Image of the February 2022 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
February 2022 Issue
Home / Articles / Survival Skills

Reacting to Getting lost

Geographically challenged? Stop, think and make a plan. Photo: Mitchell Thorn

Even when walking on a well-marked track it’s possible to lose the trail. What you do next is the key to a good outcome. 

It’s best to avoid getting geographically challenged in the first place. Many people go into panic mode when they feel they are lost. That makes the situation worse. Keeping calm enables clear thinking and sensible decision making.

Stop

As soon as you feel uncertain about your location stop, look about and think. It may be a matter of looking around for the next marker or one behind you. A fallen tree or leaf litter may hide the trail giving a perception that you have wandered off track.

If the answer doesn’t come immediately, keep calm. Let anyone else you are with know, stop and discuss it as a group. Now is a good time for a snack break and a drink. If you can, make a hot drink. 

When did you last see the track or marker?

First ask: when were you definitely on track? That may be when you last saw the track or marker, or maybe an obvious feature. Use that as an anchor, you have only been lost for that period of time, and that may have been only half an hour ago. 

What do you know?

Even if it is getting late, it is better to take time to consider what you know. Look on a map if you have one. Consider all the information about:

Where you might be. What clues do you have such as a stream, cliff or clearing?

Where you may have gone wrong. Was there a fork in the track or a clearing where you re-entered the bush, could there have been deer tracks?

Where you have been travelling. Was this alongside a stream, down or uphill, through a pine forest?

Are there any handrails? You may be between or beside streams, a road or farmland that define one edge.

Make a plan

Use all that information to calmly make a plan. Often this is to retrace your steps. If you don’t have a compass to keep you in the same direction, you can use other clues such as keeping the sun behind you. You may be able to see footprints or broken branches to retrace your footsteps. Do you recognise any features?  

Leave a trail as you go, break branches, stamp heavily leaving footprints. You could leave paper at head or chest height in bushes, anything unusual.   

Have an endpoint

Before starting on your plan, have a defined endpoint. If it was 30 minutes since you last saw a marker, go for no longer than 45 minutes. If you haven’t found your correct direction by then, don’t panic. Go back to the point you found yourself lost. If you keep coming back to this base you are not getting more and more lost. 

You might make a new plan and follow that for a defined time. Come back to base again if that is not successful.

Make yourself obvious and wait

If it gets dark, or you run out of plans, stay calm. It is time to make yourself as comfortable as possible and wait for help. Call for help if you are able to. If you left intentions with someone, then you know when help will come. Leave something blue or high viz out that can be seen by a helicopter. Make a noise, repeating three short signals – whistles or banging. Singing and talking keeps the spirits up as well as making a noise.

Make a shelter with what you have and use materials around you to stay as warm as you can. Ration any food and keep your morale up. Make a fire if you can for warmth, morale and to help you be located.