Lost: What to Do When You Realize You’re Off Route

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Nothing compares to the jilting moment when you realize you may be lost, when you realize the sun will be setting soon and you only have your tiny running pack

Illustration by Daniel Yagmin

You glide effortlessly down the trail. Everything is flowing. Hills come and go, the trees are a blur and your legs feel strong. It is one of those special days … then, suddenly, you realize that you have blown by the trail junction where you were supposed to turn. How many miles back was it? Where are you?

Nothing compares to the jilting moment when you realize you may be lost, when you realize the sun will be setting soon and you only have your tiny running pack with a wind jacket, a couple of gels and a few ounces left in your hydration bladder. Things spiral and you begin to panic. You curse yourself for not carrying your cell phone, GPS, headlamp, map or telling someone where you were headed. What should you do?

Stay Calm
Remaining calm is crucial. A clear head and slow, meticulous thinking allow you to better evaluate your situation and make good decisions. It may sound trite, but take some deep breaths. Step back and pretend you are an outsider looking in, or imagine you’re watching a TV show of yourself. You know how you critique show plots or joke about the cheesiness of that B movie? Sit down, take a sip of water and think rationally.

How long ago did you pass the turn off? When will it get dark? Did you pass other trail junctions? Would you recognize those junctions (keeping in mind that you will be coming from a different direction)? Is it a full moon providing enough light to keep moving safely? Is a storm moving in? How much gas do you have left in the tank? How cold are the overnight temps? Is there a real chance of getting hypothermia and exposure?

Best Case
In the best-case scenario, you can reorient yourself by identifying a landmark from a nearby hilltop, or simply having confidence that you can backtrack, even in the dark, safely to the trailhead or civilization. Be careful, though, not to fool yourself into recognizing landmarks, i.e. in a panic, it is easy to convince yourself that you recognize a distinctive bush or rock formation.

If you decide to backtrack, it is best to stay on trail and backtrack the way you came, especially after dark, rather than taking off cross country, where you could encounter cliffs, downed trees or impassable vegetation. Leave “bread crumbs,” or clues (e.g. arrows scratched in the dirt or made from branches) along your travel route, especially at intersections and junctions, so that in case you head the wrong way, you can turn around and retrace your route. Such clues will also aid potential search-and-rescue (SAR) personnel, if it comes to that.

If you cannot simply backtrack, there are options. Is there a road that you know parallels the area on one side that you could drop down to? Do you see car lights indicating a road nearby? Can you follow a creek or river drainage to safety?

If you make it out, great! Go home, have a beer, sit on the couch and watch the next episode of Survivorman. If you try to make it out but end up even more lost, stop. Eat a snack, take a drink. Do not let embarrassment keep you from admitting you are lost.

Worst Case
OK, now you admit it—you are really lost. It is cold and getting dark. Your best course of action is to stay put, and prepare to bivy.

Look for a sheltered spot, e.g. a rock overhang, a low, thick-branched tree, close to the trail so you will hear people if they pass by. If you can’t find a natural option, create your own. Drape some thick branches a few feet over your bed area to create beams in a lean-to style. Lean the branches up against something sturdy like a solid tree or rock. Then collect more branches and boughs to create an insulating roof. The best branches to collect are evergreen boughs, which layer well and cover a lot of surface area.

Inside your shelter, create a bed of pine needles, leaves and/or more boughs to insulate you from the ground. Then, when you bed down, pile on more duff, boughs or branches. You can also sleep on top of your pack (if you have one) or slip your feet inside for more warmth.

If you get cold, perform light exercise, e.g. pushups and jumping jacks, every so often to elevate your body temperature.

The Morning After
Day breaks, you rise from your sleepless, endless night but your nightmare hasn’t ended. If you feel you cannot find your way out in the daylight, stay put, and help SAR find you. The more you move, the more they have to play cat and mouse.

Do not play by Leave No Trace standards. Leave your shelter standing. Then provide more clues for the SAR teams. Draw or make arrows to direct searchers to your position. If there is an opening in tree cover, like a meadow or alpine zone, stay there. Make a big “X” in the opening by placing sticks, rocks or anything of a contrasting color to the ground so a search helicopter or plane can see it.

If you can start a fire, make a “smudge” (a smoky fire with not many flames) to draw searchers’ attention. Alert rescuers by making noise, whistling or yelling. Three long blasts on a whistle are the universal help signal. Don’t make coyote yips, raven caws or wolf howls. Those definitely won’t help! If searchers make verbal contact, tell them you need help and talk them into your location.

Getting lost can be a harrowing experience but staying calm and acting rationally will keep you alive.


Next Time
What you should have brought and how it could have saved you. You don’t need all of the items listed below but a good combination and working knowledge is key.

GPS. Know how to use it before you set out. At the trailhead, waypoint your position. You can also leave “bread crumbs” on your GPS so you can backtrack if you get lost. An added bonus, it will tell you the exact mileage, fastest speed and average speed of your run.

Headlamp (with fresh batteries). Can mean the difference between making it out that first night or not.

Cell phone. Cell-phone coverage is becoming more widespread, but don’t depend on it. With reception, you can call SAR, and notify your significant other or relative.

Matches/lighter/firestarter. The classic “I wish I had …” A small fire can save your life.

Pencil and paper. Telling someone your intended route and/or leaving a note in your car at the trailhead is a no brainer. If you have writing implements in your pack, you can leave notes/clues for
SAR teams.

PLB. If you carry a personal locator beacon, like SPOT, you can send out a distress signal, an OK message or tether it to your smartphone to send out a text message. If necessary, SAR can read that platform to pinpoint your location.

Map and compass. Know how to use this old standby system, and you can usually find yourself if temporarily misoriented.

Justin Lichter (www.justinlichter.com), trail name “Trauma” in the hiking world, has hiked over 35,000 miles in the past eight years, including trips across the Himalayas, Southern Alps of New Zealand, East Africa, Iceland and United States. In 2006, he hiked over 10,000, averaging almost 30 miles a day.

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