Lost in the Woods? A guide to surviving to tell the tale

Brian Conghalie
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Lost in the Woods? A guide to surviving to tell the tale

Looking to Survive After Getting Lost?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • What to do if you get lost
    • The biggest risks to your health
    • How to survive
    • How to avoid becoming lost

Approximately 2,000 people get lost in the woods every year. We all believe we’re not going to be one of those unfortunate souls…but none of us can ever be 100 percent sure. While nothing in life is certain, we can guarantee you’ll reduce your odds of getting lost in the woods if you follow our guide below. In this article, we’ll explore the best strategies to help you survive should your GPS or hiking watch die, or your compass fall into ravine.

Below, we’ll go through the survival strategies you need to know. We’ll also tell you how to avoid getting into this precarious situation in the first place. But before getting into the nitty-gritty, here are a few dos and don’ts every hiker or backpacker should memorize.


  • Tell loved ones where you’re going beforehand.
  • Always pack the 10 essentials.
  • After you realize you’re lost, follow the STOP protocol and prioritize your needs.
  • Travel downhill and follow streams towards possible human habitations.
  • Stay in open areas and use all signalling devices at your disposal.


  • Give in to fear.
  • Deplete your energy running around without a coherent plan.
  • Ignore symptoms of serious conditions like hypothermia and heat exhaustion.

What to Do IF You Get Lost in the Woods

Use The STOP Method

Once you realize you’re lost, the first things you need to do are stop, relax, and think about your situation carefully. Excessive anxiety will only cloud your judgment and drain you of energy. You don’t want to waste any time or energy on projects that don’t have a clear goal.

Luckily for you, safety experts developed the STOP method to help you remember what to do after you realize you’re lost. These letters stand for: “stay calm,” “think,” “observe,” and “plan.”

As you can see, these steps are pretty self-explanatory. For the best chance of survival, it’s imperative that you calm your mind so you can objectively think about your situation.

A few questions you should address are: How did I get here? How long will my food and water last me? Where’s the closest water stream? Where should I set up shelter? What’s the weather like? How long till it gets dark? How’s my health?

We’ll go through STOP protocol strategies in greater detail in the “How To Survive While You Await Rescue” section. For now, it’s critical to remember that maintaining a positive outlook is your most powerful survival tool. Giving into despair and panic will significantly lessen you chances of making it out of the woods alive.

Pinpoint Your Location

Once your mind is calmed down, observe your surrounding area and try to get an idea where you’re located. Try and mentally retrace your steps. If it is safe to do so, and within relative quick reach, then climb to the highest elevation possible to better assess your location. If such a venture will take significant time or energy, or you don’t feel confident in undertaking it, then DO NOT attempt it. Simply STAY PUT.

river leading to town in valley

From this higher vantage point, see if you could make out any signs of civilization like roads or buildings. You should also be on the lookout for cairn stones, sources of water, open fields, and potential shelter.

Travel Downhill

Survival experts recommend that people who are lost in mountains or forests travel downhill. In most wildlife areas, it should take you no more than 20 hours of walking downhill to reach a town or city.

It’s a superb idea to follow a river downhill. Since most cities in the past were built near bodies of water, it’s likely you’ll come across other humans once you reach the stream’s source. Not only are you more likely to come across civilization by walking downhill, it’s also easier on your body and will save you energy.

small stream runs through green forest intext

As with the climbing to a vantage point, this should only be attempted if you are very confident that you will come across some form of civilization quickly, and certainly within your capabilities. If you are unsure, tired or not confident then the best thing to do is to STAY PUT.

Look (and Listen) for Signs of Other Humans

Keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for any and all traces of humans. Whether it’s some trash left behind by a non-practitioner of LNT, a trail or pathway or the sounds of people talking.

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 could be even shorter if you’re hiking in humid environments. You likely have packed water our with you, but adding a water purifier such as the lifestraw could help save your life. Alternatively, if you have brought a stove or adept making fires, then boiling stream water will remove bad bacteria.

To save time and energy, if possible, then set up your shelter by a water source. Although you might feel more hunger pains than symptoms of dehydration, you should always prioritize water over food.


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 induces symptoms such 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.

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 your body internally by boiling water and drinking it slowly.

Heat Exhaustion

For people trapped in hot environments, one of your 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 water slowly, and sprinkle cool water all over your face and body.

By the way, a container of high-grade sunscreen and sunglasses are musts if you’re traveling to areas where you know heat is an issue.


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

The best way to cut 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.

How to Survive While You Await Rescue

Now that you know the greatest risks to your safety, it’s time to learn how to keep yourself going while waiting on help while out in the wild. In this section, we’ll explore some of the best safety equipment and a few tips on how to remain calm, conserve your energy, and call for help.  

Always Bring the 10 Essentials

Surviving when you do get lost, involves a little preparation. Always, always make sure you have the backpacking 10 essentials with you when you go out hiking or backpacking:

  • Water purifier
  • Extra food and bottled water
  • Fire starter (matches/lighter)
  • First Aid Kit
  • Emergency shelter (e.g. a tarp or bivvy)
  • Extra Insulation (emergency blanket or extra clothes)
  • Flashlight/Headlamp
  • Navigation tools (e.g. compass, personal location beacon, maps)
  • Sun Protection
  • Repair kit & Tools (duct tape and multi-tool are a great combo)

Stay Calm

Realizing you’re lost can come as a great shock to your psyche. That’s why the STOP protocol gives precedence to remaining calm. Giving yourself a heart attack in the wild certainly won’t help your chances of survival!

