Keeping yourself from getting lost, or sometimes called, “Lost Proofing” is the art of knowing where you are (generally) at any given moment. Here are some actions you can take to make sure you know how to avoid getting lost in the woods.
1. Know Before You Go
This concept is pretty simple. Before you venture out into the woods, whether it be hunting, hiking, or whatever, you need to make sure you are familiar with the geographic area and what kind of terrain it contains. Knowing terrain features will help you find your bearings as you venture in. This will also help you prepare for different conditions the area may have, including what to expect on your hike or hunt, where the nearest roads are, and what direction water sources may be found. Make sure you are also prepared with a small survival kit to help you be prepared for the worst-case scenario. This should include things like shelter, a fire starting kit, and much more. We can get into the in-depth contents of a survival kit another time. You should also know which direction you want to go, and which direction you don’t. This could be to ensure you are staying within the property lines or avoid a certain area. Knowing the terrain of the area you go to is also an important piece, as you should be prepared if the hike you are in for is really steep or not.
2. Let Others Know
Before you go, you should leave a detailed note with at least 2 different people about where you are going. This note should also include details about what you are wearing, what trail you are hiking on, why you are going, nearby water features, what shelter you’ll be using, what you are doing in the area that you are going(i.e. Hunting and what you are hunting), and how long you plan to be gone(when you are leaving and when you expect to be back).
Leaving an I.C.E. card in your vehicle is also a good idea. I.C.E. stands for “In Case of Emergency. This card should include not only the same information you left with those 2 people, but your name, provisions you are carrying, your destination, your route of travel, your emergency information and contacts, your egress route and also medical information. Another item to leave in your vehicle that can help others find you is a tin foil footprint of the hiking boots you are wearing.
3. Staying Found
Depending on how long you are planning on being out, you should plan on being prepared to leave before sundown. If you have either ventured off your hiking trail or haven’t paid attention to your surroundings, it can be very easy to get lost in the dark. If you do leave after sundown, remember to pack a flashlight with fresh batteries to make sure you can find your way. Look back frequently along your way in so you know what your surroundings look like on your way back. Have a shelter with you in case you have to take an Unexpected Night Out. Set up this shelter along your trail, which will help you stay found. This is also where being able to start a camp fire will help you stay warm throughout the night, immensely increasing your chance of survival.
Keep an eye out for prominent landmarks that can help you learn your general directions and regain your bearings if needed. This will not only help you keep from getting lost, but also will help you enjoy the scenery as you are paying more attention, rather than pushing through to your destination with a full head of steam. Remember to stay hydrated and also stay in shape. This is easier said than done, but many times over-zealous hikers and hunters alike get themselves somewhere they don’t have the energy to get out of. Lost hikers have a tendency to try to keep moving, hoping they’ll find their way. Try to avoid making this mistake.
4. Know How to Use a Compass and Read a Map
This one is pretty straightforward. You should do your research and learn how to use a compass, as you should learn how to read a map, and be sure to take them with you when you go into the backcountry. Fieldcraft Survival teaches Land Navigation courses that will take you in-depth on these concepts and help you become less reliant on a GPS. These courses are taught by people with real navigation skills. While a GPS device is amazing to have, if you are lost in the wilderness, your GPS battery might not last until you can get yourself out of the situation you are in. Use your map and compass to navigate along your route, and use your GPS sparingly to ensure your map calculations are correct. We recommend having a physical copy of the map of the area you are in, as well as the Suunto MC-2 Compass.
5. Preventative Maintenance and Routine
If you need to stop for a break along your way, rest for less than 5 minutes. This gives you an opportunity to get some rest, but don’t rest too long or your body will build up lactic acid in your joints and muscles, causing you to move less efficiently. These short rests are also a good opportunity to face the right direction you came from in order to familiarize yourself with how your return trip will look on your way out. You should do this if you rest and always remember to look back often for the same reason. Another way to keep track of your route is to leave natural indicators of direction such as cairns or shaped sticks.
6. Have a Plan and Stick To It
One of the biggest mistakes you can make, whether you are just a day hiker or a serious hunter, is changing or deviating from your plan without telling anyone. The last thing you want is to be lost out in the wilderness, hoping you will be found when everyone you told about your trip thinks you are in a completely different area than you actually are. This means don’t try a new area last minute or follow friends into new areas unless your plan says that you will do so. Every step you take away from your original trail decreases the chance you will be found. Keep the search area small. Doing so will increase your chance of survival.
7. Be Humble
We’ve all been there. If you are not willing to accept that you are starting to get lost or are actually lost, you will only find yourself in a worse situation. Emotions such as shame, fear and our egos get in the way of being able to process our situation with a clear mind. Also, try not to change your plans if you hear a last minute tip on where the fish are biting. There are many other factors that aren’t listed here, but a good rule of thumb is to stay humble. Everytime you go into the outdoors, you should come with a willingness to learn, and sometimes you have to learn from your mistakes.
To wrap up, it’s important to take steps before you go out into the backcountry to ensure that you know what the area you are going is like. This includes knowing your plan, taking into consideration weather, terrain, and more to be prepared for what could come your way on your camping trip, hunting trip, or day hike. Let others know where you are going before you go. Be sure to leave a detailed note with two friends about where you are going, what you are doing, and when you’re leaving and when you plan to return. It’s also important to take mental notes about landmarks and other distinguishing features along your way to know what your return trip will look like, and you will have points of reference to keep track of to help you stay found. In case you do get lost, make sure you know how to use a compass and a map in order to be able to gather your bearings and navigate your way out of the wilderness. Be sure to take preventative measures, for example keeping track of the route you took as you go. Stick to your original plan and don’t deviate from it. The last thing you want if you are lost is the search party looking for you in the completely wrong area. Last but not least, be humble. Be willing to accept that you are lost and think through your problem rather than ignoring it.