How Not To Get Lost, and Be Ok If You Do

by Dave | Last Updated: April 23, 2018

Its finally spring.    We all have a little cabin fever and every body is looking forward to getting outside.

So now’s a good time for a little refresher on how not to get ourselves lost in the woods,  and how to handle it if we do.

What’s number one on the checklist to come home safe?   This first item is as basic as it gets but we are all  guilty of disregarding this safety precaution from time to time.    TELL SOME BODY WHERE YOUR GOING AND WHEN YOU EXPECT TO RETURN.    When I’m going camping up in the Heckarewe mountains or canoeing out on Lake Frozen Toe I tell my family where I’m going and about when to worry if I haven’t shown up or called.   If  you follow this step and  get into  trouble then help will be coming sooner or later.   Lets remember that last thought and we’ll come back to it later.

What is next?   A little more planning and preparing that’s what.   No one expects to become lost or we’d never leave the house.   But “stuff happens” as they say and  in the event you do end up being outside longer than you had planned it will be a much more  tolerable experience, and a lot less likely to be your last experience, if you have a few things with you.  Here’s some absolute necessities.

A  fully charged cell phone.  The reasons are obvious.

A full bottle of water.   No, you will not die of thirst in 24 or even 48 hours.  But dehydration saps your strength and can make clear thinking and decision making difficult. And if your lost its pretty clear you already had a little trouble in that department without being dehydrated.   So carry some water in the woods.

Next, water proof matches, in a water proof container, sometimes referred to as lifeboat matches are about your best choice to get a fire going.   A fire can help in three ways, first it can keep you from becoming hypothermic which basically means it can keep you alive.   Second, a fire can help you get from being a lost person to being a regular person again because it was seen by the dedicated, selfless people that will be out looking for you.  We hope.     Did you follow rule one?  No?  Wow, grim. No body’s looking and your on your own.  You did?   Then sit tight.   In Pa. where I’m from lost people are rarely lost more that 12 hours.  Very rarely longer than 24 before rescue or self rescue.   You can last that long.

Third, a fire is good for moral. Sitting by your fire singing songs will keep your spirits up while you wait to be found. Although what a crew of  lost, scared, cold, embarrassed,  hungry hikers would have to sing about is beyond me.  Singing is optional, do the best you can.

In the coming weeks we’ll get a little deeper, or maybe a lot deeper, into how to build, light and maintain a fire.  Because it’s an important skill for people who spend time off the beaten track.

Some warm cloths.  Maybe it was sunny and 65 degrees Fahrenheit when you walked into the woods.  You were comfortable in a tee shirt.  Now its dark and 50 degrees.  Your tee shirt is damp from perspiration or worse yet its raining.  Cotton retains no insulation value if its wet. So hypothermia is the unfortunate result. And this is where the myth cotton kills comes from.  I’ve said this  before and taken some heat for it.  But the fact is wearing cotton is fine IF you also have a poly fleece or wool shirt or jacket to wear if your cotton shirt or pants get wet.    Having a rain jacket, a warm sweater, jacket or shirt along with a fleece cap in your day pack could literally save your life.   Its that simple.  So bring some warm clothes with you when you go into the wild even if its doubtful you’ll need them.

Okay, lets take a look at your situation.

You have your cell phone.   Call for help.  They can ping your phone to find you.  No service?  Bummer,  but it was worth a try.  The wild places I regularly spend time in have poor service or none but you never know.

You have water, you wont become dehydrated quickly.

You have matches and hopefully were able to start a fire.

You have some warm and hopefully dry cloths.  You are much less likely to become a hypothermia statistic.

Your chances are very good that you’ll be found alive, healthy and a little wiser.

Some other items that can be very useful.  A small flashlight.  Worth its weight in gold for a person lost in pitch black woods.

A whistle.   Yup, a good quality whistle.   Remember, somebodies going to be looking for you.  Blow three long blasts on the whistle every 10 to 15 minutes once your sure its been long enough that a search  is being conducted for you. Three blasts on a whistle is a universally known distress signal.  If you try to yell you will soon become hoarse and yelling takes energy you need to conserve.  You can blow a whistle all night.

Food.   A couple energy bars, nuts, any thing can go along way to helping you stay strong and focused when you need to be.

A knife.  Yes, I finally got where everybody wanted me to go.  All the so called experts say a knife is the most important thing to have with you to survive in the wild. I disagree.  I say it depends on the person.   If you know how to use a knife well and safely and if you have have some idea what to do with it then a knife is extremely valuable.  Most people don’t have that kind of skill.   Spend a week end with us at the Broken Knife Bushcraft school and  you’ll know how to use a knife and what to use it for.       No, for most people a small tarp, survival blanket, or even a trash bag that can keep you off the wet ground or keep some of the rain off will do a lot more for you than a knife.

A compass.   Yes, a compass can be very helpful in preventing you from becoming lost. A compass can also be very helpful in getting unlost.  But like the knife its only useful if you know how to use it.

Navigating by compass is an abstract topic that is hard for some people to grasp even if they are outside  standing next to somebody demonstrating how it works.  Competent use of a compass and map is not overly difficult or complicated. It does take training and practice. To try to explain it in here would be impractical at best.

My friend Wendell does a pretty fair job of explaining and demonstrating compass use on his Youtube channel “The Prepared Wanderer“.

Like the rest of his videos this is  worth watching.

We have covered what we should have done before we left home and what we should have brought with us.

Next time we’ll  talk about some ways to keep our selves orientated and on the right path.

Click Here For Part #2


Dave is a life long outdoors men and can be found camping in all four seasons. He spends as much time as possible on the rivers and in the woods canoeing, camping, fishing and hunting. He teaches bushcraft and woodsmenship to beginners and people that want to feel more confident and competent in the outdoors. Check out the course page for course relevant information.