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What To Do If You Get Lost Hiking (Guide For Staying Safe)

Hiking in the great outdoors can be such a rewarding experience. The sights and sounds of the wilderness offer a sanctuary away from our busy modern lives. But don’t get too wrapped-up in nature that you forget where you are! Knowing what to do if you get lost hiking is key to staying safe.

The first thing to do if you get lost hiking is to stop and stay calm. You should look for landmarks and features you can identify on your trail map to help pinpoint your location. You should never move on until you have formulated a plan to get you safely back home.

The prospect of getting lost hiking is a frightening thought. However, even the most experienced hikers can lose their way. In the article below, we we’ll consider the main reasons hikers get lost, the things to do and not do when lost, and how preparation can help you avoid getting lost hiking.

Is It Easy To Get Lost When Hiking?

It can be very easy to get lost when hiking. There are so many natural things to look at and conversations to be had on the trail with fellow hikers that it’s easy to forget to pay attention to where you are on the trail and suddenly look up to find yourself lost.

Preparation is key for any hike, both for your own safety and the safety of any companion hikers. The better prepared and the more familiar you are with a trail, the less chance you have of getting lost. However, things can still go wrong, and even with the best preparation, situations may arise that see you lose your way.

Some trails are more clearly marked than others and venturing off trail will greatly increase the risk of becoming lost. Getting lost is not the sole domain of new hikers. Experienced hikers need to remain vigilant with their preparation prior to hiking as well.

Therefore, a lack of preparation, a lack of concentration, or a sudden whim to head off trail can soon make it easy to get lost when hiking. Changing weather conditions can also be another major factor increasing your risk of becoming lost, especially blizzards and thunderstorms.

Why Do People Get Lost When Hiking? (Most Common Reasons)

1. Heading Off The Trail

Wandering from a designated trail is by far the most common cause for someone getting lost when hiking. Venturing off-trail on purpose is said to account for a whopping 42% of instances where people have become lost on a hike. It’s never safe to leave a trail unless you know the area very well.

There can be many temptations to leave a trail. You might want to get a closer look at an outstanding natural feature, or you may want to have a quick look where a path leading from your trail heads, or perhaps you think you are taking a shortcut. However, once you leave your designated trail, the very trail you planned your preparations around, the risk of getting lost rises sharply.

Even if you intend to go just a short way off a trail, it’s easy to become disorientated, particularly in an area of dense woodland or an area without any distinctive landmarks to help guide you back to the trail. It’s best to resist the temptation to stray and instead remain on the designated trail.

2. Changing Weather

Checking the weather forecast is part of any pre-hike checklist, but weather conditions can suddenly change. Even with a decent weather forecast, localized storms and sudden poor weather conditions can happen. Bad weather is the second main cause of hikers getting lost, accounting for around 17% of such cases.

Heavy rain, fog, and low cloud cover can all reduce visibility and lead to disorientation. Landmarks you were using to navigate suddenly can’t be spotted. Regardless of the forecast, it’s always best to keep an eye on the horizon for any potential weather disruption.

3. Falling Off The Trail

Whether it’s through being clumsy or through getting too close to a trail edge to look at a lovely view, nobody is immune to the chance of taking a tumble. Falling from a trail is another prime reason someone can end up lost when hiking. To prevent this, always pay attention to your footing.

Narrow sections of trails with steep drops can offer spectacular views, but they also need your full attention. You can become disorientated once you slip off a trail and aren’t able to climb your way back up. Just as seriously, the fall could also result in an injury.

Sustaining an injury whether from a fall or another accident when hiking can also lead to a hiker getting lost. Disorientation and panic can set in when you’re hurt, and if you can still walk, you may look to take shortcuts to complete the hike quicker and end up lost.

4. Fading Light

Misjudging how long a hike will take can mean you are still on the trail when darkness falls. It does not take complete darkness to make navigation harder, as fading light reduces visibility and makes it harder to spot landmarks and use trail maps. Poor light also increases your risk from narrower trails, which drop away at the side.

While having flashlights or headlamps will obviously help when the light begins to fade, it still becomes easier to get disorientated and lost. Some lights are only designed for close reading of maps, and navigation is still harder in the dark, even when using powerful flashlights to pick out landmarks.

5. Getting Separated From A Hiking Group

Eight percent of instances of people getting lost when hiking is due to them becoming separated from their hiking companions. This is often when participating in a hiking group and for whatever reason, a hiker becomes detached from the rest of the group.

If hikers are relying on the group or the group’s guide for navigation on the trail, then as soon as they become separated, they are at risk of getting lost. Hopefully, the group being one hiker short will quickly be noticed, but if it isn’t, anxiety can soon set in, and the separated hiker may try to find their own way instead of staying put and waiting for their absence to be noted.

6. Navigation Failures

This is one of the rarer ways people end up getting lost, but problems with GPS and maps can cause navigation issues. We all tend to overly rely on technology, which is fine most of the time. However, when technology fails, we can feel metaphorically lost, and for hikers, literally lost.

A GPS failure or losing tracking equipment can soon disorient a hiker without a backup plan for navigation. Similarly, losing a map when this is your sole source of navigation, or watching in horror as the ink on your newly home printed map washes away during a rain shower, can see you lost out in the wilderness.

How Many People Get Lost Hiking Per Year?

