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What to do if You Get Lost in the Wilderness

What to do if You Get Lost in the Wilderness

It’s not fun getting lost while you’re driving around in the big city. It could add hours to your trip and cause you a lot of frustration. Then consider the humility it takes to have to pull over and ask someone for directions. Yeah, that is the real tough part. Better yet, and especially in this modern world of ours, most phones are equipped with GPS and Internet allowing you to simply look up the directions to your destination.

Getting lost in the wilderness is far more stressful, worrisome, and could be life threating. Unless you have a hand held GPS that connects to satellite, your phone won’t work to easily look up the directions. As such, you are pretty much left to your skills and knowledge to find your way home or survive long enough for help to arrive.

Before planning your next hiking adventure, be sure to read our other article titled: Disappear in the Outdoors without getting completely Lost! which outlines tips and strategies to avoid getting lost while hiking in backcountry areas.

To help you remember what to do should you become lost while hiking, rescuers have come up with a simple acronym “S.T.O.P.” to help you remember what to do. S.T.O.P. stands for S= STOP, T=Think, O=Observe, and P=Plan. Let’s review each one a little more closely.

S= Stop

Once you realize you are lost, you should immediately stop hiking and remember, don’t panic. Take a few minutes to breath, calm yourself, and clear your mind so you can effectively engage in the task at hand.  If you were to keep walking, you would end up farther away from the trail and will make it harder to find your way back.


Once you have calmed down and your mind is clear of stress and worry, take a moment to think of where you are and how you got here. This is the time to really focus. Without moving, retrace your steps in your mind, visualizing every turn you took and at what point you ventured off the trail.


After you have cleared your mind and have had time to think of where you are and how you ended up there, take a moment to look around, both near and far. Do you recognize any landmarks, mountains or valleys? These can be extremely helpful in orienting your mind to your present position. For example, when I am hiking one of my favorite trails in the Grand Teton Mountain Range, I know that the mountain range is on my left side, and the river or valley flats are on my right. In addition, I know that at a certain point in my hike the Grand Teton Peak is closer, and when the Middle Teton Peak is closer I know where I am in relation to my destination. By knowing where certain landmarks are, you can more easily orient yourself to your surroundings. This in and of itself can provide some relief by simply knowing that you are again oriented to your hike.

Take a moment to look at your phone or camera for pictures you may have taken, which is a good habit for such an occasion as being lost. See if you can recognize locations and determine how you could get back there. Try to visualize where you were when you took a specific photo and try to recall what you did or went after continuing your hike from that point. See if in your mind you can retrace your steps.

It may be helpful to climb a tree or hike up a hill for a better view. Only do this if it is safe to do so, and after you have completed the last part of the S.T.O.P. acronym.


Coming up with a plan of action is the last part of the acronym. With a calm and engaged frame of mine, and based on all of the information you have, you need to devise a plan to get back to the trail and/or to your ultimate destination. To help yourself make a plan ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I know the general direction I need to be going?
  • Does my cell phone have reception? If not, am I near a ridge or hill that may get reception? NOTE: Only hike up to a higher point if you can do so safely and without worsening your situation. When descending, be sure you can retrace your steps back to your current location, of if what you learned requires to take a different path back, look for landmarks from that point forward.
  • Is it late or getting dark? NOTE: Never hike in the dark if you are lost. You will not be able to use the identified landmarks, near or far, or even tell which direction you are going. This will certainly make things worse and carry with it increased danger.


Spending the night

Unless you have a tent and sleeping bag in your backpack, spending the night in the cold and among the wild animals can be daunting.

Should you need to spend the night, do the following:

  • Find and/or Build Shelter:
    You will need to locate or build a shelter to protect yourself from the elements such as rain, snow or wind and to help in keeping you warm. Additionally, if at all possible, you will want to pick a place that has at least one solid wall, and two preferably. This way you have the protection they offer and only need to protect against wind and animals in the other directions, not a 360 degrees approach.
  • Add Layers

Dig into your back pack for all your extra clothes. Put on all the socks, shirts, pants you can. This will help protect you from the risk of hypothermia and keep you warmer. This  may help ensure a better night’s rest and provide the rejuvenation needed for the next days tasks.

  • Build a Fire
    Collect small dry branches and twinges to build a small fire in your makeshift shelter to keep you warm through the night. Be sure to collect enough wood to last the night. Before you start the fire, be sure to clear away all the grass, bark and other stuff that could be a fuel source and put stones around the fire to keep it contained.
  • Re-group
    Come morning, take the time to review the “S.T.O.P. acronym” as you orient yourself for the day and the events that are to come. Then act to execute your plan of action.Hopefully you never find yourself in this type of situation. But if you do, stop and stay calm. Retrace your steps in your mind, make a plan and get home safely.

Be safe and happy hiking!