It happens more often—and more unexpectedly—than you can imagine. You go for a casual hike in the wilderness, step off the vague trail you’ve been following and suddenly realize a frightening fact: You’re lost.
OK. Stop. The first thing you should do is follow the wise advice in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t panic.” Let’s backtrack a bit. Even if your hike was a sudden whim with little or no planning, there are two things to always do before you even step out of your home. First, always tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Mark Thibadeau, of Gregory Mountain Products (a branch of Black Diamond) says “that’s the single most important thing you can do, because if you get lost or hurt, someone knows where you are and people will come looking for you.” Second, Thibadeau advises, “Take a little extra water, a little extra food. A flashlight or headlamp also is a good thing to have. An inexpensive headlamp costs less than $25.” You can carry these extras in a waistpack or small backpack. A small paper tablet and pen is also a good thing to have.
There are two kinds of lost: the simple kind, where you’re still fairly near the trail you were following; or the more complicated kind where 1. You’re in totally unfamiliar territory and have no idea where you are, 2. It’s getting cold and you didn’t bring a jacket, and 3. It’s already twilight and getting darker quickly.
In either one, the “don’t panic” rule applies. Sit down, take some deep breaths, and look back at the way you came. Do you recognize a landmark, like a tall tree or a distant mountain that you saw before you realized you were lost? Can you get your bearings from anything you see around you? Where was the sun when you began your hike, and where is it now?
In the “simple” kind of lost, where the trail is only about 50 feet away, it’s usually easy to retrace your steps and find it again. But before trying that, sit and think. Try to remember everything you passed on the way up. Don’t rush! Rushing around when you’re lost is just another form of panic. Thibadeau advises, “Conserve as much energy as you can, don’t run. Stay calm and use your head.”
If you’ve been looking for something familiar for an hour or more and still don’t know where you are, you now have a decision to make: Do you continue to try to find your way out, or sit and wait for rescue? In some cases, especially if there are some hours before sunset, going downhill can be the solution, especially if you were climbing uphill in the earlier part of your hike. Walking downhill will frequently lead you to a road. First, try getting “high.” That is to say, if possible, climb up on a rock or knoll—first making sure of the spot you are currently at—and look down at the way you came to see if you recognize anything. If not, go back to the spot you were at when you first realized you were lost.
If you decide to try walking downhill, leave a marker for those who may come searching for you. Take a piece of paper from your tablet and write a note to rescuers that you’re walking downhill, then stab the note onto a tree twig. If you find your way out, the note won’t matter. If not, it can help others to find you.
If you’re now in a “complicated” lost, stay where you are. If you move anywhere else, you exponentially increase the area searchers must traverse to find you. This is especially true if you’re cold. Try to stay warm by covering yourself with leaves or brush. But especially if you’re chilled, don’t change your plan to wait it out. Hypothermia (body chill) affects the brain, which affects your judgment. Wait for rescue, and as you shiver through the night, remember that this is not an exciting adventure with which to regale your friends, but an example of what can happen if you go into the wild country unprepared.