Around 2,000 people get lost hiking every year. This figure will naturally vary from year to year and place to place, but it’s still a lot higher than many people might imagine. It emphasizes the point that it’s easier to get lost when hiking than we perhaps like to acknowledge.

While some of these hikers have been tracked and found by other local hikers or hiking organizations, others have required the services of trained Search and Rescue teams. When lost on treacherous terrain or mountain trails in worsening weather conditions, extraction from these highly trained teams may be the only viable option.

What these figures won’t not include is all those hikers who have become momentarily lost. This could be for minutes or possibly hours until they have been able to work out their location and find the correct trail back again. These hikers may not have ultimately needed rescuing, yet it was none the less frightening during the period when they are disorientated and temporarily lost.

How To Avoid Getting Lost On A Hike

The key to reducing the risk of getting lost while hiking is preparation. Being prepared is a good habit to form in general, and definitely when hitting the trails. It doesn’t matter whether you are a hiking novice or a highly experienced hiker, preparation should be an important part of your plans.

We’ve never had so much readily available information at our fingertips, so make sure to use it. Do some research on your proposed hiking route, looking for useful landmarks to aid navigation as well as any obstacles or dangers that could hinder your hike.

Even if it’s a trail you regularly hike and think you know like the back of your hand, check for any issues reported on the trail since you last hiked there. A little research before setting off can help avoid nasty surprises that force you to go off-trail and increase the risk of getting lost.

As well as doing your homework on your hike route, there are further steps you can take to avoid getting lost while hiking:

  • Make family or friends aware in advance of your planned route, itinerary, and expected time to complete the hike. If you are not home when anticipated, they can raise the alarm if needs be.
  • Place a copy of your hiking map in your parked vehicle as an additional aid for any would-be rescuers.
  • Even if you are using a GPS system, still take a map and compass to fall back on if GPS fails. Before hiking, make sure you can competently use both the map and the compass for navigation.
  • Always check the weather forecast to prevent nasty surprises. Also, look at the time of sunset to plan your hike to be finished before it gets dark.
  • Make sure you pack some emergency items and a first aid kit just in case something does go wrong. This may include an insulating raincoat, extra drink for hydration, additional food, a flashlight, a whistle to attract attention, and matches in case you need to start a fire to keep warm.
  • Ensure you have a fully charged phone before you leave the house.

Prevention is always preferable to cure and making the necessary preparation can help keep you safe and reduce the risk of getting lost. It’s also preferable to hike with others rather than alone.

During Your Hike

Once you are on the trail, there are several further steps you can take to help you find your way back if you do start to feel lost:

  • Make a mental note of any landmarks and features like rivers and trail junctures that will be recognizable should you need to try and re-trace your steps.
  • Most people will have a phone with a camera. Taking some photos of your route can also make it easier to find your way back if you become disorientated.
  • Stay on the trail and avoid the temptation to explore off the trail.
  • Keep track of time to help ensure you are not in danger of running out of light before completing the hike. Making a note of how long it takes you to hike between certain landmarks can also be valuable in judging time for an out and back hike, or if you need to turn back for any reason.
  • Regularly check your map to ensure you are still on the right trail and still on course to complete the trail in the time expected. Checking a trail map every 10 to 15 minutes can be a good practice to avoid getting lost.
  • If at any point you become a little uneasy about finding your way back, make little markers or arrows with small rocks or branches as guide. You can clear these markers once you pass them on the way back.

What To Do If You Get Lost Hiking

Admittedly, this can be easier said than done, but the first thing is to remain calm and try not to panic. The calmer you are, the clearer your thought process will be, and the better the decisions you will make to prevent yourself from becoming more lost than you already are.

Once you become aware that you are lost, stop and do not carry on aimlessly hiking. Carrying on and hoping to find your way again can make the situation worse. The more you wander off route, the harder it will be for someone to find you using the itinerary and trail map you provided them prior to the hike.

Therefore, the two key points not to do if you’re lost is to panic and to keep walking. The easy to remember acronym STOP is a handy tool to remind you what you should and should not do once you fear you are lost when hiking. Using each letter of the word, the STOP rule can be explained as follows:

S Is For Stop

As soon as you realize you could be lost, stop and sit down. Continuing to hike could make you even more lost. Try to keep calm and use the initial moments to eat something and have a drink while you collect your thoughts. Put on a jacket if you are feeling cold once you have stopped moving.

T Is For Think

Try to think about the route and any landmarks you passed. Did you take any notes or photos of the trail, and in which direction were you heading? Use a map to try and retrace the route in your head using landmarks you passed. Mountain peaks and waterfalls are good landmarks to note.

O Is For Observe

Calmly look at your trail map and have a look for any identifiable features around you. Some areas such as dense woodland may feel like they have no distinguishable features, but you might see peaks above the treeline or a river nearby. Use this time to consider the weather and check how much daylight you have left. Also check your food and drink supplies.

P Is For Plan

Do not move again until you have a plan. If you are confident of your location and can navigate your way back, you could try, but only if you have enough daylight. Otherwise, make a phone call to arrange help. If daylight is fading, find a sheltered spot and start a small, controlled fire to keep warm. Wear warm clothing and something bright to help rescuers spot you.

Final Thoughts

If you get lost during a hike, remain calm and try not to panic. Don’t hike any further unless you are certain you know the way back. Pay attention to landmarks like mountains and waterfalls as you hike for reference in case you get lost. Remember the STOP rule to help you in the event you get lost.