Part of spending time in the outdoors is being prepared for unseen situations that may arise. Knowing what to do if you get lost hiking is essential knowledge that any serious hiker should have.

Having a plan when you find yourself lost in the wilderness is important and can mean the difference between life and death. In this article, we will discuss how not to get lost in the first place and what steps to take if you become a lost hiker.

Woman is is lost hiking

Preparing for a hike

The key to any successful outdoor adventure is proper planning. Pre-hike precautions will ensure a safe day hike out on the trail. Good planning has three main aspects: research, communication, and gear.


The best thing you can do to prevent yourself from getting lost in the first place is to start from a known location. Before leaving your house, study a map of the area.

Get familiar with the roads you’ll use to get to the trailhead and those surrounding the area you’ll be hiking. Looking at the satellite imagery can also give you a better understanding of the area you’ll be visiting and the route you’ll be taking.

Look over any internet sources or call the local forest service to check the current trail conditions.

Keep an eye on the forecast to avoid bad weather, as conditions in the mountains can change rapidly.


The next important aspect of pre-hike precautions is communication. Once you’ve figured out your planned route, let a family member or friend know exactly where you’ll be going and when you plan to return.

This way, if you get lost or injured and don’t hear from you by the planned time, they can alert rescue personnel of your route and how long you’ve been missing.

You may not think it’s a big deal, but this simple step can make the difference between spending an extra night out or being lost for days.


Finally, gear. Having some emergency gear in your pack can not only help prevent you from getting lost in the first place but will also help keep you alive until help comes.

The first priority in an emergency situation is to treat any immediate life threats. Carrying a good first aid kit and knowing how to use it is vital.

You’re next biggest priority is to maintain your body’s core temperature. The easiest way to do this is by bringing extra clothing. Having extra layers will allow you to stay warm even when it’s cold. It’s also a great idea to carry things like an emergency blanket and a way to make a fire.

The next priority is staying hydrated. Your body won’t need to eat for a few days, although it’s not a bad idea to pack some food, but we need water to keep going. Having a way to filter water if you come across a water source is essential. The last thing you need is to have to fight infection from drinking contaminated water.

Other Key Items

Some other key items you may want to consider bringing are; a map and compass, a signal mirror, a flashlight, and a whistle. A whistle is far louder and can carry a much longer distance than your voice.

A signal mirror can be used during the day to alert people or aircraft miles away. It’s best to avoid hiking at night, but a flashlight can replace a signal mirror when the sun has set.

A map and compass are invaluable tools for a lost hiker. But you can still get lost hiking if you don’t know how to use your compass, so get some training and practice every time you’re out on the trail.

If you take the time to plan your trip, you will significantly decrease your chance of getting lost hiking, and if you do find yourself in such a situation, your planning will help you stay alive and get rescued faster.

Stay Calm and Don’t Lose Hope

There is an acronym that we use for survival situations. The acronym is STOP. STOP stands for Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan. If you find yourself lost hiking, the first thing you need to do is STOP.


Some lost hikers find that their first instinct when they discover they’re lost is to panic and take off in the direction they think will get them out. This often will lead them further away from where they want to be. So the first and most important thing to do if you find yourself in a situation like this is to Stop.


Once you’ve stopped, the next step is to think. Stay calm, take a deep breath, and think about your last known location. Did you cross a stream or come to a split in the trail? When was the last time that you knew where you were? Often just taking the time to think will help you remember where you are.


The next step is to observe your surroundings. Can you see any landmarks, do you notice any terrain features that you can find on your map that might give you a hint as to where you are?


Once you’ve done all those things, it’s time to make a plan. If you remember, there was a split in the trail a short way back; maybe all you have to do is turn around and walk back to the last place you knew where you were. Or maybe you have no idea where you are, and it’s time to find a sheltered spot and settle in till rescue comes.

Stay Put or Attempt Self-Rescue?

This is a topic of much debate in the survival and outdoor community. But the general rule of thumb is; if you planned properly and let someone know where you are going, it’s better to stay put and wait to be found. If you bring the right gear and have a GPS device or cell phone with a signal, you’ll be able to help the possess along all that more quickly.

If, however, you failed to let anyone know of your plans, then it’s up to you to take responsibility for your safety, and you may need to get yourself out.

Self Rescue

This is often a better option for more experienced hikers, but you may not have a choice. Don’t lose hope if you’re lost and haven’t planned well. Take deep breaths to avoid panic, and lace up your hiking boots. If you’re near a high ground, that will help you get a better vantage point. Perhaps you’ll be able to see a road or a stream downhill that you can follow out.

If you decide to find your way out, you need to know a few things. Going off trail will be difficult, so make sure you’re extra careful to avoid injury. Even if you get lost hiking on a trail, you’re still on a trail, and there is a possibility that someone may come down the path and find you. But if you leave the trail and get injured, it will make it that much harder to survive.

Periodically breaking tree branches as you go can allow others to follow your path, which can lead them right to you and help you keep track of where you’ve been.

Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Rest when needed to avoid unnecessary sweating. If your clothes get wet with sweat, it will be harder to keep your body warm.

If it’s getting dark, be prepared to rest for the night. Hiking off the trail at night is a recipe for disaster and injury. So you may give yourself time to make a shelter and a small fire, depending on the weather.

Staying Put

Staying put is usually the best option. As we mentioned before, even if no one knows where you are, if you’re still on a trail, another person hiking on the same trail may find you.

So, if you’ve decided to stay put and wait for help, what will you need to do to survive in the wild?

Keep an eye on the weather. Even if it doesn’t look like rain, the temperatures can drop dramatically at night.

Making a shelter and starting a fire are the best things you can do to until rescue. Just make sure you’re careful with fire. The last thing you need when you get lost hiking is to start a forest fire.

Be sure to drink plenty of water and don’t forget to eat the food you brought.

The international signal for help is three. Three blasts on a whistle, three flashes of light from a signal mirror of a flashlight, etc.

How to Help Search and Rescue

If you get lost while hiking and have planned properly, emergency services will be coming to look for you.

The worst thing hikers can do is get overconfident, leading them to make reckless mistakes. The best way hikers can help emergency services is by staying calm and put and cooperating with their instructions.


Hopefully, reading these top tips will help you be more prepared for your next hike out on the trails. Confident hikers take the time to plan properly so they don’t get lost while hiking.

Make sure you pack emergency supplies and know how to use them, along with extra food to keep you going for a few days while awaiting help.

Remain aware of your surrounding. Trails will have signs where intersections meet to keep you on the right path.

Remember to STOP if you get lost hiking. Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan.

Whether you attempt self-rescue or decide to stay put, be cautious to avoid injury. Make a shelter and a fire to maintain your body’s core temperature. And stay hydrated.

By following these simple steps, you’ll know what to do if you get lost while hiking.

Josh Blaski

Josh is a writer, photographer, and outdoorsman based in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. When not on assignment, he spends all of his time in the outdoors, hiking, backpacking, hunting, and fly fishing.

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