How to Get Back on the Right Path When Lost

Even the most experienced hikers have likely dealt with getting lost a time or two. Perhaps the hiking trails were poorly marked or you had to make an unexpected detour. Whatever the reason, follow these simple safety tips for being lost, and you’re more likely to safely find your way back to the right path.

Find Your Way When Lost
Place in Advance

The best safety tip to avoid getting lost (or to find your way once you are) is to properly plan in advance. The US Forest Service (USFS) advises hikers to have sufficient food and water for any planned activity—while keeping in mind you might spend more time on the trail than you anticipate. Sometimes this is by choice; other times it’s not. Regardless, you always want to be prepared. The USFS also advises hikers to carry a compass, a GPS device, maps, appropriate clothing and footwear and other necessities, such as a flashlight and emergency blanket. All these items can help you survive if you get lost.

Prepare And Stay Informed

Even if you’re carrying a map and compass, they’re almost useless if you’re not 100 percent sure how to use them. The same goes for any GPS app on your phone. That’s why it’s a good idea to take a basic navigation class from a local outdoor retailer . These places often offer free outdoor seminars, which are a wonderful way to expand your knowledge of the outdoors, and they could save you a lot of worry in the wilderness. Books and free online instructional videos are valuable resources as well.

A lot of avid outdoor enthusiasts and guides have ultralight essentials kits that include all the items necessary for survival if things go wrong. These items include matches, a signaling mirror, a space blanket, a cutting tool, water purifying tablets and more. All these items go in a single kit you can leave in the bottom of your backpack—until the day you need it. There are also GPS apps that are easy to use and typically free to download.

Inform Friends Or Family Where You’re Headed

It’s very important to share your hiking plans with responsible friends, family or local authorities—especially when traveling into more remote regions. When possible, check in with local forest and park rangers before your hike so they can update you on any relevant safety warnings. Before you set off, give an itinerary to your friends and family that includes where you’re heading and when to expect you to be back.

Backroads Pro Tip

If you’re lost and trying to find your way back, avoid hiking during the hottest parts of the day (typically 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.). This’ll help you avoid fatigue and dehydration.


Safety Tips For Being Lost: Take Precautions And Hike Wisely

There are simple things you can do and protocol you can follow while on the trail to minimize your chances of getting lost. Take frequent pictures, especially at trail junctures. This can help you figure out how you got lost and jog your memory of past landmarks. Make a point to pause and to take mental notes (or photographs!) of forks in the trail, and be sure to look back the way you came. This way, you can see what the trail looks like when you’re coming back the opposite direction.

Stay on established, well-marked trails. While it can be tempting to stray from the path to snap a great picture or to see a great view, that’s how many hikers get lost. Take note of footprints along the path. Remember, though, while it can be reassuring to see other footprints, this is not a sure sign you’re on the right trail. Chances are if you easily lost your way, then others might have done the same. Don’t continue down a trail that doesn’t feel right simply because other footprints are present.

Another best practice when you’re in an unfamiliar place is to hike with someone who knows the area until you have a good understanding of the terrain and trail networks. Joining a local hiking group’s a great way to do this if you’re new to an area.

Follow The Forest Service’s STOP Plan

Did you plan in advance and still end up lost? Then it’s time to follow the Forest Service’s STOP plan.

Stop: As soon as you realize you’ve strayed from the trail, stop. Do not panic. Stay calm, and stay put.

Think: Think through your last steps and how you got to where you are. What landmarks can you see? Are there any you can identify from your map?

Observe: Use your compass to determine which direction you’d like to go, and then maintain that heading. If you have a general sense of the direction you need to go, proceed with caution. If you need to go downhill, consider following a drainage system or stream. This might mean having to bushwhack, but it can often lead back to a trail down below. Be wary of sudden drop-offs.

Plan: Based on your careful observations, come up with the best course of action. This could mean heading downstream, or, if you’re injured, it might mean staying put for the night. If you find yourself at a total loss of how to proceed, simply stop. Don’t continue wandering because this will complicate any rescue efforts and increase your chances of injury.

Additional Tips and Advice

While attempting to find your way back to the path, make sure you follow standard hiking best practices. These include the following:

  • Stay hydrated! Drink plenty of water, or bring a water filter along.
  • Stop to eat and to rest regularly.
  • Always carry a flashlight or head lamp.
  • Always have a few extra layers in case you have to spend an unexpected night out in the elements.

When planning a trip outdoors, your knowledge and preparedness are your best resources to keep you safe in the wilderness. Remember, never leave for a wilderness excursion without telling someone—friends, family or even your social media community.

Happy trails!

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