What to do if you get lost or stuck on a hike?
Taking certain precautions can help you avoid getting lost, and they can also help ensure you are found as quickly as possible if you do get lost.
Precautions (a partial list):
- Before the hike, research the route, read a few trip reports from others, make a few notes if they talk about confusing trail markers as well as key natural features to look for.
- Take this info with you on paper. I keep this info in the leg pocket of my hiking pants for ready access.
- Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to get back.
- Bring along an emergency GPS that sends a track of your progress to a shared web site.
- Have enough clothing layers, nourishment, and water or water purification in your pack for a later-than-expected return
- Go with a buddy
- Leave “bread crumbs” at confusing parts of the trail to mark your way back.
Leaving Bread Crumbs
“Bread crumbs” are markers you leave at key decision points that may not be obvious upon return. One item in my recommended equipment list is a small roll of orange construction ribbon which is lightweight yet very visible. Tear a piece off and tie it where it can be seen when you return. I have been on hikes and climbs where smart climbers have left a bright article of clothing as a marker in the absence of anything else in their pack. Be sure to retrieve your markers on your way back.
U. S. Forest Service “STOP”
If you do get off the trail or can’t find your way back to camp, follow the STOP steps outlined by the U.S. Forest Service:
- Stop: Stop, stay calm, don’t panic. You will likely dig a deeper hole if you try to continue the hike to find the forward route. Hyperventilation and anxiety can lead to dehydration and muscle-stress.
- Think: Retrace your steps in your head and make a good plan. Don’t move anywhere unless you have a good reason to move. If you’re unsure, just stay put. Your game plan at this point is to find the trail by re-tracing.
- Observe: Get out your map, compass, GPS, sun location in the sky or perhaps a nearby water feature and figure out which direction you need to go to reverse course. Don’t wander aimlessly or go off trail.
- Plan: Think through a plan to get back to the trail or trailhead. If you’re not confident, or if you’re injured, just stay put.
If you are indeed unsure or are injured and you follow the recommendation to stay put, then you need to work on a plan to stay calm until Search and Rescue or other hikers find you.
If you have an emergency GPS like the Delorme InReach I have recommended, now is the time to trigger the SOS function. The GPS will send your location to the local authorities; make sure it can see the sky and that it confirms it has sent, or move to where it can. Or try your cell phone if you have it and if it has service.
If neither, you need to have faith that those who know approximately where you were going will eventually miss you and call 911 for help. In that event, your game plan is to work out the best way to stay nourished, hydrated and warm as you may be staying the night. Hopefully you have additional layers of clothing and some energy bars in your pack, maybe also a water filter or purifier pills. Think about where you saw the nearest water feature of any kind; if nearby, water up.
Find your best-sheltered area and get used to the idea you may be there in the dark but find comfort that you have precautionary items in your pack. You may be fearful, but do what you can to stay calm as dusk and dark approaches. If you can gather dead wood and twigs and have means to start a fire, take precautions in starting and managing it so that it won’t spread. Convince yourself that the next day you will see either S&R or other hikers.
Stuck on a Scramble
If you are attempting steeper climbs or sections where you need to scramble up with hands and feet, make sure you see how to get back down before you start up. Descending takes more skill than ascending because you can’t see below your feet at times, and that can result in falling or getting stuck. If you are seriously stuck, then the emergency button on your GPS is your next option. If you don’t have a GPS or a buddy, you need to figure out how to get to a stable place where you can stay put. You may need to climb up from where you came, if possible, and if that is a better place.
If None of the Above
If you haven’t taken any of the precautions, haven’t told anyone where you were going, and you don’t have much in your pack, you are now going to become a survivalist. You are on your own and THAT is a whole different set of tactics. I am not the best source for that; I am a “be prepared” kind of guy.