Excerpted and adapted from Essential Guide to Winter Recreation, from AMC Books.
Getting lost in the woods can happen to anyone, especially in the winter and even to the most seasoned hiker. You make a wrong turn, you lose your bearings in whiteout conditions, or you accidentally get separated from your group. If you find yourself lost in the woods, don’t panic! The most important thing you can do is keep a positive mental attitude (PMA). According to survival experts, PMA allows you to combat stress, think more clearly, and make better and safer decisions, increasing your chances of getting found. Also consider that, despite the cold, winter can actually help lost persons get found in a variety of ways. You can often trace your own footprints back to camp or to the correct trail, and others can track your footprints to find you more easily. Winter clothes are also often colorful and bright, making it easier for rescuers to spot you. If you’re certain you’re lost, you can take many steps to help yourself. The following is an easy-to-follow guide for how to get found.
Blow Your Whistle. Every hiker should have a whistle for just this purpose. Three short blasts is the universal distress signal.
Mark Your Territory. It’s a good idea to make yourself as visible as possible. If you’re in the woods, hang brightly colored clothing or stuff sacks or whatever you can spare from trees. These items help searchers spot you. At night, hang cyalume sticks (a.k.a. glow sticks), if you have them. Build a fire. Not only does a fire provide heat and comfort, it sends up smoke signals during the day and casts a glow at night.
Build Camp. In most cases, it’s best to stay in one place, unless you are confident of your navigation skills. The other members of your group are probably already looking for you, and it’s likely they are not far away. Keeping an eye on the time and the weather conditions, consider the chance you’ll be out overnight. By midafternoon, you should establish a camp, setting up some sort of shelter. If you have your backpack and all of the supplies you need, put up your tent. It’s another spot of color, and you’ll be prepared come nightfall. If not, start looking for natural shelter. This might mean a spot beneath a dense evergreen, if the conditions are right; an overhang; or a snow den. Try to find some sort of natural insulator to keep yourself off the ground. Boughs are ideal for this. Cut or break off some leafy branches from nearby conifers and arrange them in layers for a bed. If you don’t have a sleeping bag, find as much dry, natural material—leaves, moss, etcetera—as you can and fill your jacket with it. Believe it or not, this will keep you warmer. One of the simplest, most effective shelters is a lean-to built of evergreen branches with a fire in front of it.
Walk with a Plan. If you think you are capable of self-rescue, make a plan. Aimless walking only gets you more lost, more tired, and even farther away from your group. Consult your map and compass if you have one. See if you can identify any nearby landmarks. Try to recall how you ended up where you are. Did you cross a trail or see a body of water? Do your best to pinpoint your location on a map and look for logical routes out. If you don’t have a map, study the landscape around you. Do you recognize any features? Listen. Can you hear water or a road?
Find Your Way Out. If all else fails, it makes sense to search for a more familiar area by incrementally hiking in each of the cardinal directions. Starting from your base camp, walk five minutes in the direction you think is most likely to bring you to a recognizable place. Mark your way, either by prints, building snow cairns, or using branches arranged in an arrow. Blow your whistle as you go. If you don’t see anything you recognize, turn back to your base camp. Do the same in the opposite direction, going for five minutes and creating a path. Again, if you find nothing, turn back for camp. Move out in the other two directions for five minutes each. If you still can’t find anything useful, try hiking in the first direction again, going five minutes farther this time. Repeat this grid until you come across a landmark or a trail, always returning to your base camp and always blowing your whistle. Keep your ears tuned for water or human-made sounds. This approach, if performed in a disciplined manner, can help you find your way out of the woods, but it can also get you further lost, so be cautious and keep a clear head. The beauty of the cross grid is that even if you can’t find your way out, you’ve created trails leading rescuers directly to your location.