Luckily for us, mankind has spent thousands of years perfecting what to do if you should get lost in the woods or on a mountain hike. Depending on where you have gone off trail there are some key things you can do to not only get back on track but also make sure you stay safe while doing so. Of course, one of the biggest factors of wilderness survival is knowing your environment as it weighs heavily into what you need to do to stay safe and get out alive.
You will be facing environmental factors like your surroundings, whether it is wet or dry land, the food and poison plants that grow in that area and most importantly – the wildlife you will be dealing with. Knowing what predators to prepare yourself for is as important as it is to know how to make a fire. Preparing for bear attacks and getting stalked by wolves could leave you just as vulnerable as not preparing at all.
Another helpful skill to have when you decide to go hiking is knowing how to read a Topographic map. Your four things to remember is this:
Major Landmarks – Finding the closest things in your area or on your hike that stand out and will help you mark that as a part of your way back. A good example for a landmark is radio towers on the peaks of mountains or strange rock faces and formations around you.
Topography – Map out the water sources, hills, valleys, mountains rivers in the area you will be exploring to know what to prepare for and where they all lead to.
Mark Your Directions – Mark on all four sides of your map what landmarks can be found. For example, major rivers, cities, villages etc. That will help you in knowing what is to each side of you so you know what you are moving towards.
Civilization – On your map, mark down all the nearest civilizations in the area you wish to explore. This will help you find help quicker and give you a sense of which direction to travel in.
Getting Lost in the Woods
Making provisions for potentially getting lost in the woods is something we’ve all learned from a young age doing things like boy/girl scouts to camping trips with the parents. It is pretty straight forward as far as packing goes – make sure you always have extra water, canned food that won’t attract wild animals, like bears and raccoons, something that makes fire like matches or a cigarette lighter and your tent.
Sleeping over at a campsite can be very unpredictable as your camp fire may attract some animals but also ward others off. Therefore to avoid attracting the unnecessary attention of some nocturnal predators, it is best to put your camp fire out as soon as you are done making food and warming up (if it is during the winter time). Pouring water over your fire to put it out will make quite a bit of smoke but it will also ward off smaller animals that may want to investigate the area. It will also prevent any potential for forest fires. Getting rid of, concealing or washing out cans our bowls that had food in will drastically decrease your risk of attracting dangerous wildlife like bears.
Apart from the wildlife, it is very important to know which plants are edible and which can kill you almost instantly. Some of the most dangerous plants can be found in the woods and look completely unthreatening to the eye. A common mistake made by unwary hikers is thinking that Deadly Nightshade is a type of berry as it looks very similar to a Blueberry. A less common ingestion but fairly common misuse of Poison Ivy has also been a problem for hikers for generations now as they often use it as an alternative for toilet paper or even to eat off of due to its wide leaves. Poison Ivy will leave you with an awful rash that causes red spots and areas on the skin, it is also extremely itchy for a few days to a week after that.
Getting Lost in the Mountains
When you lose your way on a mountain hike you stand a very high chance of facing not only the dangerous wildlife but also potentially harsh weather conditions. It is difficult to prepare for a mountain hike, climate wise, as it can be boiling heat during the day and icy cold winds as soon as the evening hits. The higher you go, the colder it gets so it doing basic things like making a fire or even finding a decent place to sleep can become very challenging.
Some dangers are less obvious than others and you would have to keep a mental note at all times – like keeping a close eye on the altitudes you are reaching. Getting lost or stuck alone at high altitudes could mean almost sure death as eventually when it starts affecting your brain, you can become totally incapacitated and not be able to help yourself or to survive.
Panicking in this situation is definitely not a good idea. Not only does it totally impair your logical thinking, making survival impossible, it also elevates your heart rate. When you’ve reached high altitudes, your heart rate naturally increases as the oxygen becomes thinner and it becomes harder to breathe. Adding panic to that will surely send you into cardiac arrest so staying calm and collected at all times is the key to survival at higher altitudes. When returning home or when taking a break and camping for the night, make sure to get enough rest and relax your heart. Overexertion can also be very dangerous so whatever you do, take it slow.
Getting Lost in the Desert
Let’s be real, there isn’t much you can do when getting lost in the desert but avoid the heat and some of the dangerous snakes that might be lying around the sand or nearby rocks. When facing a combination of things like heat stroke and highly dangerous reptiles, the odds aren’t all in your favour so making sure you stay cool and hydrated enough is more important than anything else.
Finding wood to make a fire might be challenging depending on the exact desert so using bits of grass and leaves found on the small trees in the area should work fine if kept alive actively enough. This will provide you with enough fire to make food and get warm as it gets as cold in the desert as it gets hot.
When building a campsite in the desert it is important to keep checking your tent, clothes, shoes, and sleeping bag for dangerous or venomous snakes and reptiles that might have gotten in. Securing your tent at the bottom before going to sleep and making sure that there are no holes in the material will prevent snakes getting in while you are asleep. If you have been bitten by a venomous snake, again, keeping calm is very important – this slows the venom down from getting to your heart, giving you more time to cut the wound and try to suck and spit out the venom as much as you can. Applying pressure will also help but do not cut of the blood circulation, this will increase your blood pressure and shoot the venom into your heart from your blood stream.
The US Forest Service strongly suggests everyone should adhere to their “S.T.O.P” regulation.
Stop – As soon as you can’t recognize your surroundings anymore and you realise you are lost, stop moving. Moving around will get you even further away from where you lost track of your trail.
Think – You have to stay calm and keep a clear mind so that you can retrace your steps and try to remember any landmarks or signs you might have seen. When you panic, it becomes almost impossible to remember where you’ve been and then you just get confused.
Observe – Look around you and familiarise yourself with your surroundings. Do not stray off of the path you are on because it may be the only of getting back onto your original pathway. Finding rivers or streams that run downhill is usually a good sign as it typically leads to roads or trails.
Plan – Planning ahead as soon as you notice you are lost could save you potentially getting stuck in the dark and not being able to set up camp for the night. Also planning your route and direction will help you better utilise your compass as a tool to help you get back safely. It is important to make a plan and stick with it as losing time in that situation could be very dangerous when it comes to night time.
When you know your environment, your compass and how to read your map – you should be an expert even in a sticky situation!