy to follow

Stay Warm

  • Avoid sweating into your clothes in cold weather
  • Stay cool when you’re active and warm at rest
  • Monitor for hypothermia signals in the group
  • Warm up with sugary foods, exercise, or a big fire

Shelter

  • Use your tarp, puffy jacket and quilt to create a warm cozy shelter
  • Keep a 55 gallon trash bag in your pocket in case you’re separated from your pack
  • If you have no other option, build a lean-to shelter (framework of sticks, covered with leaf litter, evergreen branches, or bark – whichever is most available) and heat it with a 6 foot long fire
  • Build a bed out of leaves, grass, or pine needles, at least 8 inches thick

Water

  • Use a lightweight filter, Chlorine dioxide tablets, or a steel canteen to boil and purify water
  • In the worst case scenario, just drink the water – statistically in the US, you will be rescued within 24 hours – death from dehydration is a bigger risk than infection

Food

  • Pack high calorie foods like almond butter and coconut oil packs
  • If you have no food, don’t try to hunt, trap, or forage – it just exposes you to potential injury
  • Instead, fast: the average person has over 30 days of calories to survive on
  • Prioritize building a camp, staying warm, and hydrated

Move or stay put?

  • If you left a trip plan and someone knows you are missing, or if you’re stranded in a vehicle or on a trail, old road, or creek – stay where you are
  • Consider “self-rescue” if you didn’t tell anybody where you were going, and have no way to signal
  • Navigate to an open area, high ground for cell signal, or your “bailout” direction, leaving a trail as you go

Getting Rescued

  • Use brightly colored tarps and clothing
  • Call 911 on your cell phone, even if you don’t have service. By law, any tower that you can connect with will transmit that call
  • Use signal mirrors or three blasts on your whistle to attract attention
  • Add green plants to your fire to create a smoke signal
  • Movement and contrast are the key to being seen if you hear a rescue plane or helicopter

And I always thought the secret was leaving a trail of breadcrumbs … you really do learn something new every day. For more, you can see all the research, and some personal accounts of being lost, at smokymountains.com.

by Melissa Breyer

Related at Care2

43 comments

Marija M
Marija M23 hours ago

Interesting comments, tks.

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Ruth S
Ruth Syesterday

Thanks.

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Ruth S
Ruth Syesterday

Thanks.

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Yvonne T
Yvonne T2 days ago

once i was lost in the woods and i was soooo afraid. i had my mobile phone and called the police. the officer stayed with me at the phone until i found back to my trail. without talking to somebody i would have paniced because i wasn t abled to see anything and it was in a coniferous forst with trees everywhere. to talk to someone who would sent help calmed me down and in the end i found my way back.

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Diane E
Diane E2 days ago

Thanks. And a portable power pack for phone and devices is useful as phones seem to need charging too often. Many areas have poor signal though.

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Leo C
Leo Custer2 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Danny C
Danny C3 days ago

Do what Hansel and Gretel did and leave a trail of bread crumbs behind LOL. Seriously though, these are very handy tips if you find yourself lost in the woods. Thank you for sharing. :-)

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Christine S

I have heard that you should put rocks in little piles, pointing in the direction you are traveling, just in case rescuers are trying to follow you...

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Debbi W
Debbi W3 days ago

All good ideas. I would think having a GPS locator would be a MUST have for all hikers, plus a charged cell phone.

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Val P
Val P3 days ago

interesting

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