What to do if You Get Lost in the Wilderness

What to do if You Get Lost in the Wilderness


Before going backpacking, camping, kayaking, or performing other outdoor activities, most of us plan ahead to minimize risks.  We seek out information about the area in which we will be, prepare the necessary gear, and execute our plans to the best of our abilities.  However, sometimes, even during a well-planned outing, the unexpected can happen.  Your boat may capsize, you may wander off the trail, have a negative encounter with wildlife, or sustain a serious injury.  In the event of an unfortunate event, some basic wilderness survival skills can be the difference between life and death.

Here are some basic wilderness survival skills for when things go wrong.

             Wait!!!  Before you do anything else!!!             


  • Stop

Once you realize that you are lost or stranded, stop!  This is not the time to panic.  Just stay calm and try to collect your  thoughts.  If you or your party are in immediate danger, then do what you must to remove yourselves from that danger.  If first aid is needed, go ahead and take care of that.  Once there is no longer an immediate threat to your safety, then stay positive and calmly begin taking control of the situation.

  • Think

If you are ever find yourself in a wilderness survival situation, the most important thing you can do is maintain a positive attitude.  Thinking clearly and being able to work with nature and not against it is vital to keeping yourself and others alive until the emergency is over.  Overcoming challenges and working out solutions to problems you face is crucial.  A clear head and positive attitude are two essentials that can’t be carried in a backpack.  Get your group together, if with others.  Normally, more heads are better than one.  If you are lost, try remembering the last landmark you passed.  Try remembering where you might have gotten off course.  Look to see if you left footprints in the mud or snow so you can backtrack.  If you have a map, look at it to identify landmarks and try to remember any landmarks that you have passed.  From this information, you may be able to figure out where you are, or at least an approximate location.

  • Observe

Look and Listen.  Assess your group’s situation.  Does anybody need first aid?  What is the weather like?  Do you need to take immediate shelter or not?  Listen for running water or vehicles on a road.  If there is a hill nearby, and you can make it without getting lost even more, go to the top.  Look for land marks.  You may recognize something that you passed on the trail or you may be able to get your bearing so you can find the trail again.  Look for mountains, rivers, streams, or manmade structures.  If it is night, keep your eyes open for lights in the distance.  A home or road may be closer than you realize.  Based on what you see, you may be able to figure out your location.  If you have a compass, using as many landmarks as you can find, you can triangulate your location.  The more landmarks you use, the more precise your triangulation.

  • Plan

When you have figured out what your needs are and what your situation is, you and your group can begin to formulate a plan of what to do next.  Take inventory of your food, water, and equipment.  Think about what you have and what you need.  How much water do you have and where is the nearest water source?  What are the weather and temperature conditions?  Is there shelter nearby or means to make or setup a shelter?  Do you have the means to build a fire?  What methods of signaling for help are at your disposal?  Now that you’ve figured out your situation, calmly determine how to take care of these basic needs.



Provide First Aid

As you are figuring out your plan for survival, immediately provide first aid for any serious or life-threatening injuries.  Providing first aid for life-threatening injuries or illnesses should be high on your priority list.  Examine anyone who has been hurt to determine the extent of care they need.  Reassure them and help them to stay calm.  Remain calm yourself.  Identify all the resources available to you.  Someone in your group may have medical training.  Let them help if they can.  In your initial assessment, remember the acronym “ABCDE” to help you determine the extent of their condition.


A = Airway – Is the person’s airway clear and are they having any difficulty breathing?

B = Breathing – Is the person breathing normally?  Look, Listen, and feel for chest and air movement.  What are the quality of their breaths?

C = Circulation – Assess the person to see if they are bleeding severely.

D = Disability – Look for disabilities as a result of injury to the spine.  If the spine is injured, it’s important to keep the person as immobile as possible and provide support to their head.  Also, look at the size of his/her pupils and if they react to light.  These steps can help determine if they have a bran injury.

E = Environment – Asses how the environment is affecting your patient.  If the person is suffering from hypothermia, then they need to be warmed up.  If the conditions are hot, then they may need to be placed in the shade and given water to cool them down.


Another helpful first-aid assessment tool is “SAMPLE”.

S = Signs and Symptoms                                                                                                                               

A = Allergies                                                                                                                                          

M = Medications                                                                                                                                     

P = Pertinent past medical history                                                                                                                          

L = Last intake (food, medication, water)

E = Events leading up to the injury


Using these simple tools can help you more easily assess your patient’s needs.  When you are rescued, you can relay what you have found to the rescuers.  This information may help provide the medical response personnel a better picture of the patient’s condition.


