It doesn’t take a major disaster to erupt for someone to become disoriented and get lost in less-traveled areas. You might even find yourself off-course on a day hike in a backwoods forest or even broken down a few miles off an unfamiliar, desolate road. What you do to prepare for such an occurrence can mean the difference between life and death (we’ll always opt for the former). Let’s take a look at a few tips on what you can do to avoid getting lost in the first place, and how you can enhance your chances of survival if you do indeed get lost.

A leisurely hike or even a weekend trip can take an unexpected turn in a blink of an eye if you get distracted (or overly adventurous) and lose your way. A minor case of going astray can mean as little as getting home for dinner late, but in extreme cases, it can quickly turn into a struggle for survival.

Be Prepared

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If you do get lost, your only survival items will probably be on your person at the time. Basic survival tools such as a knife, flashlight, a quick and reliable method of making fire, compass, map, water, food bar, emergency blanket and a warm layer of clothes are good things to have handy. If you’re going deeper into the unknown, more survival gear is recommended.

Don’t Get Lost

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Here’s a little gem of wisdom that may save you from getting mired in a survival situation. Don’t get lost in the first place. Amazing piece of advice, isn’t it? That tip may sound obvious, but sometimes it can be challenging to accomplish if you haven’t developed good travel habits, especially when exploring unfamiliar places.

Whether you’re going on a short walk or are forced to abandon your encampment, it’s a good idea to inform someone where you are going, what route and direction you’ll take and approximately how long you estimate you’ll be gone for. If no one is around, leave a note in an easy-to-find location listing this information. Become accustomed to doing this even if you are in familiar territory and only going out for a short time. Accidents can happen anytime, anyplace.

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When you travel, make it a practice to be aware of your surroundings and take mental notes of indicators such as major landmarks before and during your trip. Keep your eyes out for hills, mountains, uncommon features on the skyline and land contours, bodies of water, or even unique trees. Remember where they are in relation to you and your objective, and move accordingly. If you don’t have a map or compass, your powers of observation are that much more critical, so don’t start day-dreaming and forget where each feature should be in relation to you and your objective.

If you have a paper map or GPS device, check your landmark observations against them to understand where you are in relation to your objective and starting locations. On foot, you should do this about every 10 to 15 minutes, but depending on your method of motivation and speed, you might need to compare your observations more often. An average hiker can move at about two-and-a-half to four miles per hour depending on the terrain and load being carried. If you’re using a faster conveyance such as a bicycle or vehicle, you’ll need to make sure you keep tabs on your position more often. Keeping track of where you are on a map at regular intervals is a good way to keep from getting lost.

Like Hansel (Gretel’s, not Zoolander’s), it’s a good idea to leave markers along the way so that you can find your way back to where you started – just don’t leave breadcrumbs. You can break branches along your path or leave signals such as carvings in tree bark. Stacked rocks and bundles of tall grass tied in knots are also options. If you do this regularly, you should be able to follow your marker trail back to the start point in no time.

I’m Lost

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You’re what? What did we just tell you? It’s okay, we figured that between narrowly escaping that hungry mountain lion and avoiding a fall into a ravine, you are already ahead of the curve by managing to stay alive. Let’s keep you that way, shall we?

The sinking feeling of realizing you’re lost can be scary, and for some, panic-inducing. It is very important to remain calm and keep your head clear to make rational decisions. Because you’re always prepared, you should have some survival tools on you, have made a trail of markers to follow back and let someone know when to expect you back home.

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If it’s safe enough, you can make your way back to your starting point by following the trail of markers you already made. If for some reason it isn’t safe to do that, you should sit tight. In an unsafe situation, you should stay in place and await rescue. After you don’t return as planned, people will eventually come looking for you. The more you move about, the more lost you could potentially get while also expending precious energy and risking injury. The information in the message you left should allow search and rescue crews to come find you. In the meantime, it is imperative that you stay warm by building a shelter and a fire. The fire can double as a signal fire to make you easier to spot.

Don’t let fear or despair get the better of you. If you make a plan and stick to it, that can be a great motivator. If you get too anxious or impatient to find your way back, you might take too many needless risks. Take inventory of what items you have with you, as well as some of their alternative uses. Mentally shift into “survival mode” and adapt to the environment. Make sure to keep up your physical health, mental outlook and energy levels. Gather essentials such as wood, water and food and be patient. The longer you can hold out, the better your chances for survival.

Conquering Fear

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Many of us remember that sinking feeling we felt as children when we wandered away from our parents at the supermarket and looked up to find them missing. The knot in your stomach – the fear, the feeling of being lost, was panic-inducing. We may have grown up a lot since then, but becoming lost as an adult now may revive many of the same emotions that we felt as children, only on a greater level. Instead of being stranded between boxes of Frosted Flakes and Cap’n Crunch on aisle eight, you could be in some serious and potentially deadly trouble stuck in the mountains or desert.

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That feeling of fear is necessary to our basic survival instincts. Fear induces extra adrenaline into our system, making us more alert and energized. But disproportionate amounts of fear can also lead to improper and sometimes dangerous decisions.

Understanding proper survival methods and skills, contingency plans and the use of essential tools can empower us so that we can push fear out of our minds and stay focused on the task of survival. Knowing what you can and must do to survive keeps you on your plan, greatly improving your chances of survival.

Your best bet is to avoid this situation in the first place by not getting lost. By adapting the habits outlined in this article, you’ll give yourself a good chance to stay on track, even off the beaten path.


This article was originally published in BALLISTIC™ Summer 2015 magazine. Print Subscriptions are available here

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