What Should You Do If You Get Lost In The Woods? Be Prepared.

It’s one of the most frightening experiences you can endure: You’re hiking or walking through the woods and make a turn off a trail for a little untamed exploring. When you walk back to where the trail should be, it isn’t there. Or rather, you aren’t where you thought you were. You laugh nervously and realize you probably just went a little too far to your right, so you adjust and walk farther, your pace picking up with the anxiety that’s beginning to set in. Oh no, still no path. You’re lost!

Now what do you do? The first thing is to not give in to the inevitable panic that will begin to wash over you. Stop, take stock of your situation and understand from the outset that your odds of being found in this day and age are incredibly high. In fact, most lost people are found by the second day. So, there’s no need to panic.

In his book The Pocket Outdoor Survival Guide, author J. Wayne Fears says the decisions a lost person makes in the first three seconds of realizing their predicament can save them or doom them. Admitting that they are lost is best done sooner than later, and stopping and taking stock is critical. Fears recommends following the STOP formula:


Sitting not only jumpstarts your ability to relax and think clearly, but it also suppresses your urge to run or walk quickly—usually in a wrong direction.


Your mind is your most critical survival tool. You need to keep it calm, reflect on any past training or skills that will help you now and rationally assess your situation and your most immediate needs.


Identify what problems need to be solved and the order in which they must be dealt with. You’ll need shelter, a way to signal searchers, fire, water and a visible campsite so searchers can find you. What components are at your ready disposal to achieve these?


Make a plan and put it into action. If you have a cellphone or a radio, call for help first. If a cell signal is low, send a text message, as it takes less power and you can send it to multiple people at once for better odds of reaching somebody. But, don’t just sit and wait. It can still take a while for rescuers to arrive. Choose a visible campsite or, if in a stalled vehicle situation, stay with your automobile as it’s much easier to locate from the air. Construct a shelter, gather firewood and stay alert for other hikers, the sound of a nearby highway, low-flying planes, anything that can translate into your being discovered. Keep a mirror or bright clothing handy to catch the attention of searchers. Make a fire. Damp leaves or wood will make more smoke, thus making it more visible. Sit back and stay calm. Help should be on the way before long.

Before You Go

A little pre-trip prep can save you a lot of worry and hassle should you get lost later. Do the following before you go:

  • Leave a trip plan with a friend or relative that includes where you’re going, emergency contacts, when you left and when you expect to return.
  • Carry a freshly charged phone or a two-way radio with new batteries.
  • Tote an easy-to-use GPS unit. There are plenty of inexpensive, easy-to-use models available.

The decisions you make within the first seconds of becoming lost can ensure your survival or seal your fate. Using the guidance above can help you make the best of a bad situation.


Photo courtesy of Bill Winke