Seek Shelter

Your body has its own thermostat.  It reacts to the ambient temperature and makes adjustments accordingly.  If your body gets too cold, adjustments are made to maintain the core of your body at the right temperature.  If it gets too hot, your body reacts in other ways to cool you down.  However, your body can only do so much.  Even though our bodies can do some amazing things, it has limits.  If it can’t compensate against the cold, you will suffer from hypothermia.  If your body gets too hot, it can suffer from heat exhaustion or heatstroke.  Either situation is dangerous.  If your body temperature rises or drops even a few degrees from the normal range, you will find it harder to think clearly and function normally.  In extreme cases, these illnesses can cause unconsciousness and eventually death.  To protect yourself from exposure to the elements in a wilderness survival situation, you need to seek shelter.

A shelter can take many forms.  Many times, people think of a survival shelter as being a makeshift lean-to constructed with limbs, with leaves on top, leaning against a rock or other structure.  Although this kind can be very useful in certain situations, it’s not the only type you can make.  When trying to determine what type of shelter to use, assess what resources are available to you.  Do you have a poncho, an emergency blanket, a tarp, or a tent?  How much energy will it take to build it or set it up?  Is the area safe from falling limbs, rocks, or in the path of a potential avalanche?  Take all of these questions into consideration when setting up your shelter.


Build a Fire

A fire can be extremely important for survival.  Besides providing warmth in cold conditions, it can be used to dry clothes, boil water for purification, melt snow for drinking, cook food, and signal for help.  A fire can also provide a much needed boost in moral to you and your group.  Try to build a fire that has minimal impact on the environment, but that provides for your needs.  While in the wild, we should always strive to use “Leave No Trace Principles”.  However, in a survival situation, by all means, do what you have to do to survive.  Your life is more important than the minor ecological detriment caused by a small, correctly built fire.


Signal for Help

A signal fire is one of several ways to signal for help.

If you are lost in the wilderness, you may have to signal for help.  Assess the resources you have which will aid you in signaling.  Look around and try to think of which ways of signaling for help will be most productive.  In most survival situations, you will need to use several different kinds of signals.  If possible, try to find an opening in the trees that can be seen from above.  There are several ground-to-air signals you can make to let search planes or helicopters know that you are in need of help.  Use clothes, tents, sleeping bags, logs, or rocks to make distress signals.  Also, you can signal for help with fire and smoke.  If possible, set three fires, separated by about fifty to one hundred feet.  Hopefully, this will be seen as a distress fire.  Place green leaves or straw on the fire to make thick smoke.

If you have a whistle, air horn , or gun, try to make as much noise as possible.  Blasts of three shots, whistles, or other noises delivered every 2-3 minutes, will likely be recognized as a signs of distress.  A mirror or other reflective surface can also be used to signal for help by pointing it toward the sun and directing the light to a passing plane or helicopter.



Drink Water

Probably the most important piece to the survival puzzle, is drinking water.  You can survival for several days without food, but you may only survive hours without adequate water.  If you have ever been thirsty and not had access to water, you know that you think of little else.  Without enough water, your cognitive abilities begin to diminish way before you die.  If you are in hot conditions, try to stay out of the sun as much as possible.  In hot conditions, it’s easy to tell when you’re thirsty, but you can become dehydrated in cold weather too.

As soon as you know you are lost or in a wilderness survival situation, it’s imperative that you figure out how you will obtain water.  Try to remember the last time you saw a water source.  Ideally, you will find a stream.  Flowing water is usually less contaminated and is almost always a better choice.  But even inside of some hollow trees or in between rocks, you may find water.  In most cases, you will need to purify the water.  If you don’t have a water filter or purification tablets, you can always boil it.  The color of your urine is a strong indicator of how hydrated you are.  Typically, the darker the urine, the less hydrated you are.


Don’t Worry About Food

As discussed in the previous section, you can survive several days without food.  It’s not ideal or very comfortable, but you can.  If you already have food, great.  But when you run out, spend your time and energy on getting water and doing all of the other necessary activities that we have previously discussed.  In most situations, unless you have a gun and animals are easily found, you will expend too much energy hunting for food.  There are some edible plants, berries, and roots, but unless you are 100% sure which ones they are, it’s best not to try them.  Besides, if you do not eat them on a regular basis, they are likely to make you sick, thus making your predicament worse.   Only when you have covered all of your other bases, then you can give thought to finding food.  Think of ways that will not expend much energy, like snares or traps.


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One comment

  1. Thank you for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your next post thank you once again. Nicolina Abbott Friedly Piper Richie Ulphiah

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