What to do if you Lose the Trail while Hiking?

Getting lost in the woods is never our plan. But sometimes it happens. Sadly, on many occasions this leads to severe injury or death. Our hope is that the next time it happens to you, you remember this article and put a plan into action that will get you home safe.

Before a Hike

Preparation is half the battle. Preparing for the hike and bringing the right supplies/equipment is essential to ensuring your safety if you were to get lost.

  • Have a Map/Compass or a GPS unit. Know how to use them!!!
  • Research the trail before hiking. Understand the landmarks, the dangers, and what is near the trail. Knowing that a river or a lake is in a certain section of the trail could save your life.
  • Always tell someone where you are going. Even when hiking with a group, I always text my mother, brother or a friend the trailhead we are starting at and when we expect to be out.
  • Have the Essentials (See Here) or some sort of preparedness kit.
  • Have a fully charged phone and keep it off. If you do get lost, you can attempt to send texts.
  • Check the weather. We made this mistake when climbing Mt. Adams. We got lucky. Don’t take chances if inclement weather is a possibility.

During a Hike

  • Pay attention to unique landmarks as you hike. Try to pinpoint where these landmarks are on your map or GPS. This will help ensure you are on the right path. Also, a unique tree or rock formation could help you find the trail if lost.
  • Pause and familiarize yourself with the surroundings every so often. Taking a minute every mile or so to look behind you and to the sides may help you backtrack if you become lost.
  • Mark the trail as you go. If you do this, make sure it is in a non-permanent way. For example, when hiking near Three Fingered Jack, I was on a unmaintained trail that was difficult to follow. I decided to drag a stick every 10 yards or so. On my way out, I was able to easily follow these drag marks back to the trailhead.
  • Take pictures as you go. With a camera or a cell phone, take pictures along the trail as you go. I especially like doing this on trails with several crossroads. It allows me to look through the photos and ensure I go the correct direction if needing to backtrack.
  • Avoid venturing off trail.

What to do if you find yourself Lost

If you do find yourself lost, follow the STOP rule.

Stop – Once you realize you are lost, stop where you are. Do not panic. Panicking may cause irrational decisions that could make things worse (such as becoming more lost or injuring yourself). Stop where you are, sit down, drink some water and relax for the next steps.

Think – This is where many of the planning and earlier hike points can come in handy. Do you remember where the last point was that you weren’t lost? Can you find that on the map? Take note on which direction you had been traveling (north, south, etc.). How did you get to where you are right now?

Observe – Are there landmarks in sight that you recognize? Go through your photos and see if you recognize anything. How much time do you have until it is dark? What supplies do you have and how long will it last? How is the weather?

Plan – Unless you are confident in the direction you need to head or you see a landmark that you recognize, we recommend staying put. You do not want to put yourself further away from the trail then you already are. Come up with a plan before you take any action. Check to see if you get a phone signal. If you have a whistle or horn, blow it in bursts and see if you can alert someone. If it is close to dark, create a shelter and/or fire to keep you warm overnight.

Extra Tips if Lost

  • Create an SOS sign out of twigs/branches and have it in an opening where it can be seen from a helicopter. Attach bright clothing you have near it to make it stand out.
  • Use smoke from your fire to make yourself noticeable. Be careful and keep the fire small and contained.
  •  You can last 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. Water should be a priority if you are lost more than a day (sooner depending on climate).
  • Find a sheltered area to protect yourself from the elements.
  • Do not panic. If you took the proper precautions, help will be on the way.