Part #2 – How Not To Get Lost and Be Okay If You Do

by Dave | Last Updated: May 3, 2018

Today we’re going to talk about ways to keep yourself orientated and unlost in the woods.  For those of you that have in fact become lost in the woods since our last discussion, well, feed your fire, blow your whistle, someone will be with you shortly. 

The best way to keep yourself on the right path and going in the right direction is of course a map and compass. And that’s good if you have those things and the skill to use them.  But that’s not how most people become lost. 

People become lost in the woods for any number of reasons but the most common is simply straying from the trail or from the area they are familiar with. For instance a hunter begins to follow game and while intent on stalking his quarry enters an area he has not been in before. 

When he realizes he is unsure of his surroundings he attempts to retrace his steps and quickly finds he cannot. Or a hiker strays from the marked trail to find a stream he or she can hear, or simply to answer the call of nature and then cannot relocate the trail.  Those people never expected to need a map and compass.  So what could they have done to prevent their confusion? Here’s a few ideas. 

If your going off trail or entering an unfamiliar area stop a minute and take a look around.  Where are you right now? What direction is the sun? Do you hear anything? What way is the wind blowing.  Now, what is the direction your going to travel in?  Okay, when facing the direction you intend to go is the sun on your right shoulder or left?  In front or behind? Because when you want to retrace your steps the sun should be the opposite.  Now, the sun does move of course. In fact it moves 15 degrees per hour.  So think about where the sun is now and which way its moving and where it will be say in two hours. Now keep track of it. If clouds cover the sun very often you can still see the faint hint of a shadow even if the sun is overcast.  That shadow will show you where the sun is. Can’t even see a faint shadow?  Take out your knife.  Make a fist with your thumb flat on top. Carefully place the tip of your knife on your thumb nail and keeping the knife vertical slowly turn around watching your thump nail.  Not that thumbnail, the other one with the knife on it. I’ll bet you see where the sun is except on possibly the very darkest days. Try it sometime when your not lost.  Neat trick to know.   

What direction is the wind blowing?  If you know the wind was coming from your left when you set off it should be on your right when you retrace your steps. But wind direction can suddenly change. Yup, and the sun moves.  The point is to be aware of these things as you travel and together they can provide useful directional tools. 

Could you hear anything at your starting point?  A stream?  Traffic on a distant road?  What direction is the sound compared to your direction of travel?  Keep track of that sound. Note when you can barely hear it or if it gets louder and take a good look around at the landmarks where you are when that happens. When you return that sound can help to keep you going in the right direction. 

And now the most important.  Be observant. Pick a landmark close to you. Next look in the direction you want to travel. Look out and pick a landmark you can clearly see and identify. Walk to that landmark. Then stop and look back at your first mark where you started. Note the lay of the land and anything that will help you to remember later. Now face back the direction you were headed. Pick another landmark and repeat the process.  Navigating in an unfamiliar area is a conscious thing. Don’t try to rely on your never failing sense of direction.  Because it will fail sooner or later. But if you continue to look at your back trail, study the landscape and consciously commit a few landmarks to memory, all the while keeping track of the sun and your other tell tail signs you should be able to retrace your steps without getting into any trouble.  

Alright, you have tried to keep track of landmarks, the landscape, the sun, that distant highway and all the other things and you were supposed to and now you are lost.  Really? Wow, your in a lot of trouble. But don’t panic.  You told somebody where you were going. You have some water and warm clothes in case your out over night, or longer.  You can start a fire because you have your wind and water proof matches.  Your going to be okay. Oh you didn’t do any of that stuff? Your options are limited to say the least. I’d just save some time and go ahead and panic now and get it over with.  No I guess you better not do that. Yet.

Lets dig a little deeper. Okay your lost. But how lost? The first thing to do is S.T.O.P. Remember that.  S.T.O.P.  What does that mean? Well, it means don’t go! But it also means this.

S. is for “stay calm”. Sit down, take a few breaths, drink some water.  Your going to be fine.

T. is for “think”. Think about what direction you were going when you realized you were confused. 

Try to remember your last landmark. How long ago was that. If it was a short time ago your not to far from there.  If you really take a few minutes and think you will be surprised what information you have retained that may be helpful in setting you right.  

O. is for “observe”. Look around, see or hear anything that can help? 

P.  is for “plan”. Make a decision on what is the best course of action to reorientate yourself. And think about what you will do next if that fails.  

 First, mark the spot your in.  Look around and find a very visible landmark or make one.  Travel the way you think you should while making very sure not to lose where you were.  Take your time and don’t go to far.  If you find yourself then all is well.  Continue as before. If you don’t then return to the spot where you realized you were lost and try a different direction. If that fails and its early and your still confident you may find your way out remember these tips.  Travel downhill. You are more likely to strike a road or trail in the valley than on the hill top.  Follow a flowing stream. And follow it down stream. Stay in open woods if you can and avoid thick bushy areas. Just remember to be able to find your way back to where you first stopped.  Because that is the closest place to where searchers will be looking.  

If you have stopped and thought, and looked and planned and tried to find your way and all has failed, and it looks like your spending the night in the woods its still not time to panic.  I know how that sounds. Because being lost is frightening. And I’m not lost right now, a little disheveled maybe but not lost so what the heck do I know? But trust me, you can survive a night in the woods.  Remember, nature never did betray a heart that loved her. So before it gets dark find a high and dry spot, gather some wood. Gather till you have all you need for the night, then gather three times that much. It takes more firewood than you think. 

Tomorrow you will find your  way out or someone will find you.  Next time we’ll get deeper into how to spend an unexpected night in the wild. Derrick has asked me to start making videos so that might be a good one to start on. Oh, And for those of you that were already lost when we started this, keep blowing, well get to you. 


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.