It can happen to even the most seasoned hiker. You casually duck into the woods to relieve yourself, zip up your pants, and—uh, oh. Which way was the trail? If you’re a solo hiker who becomes disoriented—or, worse, injured—nobody is there to help. Don’t panic! You’ve got options.
Before You Go
Getting found starts before you leave your house. Solo hikers need to be even more diligent than couples and groups, especially in watching the weather, leaving trip details with someone at home, and carrying what you need for an unexpected night in the woods. Consider bringing a GPS, with extra batteries, and take waypoints along your route so you can backtrack to a known spot, if needed.
A comprehensive trip plan is the crux of a soloist’s survival strategy. Your plan should include not only trail names and specific landmarks on your route but also the time you expect to return. Leave that plan with someone who, if you’re several hours late, will take the steps to figure out where you are. If you’re alone and lost, injured, or both, your ability to communicate from the backcountry may be limited or nonexistent, so settle on a rescue plan with your contact before you depart.
“Getting lost in the woods usually starts with simple disorientation,” says Colby Meehan, AMC’s leadership training manager. “You don’t recognize your surroundings and start wandering then you become lost.”
According to Meehan, disorientation often happens when: you leave the trail to change clothes; you get out of your tent in the middle of the night; or you’re above treeline, and fog rolls in. She recommends these four steps to reorient yourself:
1. Stop. Moving isn’t helpful until you know which way to go, and if you’re thrashing around in the forest, you can’t follow the next three steps.
2. Breathe. Anxiety can lead to panic, but breathing can help cool your nerves. If you don’t know where you are, staying calm will help you think clearly and figure out your next move.
3. Look for landmarks. This might be big, like a mountain, but it could be closer and more modest, like an unusual mushroom or a hollow log. The denser the undergrowth, the more observant you need to be.
4. Listen. Most people who wander off-trail are within 300 yards of it—close enough to hear the voices of other hikers, which tells you which way to walk.
If you’re unable to reorient yourself, the cardinal rule is to stay put. “If you wander while others are conducting a search for you, it’s harder for them to find you,” Meehan says. “Also, if you sit, you may hear clues as to where to go.”
Still lost? Time to try signaling others.
A whistle is one of the basic items all hikers should carry in the backcountry. You can shout with a whistle much longer than with your voice. The key is to make sustained blasts; otherwise, you’ll sound like a chirping bird.
Try your cell phone, too, but don’t call 911—at least, not at first. Initiating a full search-and-rescue operation should be a last resort, when you’ve run out of other options. “Call home,” Meehan says. “Be ready to describe the last part of the trail you remember, where you left it, and your current surroundings. Set a time for a follow-up call so you can turn off your cell phone to preserve precious battery life.”
If you can’t get a call through, try a text message. Meehan recommends keeping it positive and simple, something like: I traveled off-trail, am lost, and need help. I was last on [trail name and location on trail] at [time of day]. Add the direction you headed off the trail, if you know it, and any notable landmarks you can see.
“Until a search party arrives, stay where you are and keep blowing your whistle,” Meehan says. “And take care of yourself. Eat snacks, drink water, and stay warm.”
If you become lost and self-rescue is your only option, one technique is to follow a stream downhill. In the Northeast, you’ll often end up at a road, although it might require a rugged 10-mile bushwhack.
On the bright side, this method prevents you from wandering in circles and assures you’ll have drinking water. (Always purify sourced water before drinking it, if you’re able.) You’ll also feel proactive, which can help you maintain a positive mental state. If you reach an impasse, such as a waterfall or a cliff, stay within 100 yards of the stream while navigating around the obstacle.
“Review a map of the location you’ll be traveling through in advance of your trip,” Meehan says. “While on trail, continually monitor your location by keeping this same map handy. One of the keys to preventing getting lost is to stay found, from trip prep to the conclusion of your day.”