Open main menu

getting lost in the woods

a couple of high profile stories recently about people lost in the wilderness in Hawaii and California resonate for me. I have spent most of my life hiking in some form or another and have lost my bearings enough to understand the risks. Fortunately, the situations i'm thinking about this year had happy endings, but it doesn't always end well.  

A few observations:

-it's easier than we think to get lost. A stroll in well-known woods or on 'easy' trails, a quick divert off-trail to relieve yourself even. Having a map and compass and knowing how to use them, or a portable GPS with spare batteries, can make a big difference.

-planning for the worst is a good idea in terms of weather, water, food. Especially if you're in a place where you can quickly find yourself in extreme conditions. An unhealthy share of hiking tragedies involve dehydration, hypothermia, and falls for people who are in over their heads.

-Don't panic, remember your experience, if you find yourself lost or off-trail. This has gotten me out of multiple difficult situations. 

-the weather and the terrain are the boss. Even the best-prepared people need to remember that sometimes, you just have to turn around. 

-I like hiking with a partner or with groups. Though it's mostly for the company, having someone to talk with about a sticky situation has helped me assess and avoid bad decision-making more than once. 

PS - someone recently published a book about a situation in 2013 when an AT through-hiker got lost and perished - closer than anyone would like to the trail. i haven't read it but recall reading about it at the time.

Your first job is not to get lost.  Then innocent people you have never met do not have to come looking for you. 

I prefer to think of it this way - if i get 'lost,' which has always been well short of these situations where people really don't know where they are, it's my job to find my way back, and I have. 

Never lost, just sometimes realize the trail has gone elsewhere. Time to go back and see where we drifted apart. I blame it on the moose. On less traveled trails their footpath is more heavily used and they will lead you where moose go rather than people.

Never lost but regularly misplace myself for a few minutes. It happens more on trails than my off trail wanderings...the trail seems to go one way but actually turned. A few minutes later you realize that the slope aspect is different than expected or the valley/ridge is running the wrong direction. Carefully backtrack and see where I went wrong.

Off trail or for field work on large sites it happens very seldom. I often take for granted that I constantly follow and read the surrounding terrain and keep a map handy in my pocket with frequent glances. That comes from three decades of field work and lots of off trail recreational scrambles. I never rely just on a GPS.

It's good to see threads like this and be reminded of what not to do, but working outside and frequent recreation hopefully has made my SOPs ingrained enough to avoid being really "lost". Overconfidence may become an issue when you go out so frequently, so keeping me honest and aware is good. 

Sometimes I catch myself wandering around my house asking, where the heck am I?!  My wife worries I am no longer competent enough to stray far from pavement, not to mention go careening on some venture way off trail.  But as LoneStranger shares, I've never been lost, albeit not always where I thought I was. I like his observation that when you get far out there, the game trails sometimes are more trodden than human routes.  Been there.  I am sure I am not the only person who uses game trails when traveling XC.  Fortunately I have never encountered any critters, and besides their paths usually lead me back to human ones. 


Yep...the game trails can lead you astray or to wonderful spots. Sometimes on scrambles across rough country I come upon a game trail and it feels like hitting an on ramp to the highway as far as ease and speed. 

FlipNC said:

Yep...the game trails can lead you astray or to wonderful spots. Sometimes on scrambles across rough country I come upon a game trail and it feels like hitting an on ramp to the highway as far as ease and speed. 

 Yep, like us humans, most game don't like going the hard way through a given terrain. That is, unless we're talking about goats. They'll take the hardest way possible just because they can. I've followed many deer trails though, and many times, they take the path of least resistance, just like we would. 

 I worry sometimes; what if I never get lost in the woods and all these "just in case" items floating around in my bag with the name "survival" in their title are all for nothing? 

Gosh darnit! I spent a lifetime learning how to live off the land, build a fire with nothing but a stern look, trap bears with my boot laces and make a mansion from the little survival bracelet I got for Christmas.  Was it a youth wasted?  How many dollars, liters of pack space and pounds of gear have I wasted?!


It is not always that you are "lost," so much as immobilized, perhaps by an injury, weather, terrain, or whatever.  Perhaps you just need a night's rest, or a bite to eat and drink, and a check of the map.

I have found that game, or cattle, trails are great for getting around immediate obstacles, but the critters often have different distant objectives in mind

" I have never been lost, but I have been mightily confused for  a  few days"  D. Boone

Jeff - on the plus side, carrying the extra stuff means you burned more calories along the way.

i have been "lost" twice in over 40 years of hiking. i always carry a compass and map unless i'm on a local day hike, and i sometimes carry a garmin GPS too.

once, it was in the clouds and windblown snow on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, in the winter. We knew where we were but were very concerned about finding the trail down, and we always had the escape route of trudging down the auto road. We waited out the weather for an hour, started walking/creeping down, and found the trail.  (there was a post earlier about cairns and whether they violate any rules. in NH's white mountains, they can be very helpful in foul weather).

In the other, on what was a pretty tame day hike near Manchester, VT, we got turned around and started 'bushwhacking' toward where we thought we wanted to go.  After a short while, one of our group got nervous about the bushwhack, we conferred, and we decided to retrace our path to get home. first, it turns out we were bushwhacking in the wrong direction, away from civilization. second, though retracing took longer and left us walking a few hours in the dark, it was a sure way back. i have never been more grateful about carrying a headlamp and flashlight.  

in both instances, hiking with a group was a big benefit. group think yielded a better result than I might have reached on my own.  a great lesson.  

I have bushwhacked and have found my self misplaced.  This is me, I carry GPS but use it only to mark trailhead and with a lot of woods and very large open areas mark way points only, don't care how far I have walked.  I know this is not 100 % but I use GPS to get bearing and then I use my compass.  I have maps but in heavy fog, rains and just plan tired I do make mistakes.  In SoCal some areas have Lat and Longs on the trail in the City.  We are very special out here and need all the help we can get.

Misplaced is a great word for what happens...sometimes not exactly sure where you are. I'll be exploring a little used wilderness area this weekend right next to one of the most popular spots in the southeast. Last time I saw noone but the trailhead I passed to the east was overflowing with cars. Got several topographic features I want to check on and a couple of alternative routes to get into them. Compass will be well in use but I am sure there will be some moments when I am not sure where I am exactly. That will come clear when I reach the next Ridge or valley, confirm its orientation, and if needed check the GPS. 

No matter how disoriented I get I can always find my way to a bar.


I'm often disoriented leaving a bar not finding one... 

I never get lost because people are always telling me Where to Go...

January 27, 2021
Quick Reply

Please sign in to reply