Stranded in the Forest: How to Survive Getting Lost in the Woods
It’s no wonder people are drawn to hiking and camping among the trees. The forest is a beautiful place to go to press pause on the stress and noise of daily life.
But Mother Nature can also be unforgiving and deliver the unexpected, and people get lost in the wilderness more than you might think.
Perhaps you went off trail to explore, to search for a natural landmark like a waterfall, to follow an animal, or simply to use the bathroom. Maybe the trail was overgrown and hard to follow. Whatever the reason, it could happen to anyone – you look around and suddenly you realize you’re not sure where you are.
Here’s how to survive getting lost in the woods.
Prepare Ahead of Time
Before going on your next trek in the woods, brush up on your survival skills and stock your backpack with emergency essentials just in case – like more water and food than you think you’ll need to keep you hydrated and fueled on your planned forest adventure.
Other items to carry include a map, compass, GPS, knife, hatchet, rope or paracord, fire starter, tent or emergency shelter, flashlight, and whistle.
Check out our downloadable PDF checklist here.
Tell Someone Exactly Where You’re Going and Stick with the Plan
Whenever you head into the wilderness, always tell someone exactly where you’re going and how long you intend to be gone. That way they know to conduct a search and rescue should something go wrong. You can also alert the local forest service before embarking on a lengthy hike or camping trip.
If you have a GPS unit, mark your starting position so you have an exact return point in mind. It’s also a good idea to carry a physical map of the area and a compass and note which direction you’re hiking. It’s easy to get disoriented in the woods. Note any landmarks as you move along.
S.T.O.P. and Relax
If you do find yourself lost, do not press on if you aren’t sure where you are. For seasoned hikers, it can be hard to admit you’re lost. But swallow your pride and resist the urge to blindly strike out even if you think the trail is just over the next ridge. You could wind up even more lost, and it’s harder to find a moving target.
Instead, rely on the Boy Scout acronym S.T.O.P (Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan).
Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan.
Sometimes if you just stop, sit, and get your bearings you can figure out where you went off course. If you’re still not sure where you are, stay calm and don’t panic. A calm mind is a clear-thinking mind. Panic clouds your judgment and isn’t going to solve any problems.
At this point, don’t forget modern conveniences. Use your cell phone for all it’s worth if you have reception. If you got lost on your return leg and think you might be close, try hitting the panic button on your car keys. Blow a signal whistle in case other hikers are close.
Retrace Your Steps, Stay Close, and Explore
If you think the trail might be nearby, you can try retracing your steps. Be sure to mark the trail behind you in case you need to backtrack. You can bend branches or make blazes on tree bark. Even better, use a brightly colored piece of paracord or cloth that’s highly visible and tie it around a tree as a waypoint marker.
You can do this several times to explore where you are. Set up a second marker when your first is still visible. Then walk from there and set up a third. Try to set them up in a straight line. That way, if you don’t come across the trail, you can systematically explore the radius around point zero of finding yourself lost. You may find a water source, cell reception, or a good spot to make camp.
Do this while you have plenty of daylight left.
If you explore your surroundings and don’t find any clues as to where you are and how to get back, it’s time to get comfortable and prepare to hunker down for the night.
Find or Create Shelter
If you don’t have a tent or a portable shelter, forests contain many features that could be made into a natural shelter. There could be a cave (check for signs to be sure it’s not occupied by a predator) or rocky outcrop with an overhang.
You can also construct your shelter from the forest’s most abundant resource – wood. Find a large branch and lean it against a tree at an angle. Dig the branch into the ground 3-5 inches to make sure it’s secure. Fasten it with rope or string if you have it.
Put smaller branches at a 45-degree angle along the length of the branch, digging their ends a few inches into the ground for added stability.
Cover it with a tarp or emergency blanket if you have it. If not, use bark, pine boughs, and other natural materials.
Your shelter needs to be as visible as possible. Put any bright items you have around your campsite and keep a fire going.
Never go into the wilderness without the means to make a fire. A lighter, camping matches, flint and steel, whatever your go-to fire starter methods are, you should carry them with you.
Birch bark is highly flammable and makes a great natural tinder source. It will even ignite when it’s damp. You can also use dead leaves and pine needles. If you’ve planned ahead, dryer lint makes excellent tinder as well.
There should be plenty of dead branches to use as kindling until you can add larger logs.
A fire provides comfort and warmth, doubles as a signal fire, and can deter wild animals from creeping around your campsite. You can also boil any water you find to sterilize it and heat food. Store your food a short distance away from your shelter so it doesn’t attract animals.
Forests have plenty of streams, rivers, lakes, and other water sources. A natural spring is best because the water will be the purest, but even if water looks clean, it’s best to boil it unless you have a personal water filter or water purification tablets.
You can also collect dew and rainwater.
You can forage for nuts, bird eggs, wild fruits and vegetables. Unless you’re absolutely sure something is edible, avoid it. Wild mushrooms are especially dangerous since many are poisonous.
If you’re near water, you can fish. You can also set snares for small animals.
Failing to Prepare is Preparing to Fail
If you follow these strategies, you should remain safe and be found quickly. Ultimately, the best tool you have to survive in the forest – or any emergency situation – is to plan ahead. The more prepared you are, the longer and more comfortably you can survive. Outfit yourself with quality gear, water, and food before any expedition. Being prepared is the best way to ensure happy trails.