You need a cool head now more than ever. If you’ve never practiced meditation before, now is as good a time as any to begin. Sit down and notice your in-breath and out-breath for 15 to 30 minutes. It takes about 30 mins or so for adrenaline to be broken down in your body. Allowing yourself this time to calm down will allow you to think much more clearly again.

Once your mind is calm, you can assess your situation with more objectivity. You’ll also notice that your imagination doesn’t run off to “worst case scenarios.”  

Find Water

If you have made the decision to wait out and be rescued then the first survival priority is locating a reliable water source nearby without wandering too far off.

If you can’t find a stream or lake, consider hanging out a tarp to collect rainwater. While quite intensive, you can also use a piece of clothing to collect morning dew off plants and trees and wring the water out into a suitable container.

Can you drink your own urine?

You may have seen survival experts on TV claim that you can drink your own urine to stave off dehydration. This is true, but only up to a certain point.

If you’re generally well hydrated, then the waste content of your urine will be relatively low. However, if you’re only surviving on your urine, then you’ll obviously pass more waste than clean water when you pee.

Drinking this toxic piss could wreak havoc on your kidneys. For this reason, drinking urine isn’t recommended as a survival strategy. It’s a far better idea to come prepared with a water purifier which you could use to turn stream water (or, if you have nothing else, your urine) into clean H20.

Make A Shelter

In order to effectively ward off hypothermia, you need to create a reliable source of fire and find a good shelter. Besides a cave (uninhabited, of course), the best shelter for a cold night in the woods is a tent. If you don’t have a tent and can’t find a safe cave, then try to set up camp near fallen trees or by rock outcroppings.

Anyone who doesn’t have an emergency tent with them can build a makeshift tent out of other materials like a tarp or a poncho. You’ll need to tie a rope or place a branch between two nearby trees before draping your tarp over. For extra support, place heavy rocks on the ground on the tarp’s corners.  

Alternatively, with some natural resources such as fallen logs, branches and ferns you could also build your own bivouac to keep you dry and warm.

Energy Conservation

While it’s important to find and build a shelter, many hikers don’t realize that it’s equally important to rest. Far too many people trapped in the wild unnecessarily burn themselves out.

Don’t walk around aimlessly for hours on end. Always think through your survival strategy before wasting your energy. You really need to watch how much energy you exert if you don’t have a huge food supply.

When you need a break, then sit back, drink some water, eat a bit of food, and rest. Some hikers find it’s better to take catnaps throughout the day instead of sleeping all through the night. This is especially the case if you have trouble falling asleep in the woods after dusk.  

Signal to Rescuers

This may be stating the obvious, but make sure you are ready to signal potential rescuers. This could take many forms, such as blowing a whistle (which I hope you have in your pack), flashing a mirror (or shiny metallic object) or even spelling “help” on the ground in an open area.

How to NOT Get Lost in the Woods

As doctors often say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The same principle applies to hikers. It’s far more effective to know how to avoid getting lost than it is to get out of a dire situation. Let’s explore the top strategies every hiker needs to put into place before going on an expedition.

Let Loved Ones Know Where You’re Going

The most important thing before going on a hike is to let friends and family know where you’re going and for how long. Leave them a map of your planned route. If you don’t return within the timeframe you’ve provided, then your loved ones are sure to alert safety officials.

Unfortunately, some hikers aren’t humble enough to practice this crucial step. Don’t get caught up in the mythos of the “rugged explorer.” Letting others know your whereabouts is a sign of maturity and it’s critical for your safety.      

Travel In Open Areas Or Popular Tourist Destinations

This is a great tip if you’re a beginner. It’s an even better idea to stay close to your home on your first hiking adventure. While it might not be as exciting as visiting exotic countries, this is a great way to learn basic navigation skills in a safe environment.

Rae Lakes Stream
​Photo by u/OldTarwater

Travel With A Guide  

If you’re not too experienced with hiking or backpacking, there’s no shame in scheduling a tour with a guide. In fact, you could learn a great deal about survival skills first-hand with an expert guide by your side.

While this tip is optional for easier hiking treks, it’s a requirement for advanced adventures. There are plenty websites where you can book guided hiking tours around the world, so there’s no excuse to going it on your own in areas out of your comfort zone.

Learn Basic Navigation And Map Reading Skills

OK, we get it. You want to get out there and hike right away. That’s understandable. However, it’s to your benefit to do a bit of bookwork on basic navigation skills before going on hiking expeditions. Particularly, learning how to use a compass with a map, and how to read trail signs.

What skills are essential to master? Well, you should know how to read scales on a map. The most common map is 1:25,000, which means one centimeter on the map translates to 250 meters on the ground.

Also, although we all have compasses on our cell phones nowadays, you should seriously figure out how to use a real compass. Invest in a high quality compass you feel comfortable with and learn how to use it before your hike.

Practice These Tips and You’ll Never Lose Your Way

Hopefully you understand by now the importance of taking precautions. If you remember nothing else from this article, please remember to tell all your relations about your trip and carry your essential travel gear with you. These two preventive tips, along with the strategies listed above, will definitely help you “survive to tell the tale.” 

Brian Conghalie

Brian has been an avid hiker and backpacker since he was a small kid, often being taken out into the wilderness on trips with his father. His dad knew everything about nature and the wilderness (or at least that's how it seemed to a ten year old Brian).

After high school, he went to university to read for both a BS and MS in Geology (primarily so he could spend his time outside rather than in a classroom). He's now hiked, camped, skied, backpacked or mapped on five continents (still need to bag Antartica) & 30 of the US states.

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