Navigation/What To Do If Lost

  • Staying “Unlost”
  • If You Get Lost
  • Finding The Way Out
  • Using A Compass

    Getting lost while camping or hiking is a possibility than anyone participating in an outdoor activity in the wild should be prepared to face. Campers, especially, should be aware of both how to avoid getting lost and what to do if they become lost.

    Staying “Unlost”

    Like so many things involving outdoor activities, a little preparation goes a long way toward not getting lost:

  • Leave an itinerary of the trip with a responsible friend or family member.
  • Get to know the area to be camped or hiked.
  • Study a map of the area beforehand, identifying unique features and landmarks that can be used to identify their location.
  • Specialized maps of an area can provide greater detail to the wilderness camper or hiker: topographical maps show the elevations (ridges, valleys, plateaus) of an area as well as its roads and rivers, while aerial photos provide visual details an ordinary map cannot.
  • Bring a compass and know how to use it.
  • Consider using a global positioning system (GPS), with which a person can utilize satellite-aided navigation and determine near-exact location on earth.

    Once on the trail, there are some strategies that will help hikers and campers avoid getting lost:

  • Sign in on trailhead registers and stick to the planned route. This is also a good time to reinforce knowledge of the trail and area.
  • Throughout the hike, observe the natural surroundings of the trail. Which direction does the trail follow? Are there lakes or creeks nearby, and if so, where are they in relation to the trail? Which directions do these bodies of water flow?
  • Learn how to “back trail.” Back trailing is looking back down the trail to get a feeling for what it will look like from the opposite direction.
  • Look for easily remembered landmarks, natural or man-made objects that stick out because of their unique or odd shapes and features. Make mental or actual written sketches in the sequence in which are encountered.
  • If leaving the trail—or if none exists—mark the trail as you go, especially in heavily timbered areas. Plastic surveyors tape is popular because it is brightly colored (be sure to remove the tape on the way back). Also, cloth rags can be tied onto trees every 75 feet or so, and then untied on the way back out.
  • Routinely monitor location by double-checking the map, making sure hills, streams and other landmarks encountered correspond with the map.
  • If in a group hike, don’t rely solely on the leader or guide for direction and navigation knowledge. Chances are they do, but it’s important to be knowledgeable in case you lose contact with the group.

    If You Get Lost

    Even when all the necessary precautions are taken, it’s still possible to get lost, especially in a wilderness setting. The initial steps a person should take once lost are easily remembered by the acronym “S.T.O.P”:

  • Stop—Stop walking as soon as it’s clear that you’re lost. Keep calm and fight the urge to make a “knee-jerk” decision about which way to get back to camp or their vehicle. Some degree of panic is natural, but staying calm will keep the mind clear and enable you to think of a plan.
  • Think—Think rationally about how to proceed. One helpful thought is trying to remember the last time you were certain to be on the right trail. Think back step-by-step; often the mistake made will become clear.
  • Observe—Unless you can head back confidently in a known direction, use the senses to take in the surroundings. Try to listen for signs of other people, such as the voices of other hikers or the sounds of cars on a road. If there is a hilltop nearby, climb to the top to look for signs of human activity or directional clues. Even if no other people are found, this survey may help figure out which direction is the best to travel.
  • Plan—Carefully consider your next move. The first and biggest decision is whether to continue walking or stop and wait to be rescued. If necessary, plan for means of survival for the rest of the day, if not two or three days. Also devise a plan for signaling for possible rescue.

    Finding The Way Out

    If the decision is made to hike back out of the area after a prolonged period, it is often a good idea leave a note indicating the direction in which you’re heading and when you left. If no writing tools are available, attempt to write in the dirt or script a message with small rocks or other possible markers.

    Then head out on a straight-line path in the direction you think will be most likely to encounter a major road or trail. Strategies for maintaining consistent direction include:

  • Locating a large object on the horizon and always walking towards it.
  • Using the sun as a reference point.
  • At night, in the northern hemisphere, the North Star can be used to establish direction. A camper can locate the North Star by locating the big dipper: the two lead stars of the big dipper always point to the North Star.
  • Remember that rivers and streams typically flow to the east or south, east of the continental divide; to the west or south when east of the divide. In a worse case scenario, remember that a river will almost always eventually lead to a town or city.
  • In the mountains, keep in mind that a long, low-lying ridge will often have a trail on it and are usually a path of least resistance through dense cover.
  • It’s possible to establish direction in the morning (when the sun is shining) with three makeshift stakes in the ground. Drive the first stake at mid-morning, then drive a second stake where the first one’s shadow ends. Tie a string (or boot lace) around the first stake and draw an arc on the ground the shadow’s length from the second stake. When the shadow that stretches out to the other side of the first stake reaches the arc, drive in a third stake on that spot. Then take the string, measure the distance between the second and third stakes and drive in a fourth stake halfway between them. The line between the first and forth stakes will always be a north-south line, with south being the direction of the first stake.

    Using A Compass

    Staying on course is always easier with a compass and the knowledge to use it. Since the needle of a compass always points north, a camper can take a bearing of the initial direction they want to go, then check the compass at intervals of set time or distance to verify that they are continuing in that direction. The outer rim of a compass is divided into 360 degrees, with due north being 0 degrees (and 360 degrees), due east 90 degrees, due south 180 degrees and due west 270 degrees. The bearing is the number of degrees between an object in the field and north on the compass. Point the compass at the direction they want to walk, read the bearing and then memorize it. Then, as you walk walking, periodically check to see if you have the same bearing and, if not, adjust direction accordingly.