You’re on the right trail, you’re sure of it. But you’ve been walking for hours, and suddenly nothing looks familiar anymore. Horrified, you realize you’ve taken a wrong turn, and now you’re lost in the woods. If this happens to you, what should you do?
Let’s hope that before you went out on your excursion into the great outdoors, you took some precautions. The number one thing to do before heading off to a destination where you’ll be far from support services is to tell someone where you plan to go and what time they should expect you back. If they don’t hear from you, they will know where to look or where to tell rescue teams to look for you. It’s also highly recommended by guides and other active outdoor enthusiasts to bring some kind of signaling device with you when you go out on the trail. A satellite phone is a fantastic example; even if there is no cell phone service, a satellite phone will allow you to make and receive calls. We all need to go “off the grid” once in a while, so if you don’t want to be interrupted while you’re in the woods, just power down your communication devices and put them in your backpack, but don’t be tempted to leave them in the car where they’ll be useless in an emergency.
Even the best-laid plans can go awry, and that’s why you need to think carefully about your situation before reacting poorly. If you realize you are lost, the very first thing you should do is remain calm. This is especially important if you’re in a group that includes children. If children sense you are worried, they will be terrified; children look to adults to protect them so you need to do what you can to make them feel safe. Panicking won’t do any good and will only make the situation worse. Many decisions made in a panicked state are poorly formed and badly executed. Once you realize you’re lost, take a few minutes to breathe and calm yourself and your party members. Stop where you are; don’t keep moving in a direction you’re not sure is the right way to safety and shelter.
Take Stock of Your Resources
Next, you should take stock of your situation. What resources do you and the members of your party have with you? Take special note of how much water and food you have. Review what items you have that might be useful for catching or storing more water and for making a fire, building a shelter and sending signals. Also take note of the time and weather; consider how many hours of daylight you still have, and the weather conditions. These factors will play a big role in what you do next.
If you have quite a bit of daylight left, you may want to spend some time observing your surroundings and thinking about where you might have gone wrong when you got lost. It’s possible that you might be able to follow your footsteps back to the trail, but generally speaking, it’s best to stay where you are, or get to an open area where you’ll be visible to rescuers.
Find Water and Shelter
If daylight is fading, you’ll want to prioritize finding water and shelter for the night. Try to remember if you saw any water sources right before you got lost. When you’re looking for shelter, try to find something that will protect you from cold, wind and dampness. You don’t need an enclosed shelter; a roof and one protective side will be sufficient. It may be enough to lean some branches against a boulder or to huddle under a tree. The important thing is that you prepare your shelter before it gets dark. Searching for shelter in the dark has led other hikers to fall and break bones and to get even more lost than they were before.
Fire Is the Best Signal at Night
You’ll want to try to make a fire. A fire will boost your morale, keep away wild animals and will be your best signal for rescue crews. Hopefully, you’ll have brought some matches or a lighter with you in a survival kit. If not, you may be able to make a fire by striking a knife blade against a rock for a spark or by channeling the sun’s rays through a lens, such as a camera lens or a pair of eyeglasses. If you cannot make a fire, don’t panic. Concentrate on keeping calm and conserving warmth through the night by staying sheltered.
Preparation is the best way to avoid getting yourself into a hopeless situation. Communication is especially important, but if all else fails, use these tips to get yourself out of a dangerous situation.
Hobert Pruitt works for Global Satellite Communications (http://globalsatellitecommunications.com/), a leading satellite-phone provider. For all outdoor adventurists, he recommends letting friends and family know where you are going and when you’ll be home. And never leave yourself without communication — a satellite phone is your best friend.