What To Do If You Get Lost On A Hike

By Di Westaway 

Getting lost when you’re out on the trail is a lot easier than you might think. 

While chatting about your latest wardrobe catastrophe, a grumpy teenager, or your partner’s annoying habit of wanting sex after a big night out, it’s extremely hard not to miss a fork in the trail.

Or maybe a patch of fog, a footpad that you thought was another trail, an outdated guide book, a tree blocking the path, or an unplanned detour for a loo, distracts you from your path and you veer off course.

Suddenly you realise you’re navigationally challenged. 

You look around for signs or clues to what went wrong, and then you realise you’re actually lost. Then you panic. Your mind goes fuzzy and you impulsively decide it's every woman for herself and it's best to fan out in all directions to find the way home.

You start rushing, then running. And before you know it you’ve lost the whole gang and start "cooooeeee-ing" to find your friends. Your tummy knots and you start to feel nauseous. Worst still, you need to poo. 

This, ladies, is what not to do when you get lost on a hike. 

If you find yourself lost on a hike, stop. Keep calm and put the kettle on. 

It's too late to study a map, learn how to use a compass, charge up your GPS, download the Emergency+ App, or rely on your Google map to find the way. It's also too late to tell your mum where you’re going, let the rangers know when you’ll be back, grab an EPIRB, or make a copy of the track notes.

And it’s definitely too late to pack emergency shelter, spare dry clothing, extra water, a sleeping bag, raincoat, food and a whistle. It's also too late to take in details of your surroundings: a tree stump you hopped over, a stream you passed, a big rock on the side of the trail. Identifying landmarks that would have helped you stay on course for your return trip if you’d done your homework.

And it's way too late to tattoo the STOP plan on your arm: Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan. These simple steps would have helped you stay on track, if you’d thought ahead.

So, now you’re in this gut-wrenching pickle, you need to stop, keep calm and put the kettle on.

Even if you think you might be able to retrace your steps and find the way back, stop first. It’s tempting to “keep looking just a little longer”, but you’ll often get even more tangled if you keep going.

Stop

Take ten deep breaths and calm your mind. Try to think rationally. 

Think

Cast your thoughts back to what made you realise you were lost: a missing landmark, a compass reading, a trail that suddenly disappeared, or the absence of a handrail you were following. Remain still while you think and assess the situation. Moving is more likely to make things worse.

Observe

Check out your surroundings and consider what landmarks might help you situate yourself. Compare your observations to your map, which could help you get reoriented. Consider how the weather looks, what time of day it is, and what supplies you have on hand. All of these factors will help you develop an action plan.

Plan

Brainstorm potential next steps and decide on a plan. You might choose to retrace your steps, stay put and/or camp out overnight under the stars in a bivy bag, a log or an overhang, waiting for daylight to make your next move. 

Call 000 or 112 if you have a mobile phone and stay put while waiting for help. If help is on the way, moving will only make things worse. While you wait (or to act on your plan), stay busy, stay hydrated, and try to stay rested. Finally, stay visible to rescuers. If you have a brightly covered layer or backpack, put it on! If you have a mirror use it to attract attention and if you have matches, make a fire.

Use your map and compass to get to higher ground for a view, then try to follow a handrail, like a river or ridge line, to navigate yourself back to a known point or to the trail. Avoid descending into thick scrub where you can't see.

If you feel confident that you can get back on track, leave a trail marking the path you take (like a breadcrumb trail, but use rocks, branches or some other marker). If you’re not confident, or if you’re injured, just stay put.

And if all this sound scary, here’s what you should have done before you got lost:

Don’t Get Lost

It’s always a smart idea not to get lost in the first place. You do this by educating yourself and researching the heck out of your hike. Study a map, read the track notes, download a tracking app, have a compass (and know how to use it), get an EPIRB and have a charged GPS receiver. Don’t rely only on your mobile phone! 

If you’re getting your directions from a website, an App, or an older guidebook, cross reference it with other sources to ensure that the instructions are accurate and up to date.

Make a Plan, and Share it

Always tell your mum when and where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Leave your lover a copy of the trail map, highlight the route you plan on taking, and stick to your plans!

Be Prepared

Along with navigational gear and chocolate, make sure you have packed hiking essentials, including extra water, food, spare dry clothing, first-aid and a whistle. This extra weight is well worth it for emergencies. And practice your navigation skills on urban bush areas where getting lost doesn’t matter. 

Pay Attention

If you’re in a chatty group, nominate a navigator: one person to be a trail and detail spotter so they’re completely dedicated to this task. Be alert to nature and continually take in details of your surroundings: a tree stump you hopped over, a stream you passed, a big rock on the side of the trail, a change in vegetation around you. Identifying landmarks will help you stay on course on your return trip and/or find your way if you get lost.

 

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