by Diane Spicer
For many female hikers, getting lost while hiking is the ultimate fear.
Right up there with bears and snakes on the trail.
Can you relate?
Let's harness fear of getting lost as motivation to do some planning and preparation in case the worst thing happens: you lose the trail or get turned around and don't know where you are.
As you read this, you're probably comfortable, dry, well rested and and sipping a cup of something delicious (just me?).
So it's easy enough to blame the victim, or promise yourself that you'll never be stupid enough to get lost while hiking.
Look at the following statistics, though.
The source for the following information is an analysis of 100 news reports on reasons hikers became lost while hiking, found at this website.
In order of most common to least likely factors in getting lost:
All hikers are vulnerable to bad judgement, fickle weather, trail conditions, challenging terrain, mental and physical problems, and just plain bad luck.
Every one of us should be prepared to spend a night,
or even a bit longer, outdoors.
If you're a solo hiker, add "alone" to that sentence.
So let's get prepared for the unfortunate but not impossible scenario of being lost, vulnerable, and unable to find the way back to the trailhead under our own power.
We'll divide it into the three phases of a hike.
Skip down to the section you're most interested in, with these links:
There are three areas to concentrate on to become a prepared, safe hiker:
Run through this overview as a mental checklist, asking yourself if these things are part of your regular routine as you prepare for a hike.
Take note of what's missing, and please be your own best friend by jotting down a quick list of things you need to add to your backpack before your next hike.
Sometimes it's the little things that can make or break you on the trail.
As a hiker, you're prepared to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of yourself on the trail.
That's why you have a backpack on your shoulders.
In the backpack, the Hiking Ten Essentials take up the most room (complete list and discussion here).
You also have a survival kit, like this one, so you can start a fire and care for your immediate needs, if you're forced to overnight on or near the trail.
And you always carry a basic first aid kit stocked with pain relief, minor wound care and other essentials, like this one.
If this sounds like overkill for "just a quick little day hike", stop reading this.
I hear the School of Hard Knocks is open for enrollment :/
Are you a hiker who loves the spontaneity of jumping in the car and heading out to a trailhead you've just read about that morning?
You should be deliberate about picking a day hike, based on your physical abilities, favorite type of destination, and trail conditions.
And you need maps!
Look at the correct topographical map for your intended hike, and note the terrain:
If you have map and compass skills, bring the compass.
If you carry a cell phone and intend to use it for navigation, a word of forewarning:
Phone questions for you:
If you're using a GPS app on your cell phone, is the phone fully charged?
Are you using airplane mode during the hike to conserve battery life?
Do you know exactly how to use the app?
Do you have a backup, old school paper map & compass with you?
Do you have a mental map of your route as a self check to what the app is telling you?
The Ten Essentials list (see link above) covers basic necessities for a hiker who needs to stay outdoors longer than planned, like extra clothing, food and water.
But it doesn't mention things that you can use when you get lost on a hike.
Here's a short list to consider, based on what I carry myself:
Hiking weather changes rapidly, so don't fall victim to a sudden storm that traps you when a bridge washes out or tree limbs block your navigation.
A long term forecast can give you a general sense of what you're going to face on the trail.
But double check the forecast on the day you leave for the trailhead.
Read about the best places to access accurate weather forecasts here.
Now that you know where you're going, how long you plan to be gone, where you will access the hiking trail, and where the route will take you, share that information with someone you trust.
For multiday adventures, leave a copy of your hiking itinerary in the vehicle you park at the trailhead.
Sometimes you need to file a trip plan with authorities.
Now let's get you on the trail.
Simple habits and behaviors will keep you on the right trail, headed in the direction you intend to travel:
If you're hiking in a group, resist the urge to split up to accommodate different hiking paces or preferences.
Keep track of time and adjust your hiking pace as needed to get back to the trailhead before you lose daylight.
Check in with yourself if you begin to feel anxious about the direction you're hiking. If something feels "off", don't ignore it.
If you realize that you don't know where you are, and don't know how to get back to the trail you came in on, never fear!
Fight the fear and keep reading.
Okay, it's show time.
You've prepared for the remote possibility of getting lost.
Now you're definitely turned around and don't know what to do next.
Having been through this scenario, I will tell you that the feeling in the pit of your stomach is sheer terror.
The mind is a powerful story teller, and you will begin to imagine wild beasts, night terrors, starvation, dying of thirst...
If you remember nothing else from this web page, burn this word into your consciousness:
You will want to DO something.
Fight that urge and channel your inner Zen, even if you think you don't have it. You do!
Sit down, do some controlled breathing, and just feel panic saturate your body.
Realize this: it's your mind, not your body, that matters at this pivotal moment.
Allow your thoughts to swirl around, then begin to gently guide them into productive channels by asking yourself questions:
Use the answers to formulate a decision about staying put, or trying to find your way back to the trail.
Just so you know, the statistics from the report referenced above found that 65% of hikers kept moving.
The rest hunkered down.
So if 65% of people kept moving, and 77% of all hikers had to be rescued, what does that tell you?
Something else to consider in your decision: if no one knows where you were headed, they don't know that you're lost, so there will be no search or rescue.
Now let's play the "I'm lost" scenario both ways: keep moving, or stay put.
Eat and drink something while you formulate a plan.
Be sure you have the physical and mental reserves to keep moving.
If the weather is against you, stay put until it improves.
Use the fact that water flows downhill to guide you to roads and habitations - if the terrain allows you to follow it.
Moss grows on the north side of a tree due to less sunlight, so if you can't determine directions from sunlight or a map, use this basic fact to get a crude sense of direction.
Then use your map to estimate where you are - because you could not possibly have wandered very far off your intended route unless you were setting a blistering pace as SuperWoman.
Once you start moving:
Move slowly and deliberately.
If you feel panic begin to overwhelm you again, stop.
Don't give in to your fears; use them to motivate you to set up a basic camp.
You don't need an elaborate shelter, but keep these things in mind:
Water is more important than food in the short run. Once you've got your shelter in place, prioritize hydration so you keep a clear mind and a strong body.
Drink enough to maintain clear, abundant urine output until you run out of water.
If you have access to surface water, and are concerned about water borne illness, know that when push comes to shove, you can always deal with an infection later, once you get rescued.
No surface water?
Banish the thought of eating grubs for now.
If you haven't done a food inventory, now is the time. What's in your lunch sack?
Carbohydrates will keep you fueled as you create your shelter (see above): crackers, bread, candy, cookies.
High value calories from fats will keep you warm through the night, so save them for when you're going to try to sleep: nuts, cheese.
Plan how to make yourself conspicuous in the morning when you hear rescuers:
If you hear a plane or helicopter, you need to do two important things: move around, and provide color contrast with your environment.
If you hear voices in the distance, use three blasts on your whistle, timed about a minute apart, to direct attention your way.
No way around it, preparation is the key to surviving the scenario of being a lost hiker.
You can blow off a lot of things as a hiker, but failing to prepare to provide for your own safety and comfort is the worst thing to ignore.
While Search And Rescue (SAR) teams are there to help you, you don't want to be the hiker that could have used gear and smarts to figure out her own way back to the trail.
If you are concerned about injury and illness while hiking, these tips will help you face and deal with your fears:
Would you like to learn more about how to survive getting lost while hiking?
REI Co-op runs classes on hiking and camping, including one titled Wilderness Survival.
Getting Lost While Hiking: How To Cope With The Fear
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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