If you are a regular hiker, chances are you are going to get lost sooner or later. However, there are precautions you can take before and during a hike to minimise the risk. Once you are lost, if you keep a calm head, you can get back to safety. Read on for these top tips on what to do if you get lost on a hike and you’ll be home safely quick as a tick.
Not getting lost on a hike starts before you even leave the house. What? What? Yep, that’s right, there are several pre-hike precautions that you can take to ensure unlostness (totally a word even if Grammarly doesn’t think so).
- Make sure you tell someone where you are going and a rough expected home time.
- Research your hike beforehand, learn about the terrain, difficulty and any obstacles you are likely to encounter.
- Have a map and compass and know how to use them. I always download a topographical map to my phone as well.
- Take an emergency kit just in case you get lost.
- Remember the 10 essentials.
- Check the weather forecast and when sunset is. Take heed that the weather is changeable, especially in high altitude conditions. The weather can also differ between the trailhead and further along.
- Make sure you have a fully charged phone with emergency contact numbers in it i.e. mountain rescue.
- Do not go hiking alone unless you are very experienced.
- Carry a personal locator beacon.
On Your Hike
During your hike, there are several things that you can do to keep yourself in a state of non-lost.
- Constantly look for landmarks and try and locate them on your map.
- Don’t daydream. This is how you miss trail markers. Try to stay alert and aware of your surroundings.
- Every so often, look behind you. This may look strange to other hikers but it will help you familiarise with the route back to safety. Plus, if you are going on a loop track or one way, this ensures that you get to view the beautiful scenery that you may normally miss.
- Take lots of photos. Not only will you have lots of photos of your hike to show off later, they can also help you find your way back again.
- If you are worried about not being able to find your way home make some arrows on the ground with loose rocks and branches. Make sure you destroy these on the way back.
Reasons Why Hikers Get Lost
There are a few common reasons that hikers get lost, some of these are listed below.
- Bad visibility
- Travelling without a map
- Travelling without a compass/GPS Device
- Using old maps (trails have changed)
- Trails are overgrown or hidden by landslides and fallen trees
- Not paying attention to the trail markers or the surroundings
- Maps were not studied at home
- Relying on other hikers on the route
- Daydreaming (like yours truly sometimes does)
- Chatting instead of following the trail (group hiking)
Do not panic and follow the STOP rule
Stop: As soon as you realise you may be lost, stop, stay calm and stay put. If you keep going you are likely to get even more lost. Sit down, take some water and eat something.
Think: How did you get to where you are? What landmarks should you be able to see? Were you heading North or West? Where were you when you were last sure you knew where you were?
Observe: What can you see? Where on the map is it? Where is the sun in the sky? Roughly how long until sunset? What does the weather look like it is going to be? What supplies do you have? How long will they last?
Plan: Never move until you have a plan. Based on your thinking and observations, come up with some possible plans and then act on the best one for your situation.
- Check for phone coverage. If you have some then you can call for help. They may be able to explain how to get home or they may come to get you.
- Use a whistle to try and attract attention. Three blasts is the universal signal for help.
- If you have any bright items get them out as it will make it easier for a rescuer to find you.
- If you are confident enough you may wish to try and retrace your steps to find the path you were on earlier.
Should you stay or carry on?
Once you have found yourself lost (that’s a contradictory sentence ain’t it?), you need to decide whether you stay put or find your way back again.
The best reason for staying put is that you can’t get any more lost. You will also lower your chances of getting an injury and it will be easier for rescuers to find you.
If you are with children, the elderly or a novice, this is the best strategy.
However, this means that you will be staying in the wilderness longer than you expected. Which, if you haven’t allowed for this, can mean an anxious night ahead. Staying put isn’t the best move in some cases. If your rescuers are unlikely to find you in a reasonable length of time, or nobody knows where you are, you may not have the time to wait for help.
If you do decide to stay put, here are a few strategies to help those rescuers find you safe and sound
Stay in one place
Don’t go a wanderin’. If you stay in one place, rescuers are more likely to find you. You can find a good landmark, such as a large tree, hillside clearing or rock formation to stick near.
