Manual for a Lost Hiker

The trail is busy this morning, every corner brings new day hikers talking about their jobs or their kids. They often make eye contact and wish me a happy hike, but my bladder calls so I smile even though all I can think about is finding a quiet spot off the trail to pee.

Finally, I can’t wait any longer so I wander the prescribed two hundred feet off the trail to squat behind a large maple tree, whose trunk is wide enough to hide my bum from the other hikers. Feeling much relieved, I pull up my shorts and head back to the trail to enjoy the rest of the sunny day.

The trail should be somewhere over here, right? Maybe it’s just a little further. I walk a bit more but there is no sign of the trail. How did I get so turned around?

What do you do now?


#1 Rule:
As soon as you realize you are lost,
stay where you are.


I cannot stress how important this is. This one action could save your life. Don’t continue to wander. You are probably very close to the trail, but if you keep walking around looking for it, you may wander so far off track that no one will be able to find you.

Plan for the worst with the right gear


These go beyond the usual recommendations of not wearing cotton, packing matches, extra food, a map, and compass.

This goes beyond telling someone where you are going and when you expect to be done hiking.

This is not just about surviving.
It is about being found.


These things often get forgotten because we assume we can’t get lost. We’ve hiked that trail a million times. It’s not in the deep wilderness. I am a strong hiker. These are just a few of the things that we say to ourselves so that we don’t have to pack the extras and seem like a paranoid hiker.

The good thing is, they don’t take up much room and they could save your life. The story above does not always end happily.

Whistle – Three short blows is the signal for SOS. Not everyone knows this, but I guarantee someone will come looking if they hear someone blowing a whistle in the woods and rangers will definitely know what it means.

A bright bandana -This has a million uses but in this situation it could help for signal help to your location or if you must wander around after you are lost, you can use it as an easily seen home base. Don’t go out of sight of it as you check in a circle for the trail or a water source.

A mirror – Can be used to signal rescuers by reflecting sunlight. Use it to flash the light towards any possible rescuers, voices, or civilization.

Spot GPS – or other GPS messenger. If you really like the comfort of a cell phone but want something that gets a better signal in the wilderness, and has a much longer battery life, then this is worth the price. What these type of messengers do is send a pre-set message to someone of your choosing or signal for emergency help. They will give coordinates for rescuers.

Keep in mind that these aren’t fool proof. They don’t work everywhere or all the time, but my Spot has gotten me off the trail with injured companions twice. Once in the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine and once on a 100 degree day on the Fingerlakes trail in NY. Both times our cell phones were nearly useless.

DSC01875Keep your limitations in mind…


Maps – Unless you are very experienced, using your map and compass when you are very lost will probably only lead you to get more lost. Do not search out higher ground, it may present you with no useful information and bring you further from the trail where you are most likely to be rescued from.

Food – Human can live without food for somewhere around three weeks. But you will have very little energy and your muscles and brain will not function well without nourishment.

Water – Humans can live without water for only 3-5 days. Bringing some chemical water treatment or a filter such as any suggested in this article: Which Water Treatment is for You for an emergency situation is not a bad plan.

Hypothermia – Signs of Hypothermia include shivering and confusion. If you are in wet clothes, try to change into something dry. Cover yourself in anything insulating you can find. Share body heat with companions if you are lost together.




Preventing getting lost in the first place is the preferred way to stay safe on a hike. Being aware of your surroundings and of your skills is important.

The woods have landmarks just like roads do, and knowing where you have been is the surest way to find your way back.



Photo by Johnny Null

Look for strange trees, rocks shaped like everyday things, and mushrooms. Pretty much anything that will help you remember which direction the trail is.

You can also tie your bright bandana onto a tree near the trail and make sure you can see it at all times as you walk away from it.

Look behind you often so you get to know your environment from all directions.


Avoid shortcuts off the trail.


They may look quicker and easier than the route you are on, but usually they are not. At best you end up bushwhacking your way through prickers and at worst you lose your way completely. Even worse, you could get injured in the middle of nowhere.


Evaluate your risks.


People will say “Don’t hike alone, it’s dangerous,” I say that risk is something you have to evaluate for yourself. Life is worth living, and if you take precautions then it is a calculated risk just like getting in your car every morning to go to work.

It seems like we have had so many sad deaths recently due to hikers getting lost in the woods on adventures that should have been exhilarating and empowering. I write this blog entry with the hope that information and the experience of others will prevent some future losses. I learned some of these things from the people who taught me to love the woods and from many nights around camp fires with experienced backpackers, but mostly from my own experience.

I have hiked alone often and find it to be essential for my happiness. I have faced dangerous weather, terribly maintained trails, creepy trail mates, broken gear, and my own greatest fears. You never know what you will encounter but the more prepared you are, the more enjoyable you adventures will be… and the more likely they will end with you at home and safe.

2 thoughts on “Manual for a Lost Hiker

  1. Daniel Capilla

    I like hiking alone too. The mountain or the forest are good places to meet yourself (too many people all around you are no recommended for it).

    In Spain, thanks to the Spanish Federation for Mountain and Climbing Sports (FEDME, Federación Española de Deportes de Montaña y Escalada), there is available an App to connect you with the closest rescue team and send your location in case of an emergency: Alpify.

    1. znara Post author

      Absolutely! That is great that they offer that app. Hopefully it is more successful than a regular phone call or text 🙂

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