Lost is a relative term. It is inevitable that, after spending many days in the wilderness, you will lose your way at some point. That is not to say that an unplanned night outside is a certainty, but that occasional sinking "uh oh" feeling exposing your uneasiness definitely is.
When do we officially become lost? Is it when we first accidently turn off the trail, or when we realize the spot on the map doesn't match our surroundings; when we spend a cold night outdoors, or is it before we even get a foot from our cars? Staying found refers to a set of tactics, a series of checks-and-balances, that help keep us safe and aware from the moment we step outdoors.
Prepare for Being Lost
I have been lost twice. Both times happened on day trips that were so easy I didn't even bother to carry the minimal essentials. Both times I used the tactics below to problem-solve my situation, but I was missing my toolkit. Proper preparation, though sometimes cumbersome, is your first line of defense.
Know where you are going: Have your route laid out on a map; know what obvious landmarks to look for and when to expect them.
Understand your surroundings: What is the weather supposed to be like? When does the sun set? How hot and cold are you expecting it to be?
Foresee hazards: Have other people run into problems here before? What were the results? What are the main hazards you anticipate could happen (falling, weather, animals, etc...)
Bring the goods: How much food and water do you have? What would happen if you have to stay overnight? Do you have a first aid kit (even a minimal one is good). How about an extra layer for the cold or a cover for rain? If you get really lost, do you have a means to signal help such as a whistle?
Leave an itinerary: Leave a detailed itinerary including where you are going, identifiers such as your car make and model, and when you are going to return. Make sure whoever has this knows when it's time to call for help, and make sure it's someone who will actually do it.
Stay Smart on the Trail
If you are lost it means that at some point a mistake was made, either by yourself or someone else in your party. Constant vigilance avoids nearly all navigational errors and keeps your senses in tune with your surroundings, hopefully avoiding injuries as well.
Everyone is a leader: Even at the back of a big group you should look for landmarks and trail junctures just as you would while leading. See something the person up front missed? Let them know right away, it's okay to stop the group.
Catalogue the day: When did you cross that river? What side of the trail was the big cliff on? Remember landmarks and travel distances in case you need them for reminders later on.
Look behind: Take the time to turn around and see how things look behind you. If you're coming back this way you will be even more familiar with the terrain.
Look ahead: How much time and/or distance until your next big landmark? What does the weather look like? Should you keep going?
The Onset of Uncertainty
Brief, passing moments of uncertainty are normal. Since we don't (and shouldn't) spend every moment staring at the map, it may take some occasional figuring to get back on track. However, if that nagging feeling begins and does not subside then it's time to S.T.O.P.
-Find a good place to stop.
-Get a drink and eat some food.
-Embrace the fact that you are lost.
-Think back to your route.
-When did you last know for certain where you were?
-Create a short term plan. What can you do in the next 2 hours?
-Create a overnight plan. How much time do you need to find and prepare a campsite?
-Can you access water and higher ground easily?
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The choices you make within the first 30 minutes of "getting lost" are paramount. This is the point where many people attempt to retrace their steps without critically analyzing their full situation, getting themselves more lost than before. Here are a few methods you can use to gather more information and hopefully find yourself again.
Know where you are now: Even if you cannot point out your location on a map you can identify this spot by current landmarks. Create a "home base" that you can always get back too. Until you know more, this is the spot closest to being found.
Try finding out where you are: Using current landmarks, your compass, and your navigational skills, try to narrow down where you can possibly be. Use information such as your previous direction of travel, last known points, average speed of travel, and time to try and identify where you might be.
Identify obvious landmarks: Is there a road nearby? A big river? A notable mountain? If you can reach one of those landmarks you have new information regarding your whereabouts.
Travel smart: Before trying to find your way, give yourself a strict time limit. For instance, if you think a river is 45 minutes away and you travel for over 1 hour, it's time to turn back and find your "home base" again.
Find a high spot: If you can safely and easily gain a peak or ridge you will have more information regarding your location. Try triangulating where you are between river, peaks, ridges, and valleys.
If nothing is jogging your memory or if it's getting late then the best thing to do is stay put!
Find a suitable campsite: Though protection from the elements is important and should be considered, findability is more important. Assuming you left an itinerary with someone, you can count on a search party heading your way soon. Leave them clues. Camp in a meadow if possible. Lay out brightly color clothing.
Inventory: Go through your supplies twice. Think through what you have and how it can be used.
Find water: Staying warm and hydrated are your two primary concerns. Find a campsite near water if you can.
Stay alert and signal for help: Be ready to signal when help is close. Whistles blown in three sharp blasts carry long distances and are easy to identify. Signal mirrors help with airborne searches. Move around, wave bright clothes.
Anytime you become "lost," even if it's just for a quick course correction, taking the time afterwards to evaluate your mistakes can be hugely beneficial. Once you're back home and safe, reflect for a few minutes on what decisions you made (or didn't make) that led you into that situation. Problem-solve possible ways to avoid the same mistakes in the future. Remember, it's okay to get lost. Hopefully, by having those experiences you will become more confident in your abilities to stay found on future trips.
Do you have another tip for staying found? We'd love to here it.