Lost in the Woods, what Should You Do?

One of the classic survival situations is to find yourself lost in the wilderness somewhere. This may not be as exciting as a full-blown disaster striking, but it’s much more likely to occur. I’ve been lost in the mountains before, and while I wasn’t afraid for my life (training helps), I was concerned about what I needed to do to take care of myself.

Let me define what I’m talking about a bit better here. If you are in the wilderness, unprepared to spend the night, and aren’t going to make it out before nightfall, you’re lost in the wilderness. That even applies if you have a pretty good idea of where you are. Knowing where you are and knowing how to get out before the cold of night sets in aren’t one in the same.

In my particular case, I had been hiking with some friends who thought their sense of direction was better than it was. Even though I was pretty sure that they were wrong, I went along with them because I was outvoted. While that made me have to go through the experience with them, it at least ensured that they had someone there who had some idea of what to do.

First, Stop and Take Stock

The first step in this sort of situation is to stop and take stock of the situation you’ve found yourself in. Do you know where you are? Do you know how far it is to get back to your vehicle or civilization? What time is it? How soon will sundown occur? Do you have any idea how cold it will get at night? Are you wet, risking hypothermia? What survival gear do you have on hand? Who is with you and how much do they know about survival?

Don’t assume that you can make it out, just because you can see the lights of the city a ways off. Distances can be very deceiving in the wilderness, especially in the mountains. You can rarely move in a straight line from where you are to where you need to be. Rather, you have to go up and down mountains and often find your way around obstacles. All that takes a huge amount of time.

If you aren’t sure that you can make it out by sundown, you’re better off stopping early and setting up camp for the night. It’s going to take some time to do that, so you want to stop a good two hours before sundown. To determine when that is, if you don’t have a watch or know when sundown is supposed to be, hold your fingers out, horizontally, at arm’s length. Each finger of space between the sun and the horizon represents 15 minutes of time, so eight fingers is the two hours you need.

Try to Make Contact

Check your cell phone to see if you have signal. If you can, you want to let people know where you are and what you’re doing. If you need help, such as dealing with an injury, make the call early, rather than later. Know your limits and don’t try to push yourself to get out on your own, if your chances of doing so are marginal.

Remember, text messages are more likely to get though than calls are. They also require less battery power. So if your battery is low or you don’t have much of a signal, try texting.

If you don’t have a cell phone, what other means of signaling do you have available to you? Do you have a whistle? Can you make a signal fire. Three blasts on a whistle, three gunshots or three fires is the international call for help.

Hopefully you’ve let someone know where you were going and when you expected to get back. This person should contact the authorities if you don’t get back on time, starting the process of looking for you. There are search and rescue organizations across the country, many staffed by volunteers, which go out into the wilderness to look for lost people.

Remember Your Survival Priorities

Your highest priority is going to be to keep yourself warm. Temperatures can drop incredibly swift after sunset, when you’re in the high country. If you’ve gotten wet, either from perspiration, rain or falling in the water, your chances of suffering hypothermia are greatly increased.

During the two hours you have before sunset, you want to accomplish two basic tasks:

  • Start a fire
  • Build a shelter

Of course, both are going to require gathering materials to use. That’s probably going to take more time than either starting the fire or building the shelter. So your two hours are going to be very busy ones. In cases where hypothermia is a real risk, start your fire before building your shelter. However, if there is inclement weather, build your shelter first, to protect you from the rain while starting your fire.

I realize that what I just said may sound like I’m contradicting myself; but I’m not. The two major factors you have to consider are the weather and your own condition. Determining which of those tasks is the most important to do first is a judgment call that you’ll have to make on the fly, based on your particular situation. The guidelines I gave are merely a starting point in the decision process.

Ideally, your shelter and your fire should be close enough together, so that the heat from the fire will warm the inside of your shelter. At the same time, you need to make sure that they are far enough apart, so that your shelter doesn’t catch fire, with you inside it. control the size of your fire, so that it doesn’t get out of hand.

If you can, place your fire where it has a good backdrop that can act as a heat reflector. A big rock works well for this. If there is nothing conveniently located for this, a simple wall, made of logs will work as a heat reflector as well. At the same time, it will work as a backup fuel supply for your fire.

Food and Water

Don’t worry about food and water for that first night. You can survive about three days without water and 30 days without food. So even though your stomach is going to tell you that you’re going to die, you’re not. You’ll be okay.

The Next Day

Start the next day by evaluating your situation again, asking all the same questions that you did when you first realized that you were lost. Check your cell phone again too, to see if you have signal. Differences in weather can make a huge difference in signal strength, especially if you’re on the fringe of the reception area.

If you can make it out on your own, do so. But if you’re unsure of where to go in order to get out, you’re usually better off staying put and letting rescuers find you. Without having some idea of where to go, you’re just as likely to walk yourself deeper into the wilderness, as you are to walk your way out.

Rather than trying to walk out, work on signaling your position to any possible rescuers. If you have a whistle, use it regularly. Set up three separate, smoky fires, spaced far enough apart that the smoke rising off of them won’t mingle into one smoke column. You can make the fire smoky by putting green boughs on it.

Finally, find yourself a reliable source of water. This is now your second day and you want to be replenishing your body’s water, especially if it gets hot. While you can still go a while without food, you can’t go very long without water. If necessary, move and establish a new campsite near your source of water; but don’t put it right at the water, so that you aren’t keeping animals from getting the water they need.