What to Do When You’re Lost in the Woods

Thinking Ahead Is Everything

As the adage goes, hindsight is 20/20, meaning everything looks much clearer when considered from a future safer perspective. To avoid the catastrophe of getting lost in the first place, accomplish some simple tasks before you leave. 

Emergency plans, bail-out directions and a well-packed backpack, complete with downloaded or printed maps from online free sites, can save you hours of anxiety and suffering in the backcountry. 

Contingency Plans  

It’s crucial to leave a basic plan with loved ones and tell at least two people specifically where you’re going and how long you plan to stay. A solid contingency plan has a map with a highlighted route, an itinerary, applicable phone numbers and other contact information. 

Ensure the date and time you expect to arrive at your final destination are legible in case friends and family need to contact emergency services to instigate a rescue mission.

Ten Essentials

Most outdoors-minded people know the ten essentials refer to a group of items to aid you in times of need. They cover everything from sunscreen to navigation to fire. Here are those ten essential items that can keep you alive and relatively comfortable in a backcountry emergency, depending on the severity.

  • First aid kit – Before you leave, make sure all items are up to date and not compromised or damaged.
  • Illumination – Headlamps are the most convenient because they’re hands-free. Opt for LED lights, as they last the longest and produce the brightest light.
  • Fire – Keep matches, lighters or flint with dry tinder in a sealable, waterproof bag.
  • Protective clothing – Layering is the best option for outdoor recreation and inclement weather. Choose thermal insulation layers made from high-performance synthetic materials, such as Gore-Tex®. 
  • Sun protection – A hat, sunscreen, gaiters and sunglasses protect your eyes and skin from the sun.
  • Shelter – A pup tent or fly will keep you out of the weather and help you retain your body heat.
  • Navigation – Bring something other than your cellular device to keep track of where you’re going, like a GPS, manual compass or map.
  • Repair kit – Twine, string, adhesive and a multi knife tool may all be helpful if you’re stranded in the woods. 
  • Food – Lightweight backpacking food like freeze-dried or dehydrated food won’t weigh you down.
  • Water – You can never have enough water, but it’s heavy. Consider portable water filtration systems or iodine tablets as alternatives. 

With most of these items safely stored in your backpack, you should feel confident you will be able to last multiple days. Since search-and-rescue missions commonly take 10 to 14 hours, with the right equipment you’ll be just fine until the rescue squad arrives.



What Is It Really Like to Be Lost In The Woods?

Being lost can be scary. At first, you might panic, then calm down a little and think “how bad can it be”? If it’s daylight, warm and dry then you might think it’s going to be a fun adventure. Don’t take your situation lightly, though.

Here’s a bit of statistics for you:The Oregon Office of Emergency Management conducts more than 1,000 search and rescue missions each year. The good news is that 89 percent of the people they go looking for are found alive. Sadly, eight percent die and the remaining two percent are never found. Being lost is serious.

If you’re lost by yourself it’s easy to freak out, and it’s important that you take control of your internal narrative and start being realistic about what is happening and how likely you are to be found. Read on to learn about the most important steps to take and the issues that you need to solve.

If you’re lost in a group, then there can be the risk of taking the situation less seriously, especially if some of the people in the group aren’t well versed in wilderness survival and don’t understand how serious the situation is.

It can be easy for the loudest voice in the group to take over and say “I watched Man Vs Wild by Bear Grylls, I know what to do”. Don’t follow the loudest voice, if the loudest voice has no real credentials.

How to Avoid Getting Lost in the Woods?

In the ideal world, you would never get lost in the first place. If you’re planning a trip to some woodland, then you should give your itinerary to your friends and family, and agree to check in at regular intervals. That way, if you do get lost, you will know that your absence will be noticed and that help will be on its way.

Don’t forget to…

Pack a map and a compass, even if you don’t think you’re going to be heading off-road. Practice using them before the trip. You might have learned how to use a compass in the Scouts, but be honest – when was the last time you tried?

Make sure you know what you’re doing before you head off. Practice lighting a fire using sticks, too, or buy a tinder striker so that you can make a fire more easily. If you’re going to pack matches, put them in a ziplock plastic bag because otherwise they will inevitably get wet and become useless.