The best way to signal rescuers will depend on how the rescuers are most likely going to be searching for you.
- On foot: try and wait somewhere where your rescuers can see you from all directions (such as that landmark you found).
- In the air: arrange rocks, sticks or other items so that they can be seen from the air. A small controlled fire will send smoke up. Green leaves are useful for this.
Staying the night
If you have found yourself on an unexpected night out, here are a few tips to make you that wee bit safer.
- Find a sheltered spot that will keep you from the rain and wind before it gets too dark. Construct a simple shelter out of materials that you have or find
- Gather supplies such as firewood and fill your water bottle if possible
- You will likely need to put on extra layers to avoid hypothermia setting in
- Do not sleep beside a river as the noise might mean you cannot hear a rescuer. They can also rise suddenly and you may find yourself sleeping in rather unwanted conditions.
- Start a small controlled fire. This will give you some warmth but also the smoke is a good way to signal for help.
- Keep your senses alert.
- Create a HELP or SOS sign with rocks in a clearing. This will make you more visible from the air.
- Hang any colourful items of kit from tree branches around you. This will make it easier for a rescuer to find you.
Finding your way out
Even though this can seem the riskier option, it is sometimes the best option. If you are successful, this gets you out of harms way quicker and reduces the time spent in the wilderness unprepared.
You are the only one who knows where you are, rescuers leaving the trail and heading into the wilderness will often have a large area to search.
The primary risk of finding your own way is that you may make your situation much worse. If you head off in the wrong direction, you may increase the amount of time it will take to find your way back, and you’ll be forced to travel much farther than you would if you simply stay put. You’ll also make it harder for rescuers to find you if they are already looking.
Below are some strategies that can help you find your way out. It will depend on your situation as to which strategies will work for you.
Check Your Map
Hopefully, you have a map with you. With your map, you can determine where you are and where you should be. Try to find a landmark or two before you set off so that you can orient your map as you go to make sure you are going in the right direction.
Trust Your Compass
Avoid walking in circles as is common for those who are lost. Hopefully, you have a vague idea of the direction you should be heading, a compass can help ensure this.
Use Your GPS
Many GPS units come with maps. This can help you identify local landmarks that will help you get back to safety. However, if your GPS doesn’t have a map, you can still find your way. It is important to mark your campsite, car or home base as a waypoint on the GPS and retrace your steps.
Follow The Water
Rivers and creeks will follow low ground as they snake through the wilderness. Eventually, they’ll usually reach a lake or the ocean. However, be careful following water as there may be waterfalls, sudden drops and other obstacles.
If you are unable to find a nearby river or creek, just try walking downhill. By doing this, you’ll almost always reach water.
Climb To High Ground
If you don’t have a map or GPS to let you in on your location, you will need to find out yourself. This can be done by finding higher ground. Once you are up higher, you have a better vantage point and you may be able to identify a route to safety. However, don’t go climbing trees. This often doesn’t result in a better view and falling hurts.
Check Out Game Trails
Animals often have their own tracks through the vegetation. They won’t usually lead to a nearby house or hut (animals aren’t too social with us humans), but they may cross the main trail. If you come to a crossroads, make sure to mark it somehow so if you do need to backtrack, you will know where you need to go.
Be Alert For Signs Of Humans
While you are travelling, keep your eyes, ears and nose peeled for the signs of humans and civilisation. These signs can help confirm that you are walking in the right direction or signal you to alter your route. Some of the most common signs of people include:
- Barking dogs
- Church bells
- Car horns
- Heavy machinery
- Expansive clearings
- Farm animals
- Trash or refuse
Hikers have an increased risk of getting lost as the majority go into isolated backcountry areas. The risk is increased if you wander off the beaten track. However, it is still possible to get lost while on well-marked trails. While this can be scary, it is possible to get yourself back on track again with a calm head and the strategies above.
Don’t let it deter you from exploring the wonder that Mother Nature has in abundance.
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- How to read a Topographical Map
- Tips + Tricks for Solo Hiking
- How to Handle River Crossings like a Boss
- The Ultimate Guide to New Zealand Hiking
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