If you've wandered off trail, follow these essential survival tips.
By Trent Jonas
We’ve all heard the stories: A person (or group) goes out for a hike and doesn’t come back. Sometimes, they’re found quickly; other times it takes a while, and they’re discovered cold, hungry, and dehydrated. Too frequently, though, you hear that a rescue mission has become a presumptive recovery operation.
Experts agree that day hikers tend to be more vulnerable in survival situations than others. This is because they typically head out on their hike under the assumption that they’ll only be gone for a short while and can just return to their car, campsite, or cabin if they get cold or hungry or the weather changes. The problem is that going off trail is the most common reason—ahead of both injuries and drastic weather changes—that adult hikers in the United States need to be rescued. So, what do you do if you get lost while hiking? According to the U.S. Forest Service, you need to “S.T.O.P.”:
When it dawns on you that you may be lost, you need to stop moving. Remain calm and stay where you are for the time being. Take the opportunity to rest and regain a little strength. Most importantly, don’t panic: It will cloud your thinking and burn much-needed energy with an adrenaline surge.
Mentally retrace your steps from where you started off and try and recall anything distinctive that you passed. Was there a rock outcropping or cliff? A memorable tree or water view? Visualize all of the landmarks that you can remember and think about their relationships to one another. But stay put until you can think of a specific reason to start moving again.
If you have a compass with you, this is the time to get it out and try and figure out what direction you have been traveling and what direction you came from based on your current location. Look around to try and determine if you’re still on trail. Retrace your steps a short way to look for a blaze or a sign that may indicate a trail or even tell you what trail you’re on.
Based on your thoughts and what you’ve observed, formulate some potential plans. If they seem viable to you, choose the best one and act on it. However, if you do not have extreme confidence in the route, staying where you are is always a better plan. Stay in place if it’s night or if you are injured or exhausted.
Whenever you start to feel tired, stop and rest—don’t wear yourself out completely. If you have food with you, wait at least 30 minutes after eating before you start walking again. Digesting and hiking at the same time will burn through your calories too quickly. Avoid the heat of the day when it’s warm out and always drink sufficient amounts of water to avoid dehydration.
Unless you’re hiking a paved path in a familiar urban park, it’s always a good idea be prepared for anything. Know where you’re going before you leave. If it’s unfamiliar terrain, check out the map before you start hiking. Check the weather conditions for the day, and always tell somebody where you’re going and when you expect to be back. If you have a smartphone, download and save an offline map of the area where you’re hiking to an app like Google Maps or Gaia GPS. Make sure your phone is fully charged and hike with it turned off or in airplane mode as much as you can.
Bring a daypack with a few essential items along on your hike. At the very least, it should contain a water bottle, a hardcopy map of the area and compass (no, you can’t rely only on your phone), a jacket, a Ziploc bag with a lighter, matches (yes, both) and some kind of tinder, a headlamp or flashlight (fully charged or with fresh batteries), extra snacks, a multitool, a whistle, and an emergency blanket, although a 55-gallon lawn bag will also work in a pinch. Go a step farther and include a pair of dry socks, a small first aid kit, and a water filter. An emergency satellite locator is an expensive piece of gear, but if you have one, it should be with you on all of your hikes. All these items can fit into a pack that’s smaller than 20 liters and will only weigh a few pounds. If nothing goes wrong, you’ll burn a few extra calories. But if something does go sideways, you’ll be glad to have them.