As an educated backpacker, I don’t encourage anyone to go out and backpack alone. If you do, at least let someone know where you are going and when you’ll be back. This way, if you aren’t back, that person will know to contact authorities. With the help of The Backpacker’s Field Manual, I’ve listed several tips on what to do if you are ever alone and lost in the wilderness:
TIP ONE: Identify your location
Whether you take a wrong turn, lose the trail, or just stop paying attention, getting lost is very easy to do when out in nature. You can easily become disoriented if the scenery all looks the same.
- If you are lost, you need to figure out where you are.
- You will need to judge for yourself if you should sit and wait for help or try to hike out on your own. The Mountain Rescue Association suggests that if you ever get lost (or someone in your group gets lost) that you S.T.O.P. – Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan. Too many people start to panic and just react without thinking clearly in these situations. This is especially important if the weather conditions are extreme. If it’s hot, stay put until the heat of the day is gone, so you don’t risk getting dehydrated and get more lost. The same is true for cold weather – take shelter until a storm passes or the sun comes out to avoid hypothermia.
- Identify landmarks around you by taking mental photos (or use your cell phone if you have it). Write down a few notes or make a very obvious marking in the ground or use rocks (ie. rock cairn) to identify your starting point. After doing so, you can perform a star-shaped compass search to get to know the environment around you. From your starting point, follow a short straight line course north, taking all of your stuff with you. Note any landmarks. Turn around and walk back to your starting point. Continue to do this, following a S, SE, SW, NW, NE, E, and W line, returning to your starting point each time. If you were smart enough to bring a map, this should help you to identify your location. If you did not bring a map, perhaps a visible landmark can help you identify where you are.
TIP TWO: Signal for help
Signaling for help is vital if you intend to be found quickly. Here are the best ways to signal for help:
- Series of 3 – a series of anything in threes is the universal signal for distress, like whistling in three short bursts.
- Fires – If you light a fire to signal during the day, it’s imperative that the smoke is seen. Add wet leaves or branches (once the fire is established and burning strong). If you have anything made of rubber that’s non-vital, throw that in the fire as well, to create more visible and odorous smoke. If the fire is made to signal at night, the flame itself will be your best signal. Keep that fire hot and large as long as possible.
- Mirrors– Use a mirror to reflect the sunlight. Outstretch your arm and aim the mirror flashes towards the horizon in a series of three flashes.
- Ground signals – If rocks and/or branches are plentiful, use them in open areas to create a large symbol to be seen from the sky (such as 3 X’s, HELP, or SOS). If you are on sand, create giant letters or symbols in the sand. If you plan on moving locations, create a giant arrow in the direction you plan to head.
TIP THREE: Remember the five basic survival priorities to get out alive
- Attitude – You must maintain a positive attitude. Stay calm, slow down, breathe, think clearly, utilize your resources, and stay positive.
- Shelter – You need to be protected from the cold or heat. Hypothermia and hyperthermia are dangerous conditions that can kill you. Find a rock outcropping, cave, or build yourself a rudimentary structure (think: a squirrel’s nest) to protect you from the elements.
- Water – After 24-72 hours without water, the effects of dehydration begin to impair your judgement, strength, and coordination. Without water, you die. Stay away from stagnant water or any water that is cloudy (unless you can boil it). It’s imperative to assume that all water is contaminated, but if desperate, only drink clear, running water if you are upstream from any livestock or town.
- Fire – Fire provides heat and light, signals rescuers, and allows you to boil and purify any water that you may have collected. Always carry waterproof matches, a lighter, or a magnesium fire starter.
- Food – A person can go 2-3 weeks without food if necessary. Eating is not as essential as water. It’s especially important not to eat unless you have adequate water because digestion of food uses a good amount of internal water in the process.
Hopefully you will never be in a situation where your survival is at risk. But if you are, it’s crucial to have the appropriate knowledge and resources in order to ensure your safe return home.
Feel free to add suggestions or omissions in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!