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If I get lost in the wilderness, what is the very first thing I should do?

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This question needs to be a bit more specific. There's a big difference between walking your dog in the woods and getting disoriented and being in a plane crash in the middle of nowhere. Climate matters. Forest? Dry grasses? Desert? Water? Snow? –  Jay Bazuzi Jan 28 '12 at 21:04
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It depends how lost you are, how far away from a road you are, how long you can last in the heat/cold, how much water you have and need, whether you have a communications device, whether people will be looking for you, and etc. In other words, you will need to think things through logically. –  xpda Jan 28 '12 at 22:33
    
Stop moving. Chances are you'll only run away further from whoever is going to look after you. –  Lagerbaer Aug 14 '12 at 21:54
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I feel this is such an important question, with such a wide range of answers, it should perhaps be a wiki. –  theJollySin Dec 19 '12 at 22:38

5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Assuming you told people where you were going and you don't have PLB with you, you should start building camp. Construct distress signal discussed here: How can I signal for help in the wilderness?

  • Don't panic
  • Get busy making your camp
  • Look for sources of water
  • Construct distress signals
  • Make traps, set up fishing lines, gather plant food.
  • Gradually map out your area you are in by hiking from your camp.

Always remember to leave an imprint of your boot in your car (assuming you arrived with a car, if not then at home, and make sure people close to you know about it), together with your notes for the trip you are planing to take.

@Pulsehead's answer is right, too, I just thought I'd offer an alternative. I guess the choice depends on how far from civilization you are and if you are injured.

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I think in your second point (get busy making your camp) you should stress how important it is to stay put. Otherwise, you'll always be a step ahead of Search and Rescue. Countless stories of people being lost in the woods for days all revolve around the fact that they didn't stop moving... –  Lagerbaer Jan 28 '12 at 22:54

The VERY FIRST thing you need to do is to not panic. Sit down for a minute or two and let your mind catch up to the fact you are lost. Now, take out your map, compass, gps, or whatever and try to find your way back to where you DID know where you were.

If you can't figure out where the trail should be and you need to bushwhack, find a bit of a clearing, take bearings to nearby landmarks, and draw on your map (or use sticks if they are straight) the bearing from whatever landmark. Try to get 3 or more landmarks, the lines will form either something resembling a polygon, or (if everything works out right) something resembling an asterisk. You are either in the polygon, or at the intersection of the sticks. Once you know where (or about where) you are, put a small stone on your map and then figure out which way to go.

If you don't have a map, or your GPS died, or you don't know how to take a bearing, one of the tricks I was taught in Wilderness Survival Merit Badge back in the Stone Age, walk downhill until you find a creek/stream/river. Follow the river's current, and likely you will cross a road. Once you have found a road (if it looks somewhat well travelled), wait for assistance. Otherwise decide whether to follow the river or the road until you DO get to a place where civilization extends its reach.

Oh, and above all, DON'T PANIC. If you panic or feel like you may start, stop doing whatever it is you are doing and calm down. If you keep your wits you are much more likely to survive the encounter.

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"A human can live three minutes without air, three days without water and three weeks without food — but three second of panic can kill you." -- from katterat.com/Courses.html –  gerrit Jul 10 '12 at 15:41

A neat little (recursive) acronym i learned in my survival education in the army is STOP (freely translated from Swedish):

  1. Stop - Don't panic,
  2. Think - Consider your situation, and do not deny the fact that you are lost,
  3. Orientate - Look at and get familiar with your surroundings,
  4. Plan - Make a plan on how to solve your problem.

This is, of course, not a comprehensive, exact answer, but a nice to have mnemonic.

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Yes, first stop to not make things worse, take a deep breath, and collect your thoughts. After that it depends a lot on the situation. I don't like most of the other answers because they assumed certain situations without stating their assumptions.

What you should do next depends on a lot of things, so much so that giving any simple answer is impossible. Factors that matter include:

  • How far out are you? Did you go into a local conservation area in town and don't remember which trail takes you back to the car, or are you alone in a remote area on a solo day hike or longer?

  • How did you get lost? You weren't sure of which way to go at that last intesection a 1/2 mile back, or you've been following what you thought was the right trail for hours and now its getting late and the trail has petered out?

  • What is the weather like?

  • What do you have with you to survive?

  • Are you completely off a trail, or just don't know which trail you are on? Or know the trail, just not where you are along it?

  • How easy is it to navigate? Are you above tree line and can see for miles, or in dense forest that all looks the same in either direction? Are you on a trail you can follow, even if you don't know where it goes?

  • What navigational aids do you have with you? A compass? GPS? Watch? Can you see the direction to the sun? Do you have just a trail map? A topo map? No map and just a general mental picture? You're totally clueless and don't even have that?

There are various levels of being "lost". The usual definition is you don't know where you are, but clearly you have some idea. Most people use the term to mean that they don't know which direction to proceed in, which is quite different. Or do you have two or more choices, just don't know which one is the shortest or otherwise best way back?

Without a clearer description of what predicament you actually mean, it is impossible to give responsible advice.

That all aside, a general rule when truly lost (not knowing where you are) is to always keep in mind what your location is bounded by that you can identify. Start with as large a area as it takes, then think carefully about how you can narrow this down. For example, you may know there is a north-south road to your east, a river to the west, a cliff you'd fall off of to the south, etc. Eventually you can identify the area you are in with something bouding it all around that you would notice if you came accross it. Whatever you do, keep those bounds in mind.

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I was always told to make a cup of tea. Doing so gives you time to think, and involves finding firewood and many of the materials you'll need if things go bad.

On the other hand, i'm British so given enough time to tie a shoe lace we've usually got a brew on.

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