What They Drank From

Natural body of water: 24 percentSnow, rain or puddles: 16 percentRationed their own water: 13 percent

Other sources of hydration that survivors listed included drinking urine, going without water or licking leaves, moss and grass.

The Biggest Risks To You If You Get Lost

If you can’t determine your location, or navigate your way back to civilization, then you are best to STAY PUT and await rescue. While waiting for help to arrive, you should be aware of the biggest risks that you are likely to face and how to effectively handle them.


You can only survive three days without water. This timeframe, however, could be even shorter if you’re hiking in humid environments. 

On most trips, you’ll likely have brought H2O with you, but packing a water purifier such as the lifestraw could help save your life by allowing you to drink safely from wild water sources. Alternatively, if you have brought a stove or are adept at making fires, then boiling H2O from a stream will also make it safe to drink.

To save time and energy, if possible, set up your shelter by a stream or river. Although you might feel more hunger pains than symptoms of dehydration, you should always prioritize hydration over hunger.


Sadly, many hikers underestimate how easy it is to die from hypothermia. The onset of hypothermia is usually gradual, so you have to watch yourself carefully before the debilitating symptoms take hold of you.

Officially defined as a drop in body temperature below 95°F, hypothermia produces symptoms such as extreme shivering, weakened pulse, delirium, and poor balance. It’s far easier for you to contract hypothermia at night, especially if you’re in an area that’s damp.

If you feel your temperature dropping, remove any wet clothes you have on because these only increase your risk of developing hypothermia. Use your emergency blanket and light a fire nearby to provide external heat. You can also warm yourself internally by boiling H2O and drinking it slowly.

Heat Exhaustion

For people lost in hot environments, one of the main concerns is going to be heat-related problems like heat stroke. This problem, of course, goes hand-in-hand with dehydration.

Once again, you have to be in tune with your body and notice if you start to experience any sudden muscle cramps. Cramps are an early warning sign that you’re dehydrated. As these symptoms appear, try to find a shaded area and drink purified water.

Once you start to experience symptoms like nausea, clammy hands, of a fast pulse, you must lie down in the shade, sip a drink slowly, and sprinkle cool water all over your face and body.

Finally, to avoid sunburn and eye damage, a container of high-grade sunscreen and a pair of sunglasses are musts if you’re hiking in high temps or areas where you’ll be exposed to the sun.


While not as crucial as water, food is important for giving you the energy you need to create and maintain your shelter, or to hike out to safety. Take stock of the food you’ve brought with you and work out how to stretch out your supply for as long as possible.

The best way to reduce your need for food is to reserve your energy only for necessary tasks. With more energy in reserve, you’ll naturally require less food to survive.

As you probably already know, a case of the munchies can seriously impair your thinking. Whenever hunger cravings overwhelm your mind, just slow down, relax, and remember that humans can survive three weeks without food. After a few hours, your mind should become significantly less stressed.

Wrap Up What to do When Lost While Hiking

If you are wondering what to do when lost in the woods, you need to follow the above-mentioned tips. It is scary and confusing to get lost while hiking. If you feel you have lost your way, stop immediately and take a deep breath.

You need to calm yourself down so that you can think clearly. Do not panic and cry. Observe your surroundings. Use a map, compass or GPS of your phone to determine where you are exactly.

Finally, make a plan to find your way. You can either wait for the rescuers to help you or start traveling in the right direction. Be brave and think practically.

Every, Each, All, Some, Any Explained: When to Use

How They Stayed Warm

Clothes: 12 percentBuilt fires: 10 percentUsed camping gear: 10 percent

Other methods of keeping warm mentioned included using body heat of fellow lostees and dogs, hikers covering themselves, exercise and digging in.

Practice These Tips And You’ll Never Lose Your Way

Hopefully you understand by now the importance of taking precautions. If you take nothing else from this article, please remember to tell all your relations about your trip and carry your essential travel gear with you on the trail. These two preventative tips, along with the strategies listed above, could well prove critical in “surviving to tell the tale.” 

So, how did you like our guide on what to do if lost in the woods and how to find your way out of the woods when the proverbial feces hit the fan? If there’s anything we’ve missed, or if you have any questions, please let us know! And if you’d like to share this post will fellow backcountry wanderers, share away!


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