Around 2,000 people get lost in the woods every year.
We all believe we’re not going to be one of those unfortunate souls…but none of us can ever be 100 percent sure.
Here are some survival strategies you need to know to avoid getting into this precarious situation in the first place.
But before getting into the nitty-gritty, take a look at the dos and don’ts every hiker or backpacker should memorize.
Surviving when you do get lost involves a little preparation. Always, always make sure you have the backpacking 10 essentials with you when you go out hiking or backpacking:
Once you realize you’re lost, the first things you need to do are stop, relax, and think about your situation carefully. Excessive anxiety will only cloud your judgment and drain your energy.
The STOP method helps you remember what to do after you realize you’re lost. These letters stand for: “stay calm,” “think,” “observe,” and “plan.”
A few questions you should address are: How did I get here? How long will my food and water last me? Where’s the closest river or stream? Where should I set up shelter? What’s the weather like? How long till it gets dark? How’s my health?
Once your mind is calm, observe your surroundings and try to get an idea where you’re located. Try and mentally retrace your steps.
If it is safe to do so, then climb to the highest elevation possible to better assess your location. If such a venture will take significant time or energy, or you don’t feel confident in undertaking it, then DO NOT attempt it. Simply STAY PUT.
Survival experts recommend that people who are lost in mountains or forests travel downhill. In most wildlife areas, it should take you no more than 20 hours of walking downhill to reach a town or city, or at least a road or established trail.
Since most cities in the past were built near bodies of water, it’s likely you’ll come across other humans once you reach the stream’s source by heading in a downhill direction towards a valley. Not only are you more likely to come across civilization by walking downhill, it’s also easier on your body and will save you energy.
Keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for any and all traces of humans. Whether it’s some trash left behind by a non-practitioner of LNT, a trail or pathway, camping sites, or the sounds of people talking.
If you can’t determine your location or navigate your way back to civilization, then you are best to STAY PUT and await rescue. While waiting for help to arrive, you should be aware of the biggest risks that you are likely to face and how to effectively handle them.
You can only survive three days without water. This timeframe, however, could be even shorter if you’re hiking in humid environments.
On most trips, you’ll likely have brought H2O with you, but packing a water purifier such as the lifestraw could help save your life by allowing you to drink safely from wild water sources. Alternatively, if you have brought a stove or are adept at making fires, then boiling H2O from a stream will also make it safe to drink.
The onset of hypothermia is usually gradual, so you have to watch yourself carefully before the debilitating symptoms take hold of you.
Hypothermia produces symptoms such as extreme shivering, weakened pulse, delirium, and poor balance. It’s far easier for you to contract hypothermia at night, especially if you’re in an area that’s damp.
If you feel your temperature dropping, remove any wet clothes you have on because these only increase your risk of developing hypothermia. Use your emergency blanket and light a fire nearby to provide external heat. You can also drink warm water.
Cramps are an early warning sign that you’re dehydrated. As these symptoms appear, try to find a shaded area and drink purified water.
Once you start to experience symptoms like nausea, clammy hands, or a fast pulse, you must lie down in the shade, sip a drink slowly, and sprinkle cool water all over your face and body.
Finally, to avoid sunburn and eye damage, a container of high-grade sunscreen and a pair of sunglasses are musts if you’re hiking in high temps or areas where you’ll be exposed to the sun.
Food is important for giving you the energy you need to create and maintain your shelter, or to hike out to safety. Take stock of the food you’ve brought with you and work out how to stretch out your supply for as long as possible.
Reserve your energy only for necessary tasks. With more energy in reserve, you’ll naturally require less food to survive.
Whenever hunger cravings overwhelm your mind, just slow down, relax, and remember that humans can survive three weeks without food. After a few hours, your mind should become significantly less stressed.
Now that you know the greatest risks to your safety, it’s time to learn how to keep yourself going while waiting on help while out in the wild.
You need a cool head now more than ever. If you’ve never practised meditation before, now is as good a time as any to begin. Sit down and notice your in-breath and out-breath for 15 to 30 minutes. It takes about 30 mins or so for adrenaline to be broken down in your body. Allowing yourself this time to calm down will allow you to think much more clearly again.
If you have made the decision to wait out and be rescued then the first priority is locating a reliable water source nearby without wandering too far off.
If you can’t find a stream or lake, consider hanging out a tarp to collect rainwater. While quite intensive, you can also use a piece of clothing to collect morning dew off plants and trees and wring the H2O out into a suitable container.
In order to effectively ward off hypothermia, you need to create a reliable source of fire and find a good shelter.
Besides a cave (uninhabited, of course), the best shelter for a cold night in the woods is a tent. If you don’t have a tent and can’t find a safe cave, then try to set up camp near fallen trees or by rock outcroppings.
Anyone who doesn’t have an emergency tent with them can build a makeshift tent out of other materials like a tarp or a poncho. You’ll need to tie a rope or place a branch between two nearby trees before draping your tarp over.
Don’t walk around aimlessly for hours on end. Always think through your strategy before wasting your energy. You really need to watch how much energy you exert if you don’t have a huge food supply.
When you need a break, then sit back, drink some water, eat something, get in your sleeping bag, and rest. Some hikers find it’s better to take catnaps throughout the day instead of sleeping all through the night. This is especially the case if you have trouble falling asleep in the woods after dusk.
Make sure you are ready to signal potential rescuers. This could take many forms, such as blowing a whistle, flashing a mirror (or shiny metallic object) or even spelling “help” on the ground in an open area.
If lost in the mountains, you should use the appropriate signals to alert mountain rescue planes or helicopter teams.
The most important thing before going on a hike is to let friends and family know where you’re going and for how long. Leave them a map of your planned route and any other pertinent information about your trip, i.e. direction of travel, parking location. This way, if you don’t return within the timeframe you’ve provided, then your loved ones can alert the authorities.
Don’t get caught up in the mythos of the “rugged explorer.” Letting others know your whereabouts is a sign of maturity and it’s critical for your safety.
This is a great tip if you’re a beginner. It’s an even better idea to stay close to your home on your first hiking adventure. While it might not be as exciting as heading deep into the wilds, this is a great way to learn basic navigation skills in a safe environment.
If you’re not too experienced with hiking or backpacking, there’s no shame in scheduling a tour with a guide, which is also a great way to learn the ropes before venturing out on your lonesome.
While this tip is optional for easier hiking treks, it’s a requirement for all other times. There are plenty of websites where you can book guided hiking tours around the world, so there’s no excuse for going it alone in areas out of your comfort zone.
You should know how to read scales on a map. The most common map is 1:25,000, which means one centimeter on the map translates to 250 meters on the ground. You should also be able to identify features on the map and understand contouring, both of which can help you navigate terrain safely.
Figure out how to use a real compass. Invest in a high-quality compass you feel comfortable with and learn how to use it before your hike.
Please remember to tell all your relations about your trip and carry your essential travel gear with you on the trail. These two preventative tips, along with the strategies listed above, could well prove critical in “surviving to tell the tale.”
"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food."- Hippocrates
Would you know what to do if you get lost in the woods, mountains, or wilderness? Make sure to plan for the best, yet prepare for the worst with our practical survival guide.
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