I was recently watching something on Outdoor television about survival in the woods. The only reason I am asking, is because I am planning on an excursion out there equally as far. Someone went into Yosemite, and kept hiking, then lost for days.

4 Answers 4


If your lost for days, setting up a refuge is the last thing you want to do. People make themselves a camp and sit there and die.

Her cell phone couldn’t get a signal. Instead of continuing to hike she stayed put. For 26 days she wrote in a journal until she died quietly of exposure and starvation. Source

If your going hiking where the possibility of getting lost for days exists, you should have a shelter with you for the nights, and sufficient knowledge and supplies to get yourself home.


P.S. I am not a big fan of PLB devices, but I include the reference for those who are.

According to this post there are few, if any places in the US (excluding Alaska) where a road is more then 20 miles away.


Disclaimer: I never got lost in the forest.

Before leaving

  • Tell someone where you are going, when, with whom, what is your expected itinerary when they should expect you, and when they should start worrying and sending search parties
  • Prepare your trip a minimum: know where shelters are, water supplies, trail head, alternative exits

During your hike

  • Avoid hiking alone if you can
  • Have a map, compass, and knowledge of how to use it
  • Have extra food and warm clothes

If you get lost

  • If you can't make heads or tails of your position (e.g. if you loose your map), if possible stay put and wait for rescue. Your friends should send a search party after they start worrying that you didn't make it back when you said you would
  • Make sure you have a supply of clean water. If you can't find one, rivers are usually at the bottom of valleys, and small streams are running down hills/mountains slopes.
  • If you have a tent, set it up. If you don't setup an emergency shelter with what you have: branches, leaves, your space blanket. It should shelter you from wind and rain.
  • If you have any way of signaling your position, use it
  • If you have a space blanket, position it so it is visible from the sky or from a distance. Open areas (i.e. not dense forests) make that easier.
  • Avoid splitting your group
  • Light a fire if it's safe to do so
  • Measure your food, and estimate how long until the search starts

To avoid getting lost

  • If the area is hilly, getting to a height to get an overview of the area can help you figure out where you are
  • If there is a river it often ends up at a city (you should know that before leaving, too)
  • If you still have a compass, and know which direction the road is, you can try to aim for that (you need compass navigation skills, it's not obvious to follow a direction in a dense forest, nor to estimate distance)
  • I suggest that you add: Carry a PLB or at least some device that can signal where you are. Even many very experienced hikers/backpackers do so.
    – ab2
    Nov 3, 2018 at 1:19
  • 1
    @njzk2: can you explain what is the reason for waiting for rescue? Do you have statistics (source) that waiting for rescue is more reliable way being rescued then walking and finding help? First 3-5 days healthy person can walk at least 20-30 km\day. It's difficult to find a place on earth were you can't find help in range of 50-100 km. Nov 5, 2018 at 9:46
  • My reasoning is this: if you realize you are lost, you can vaguely estimate the max distance you have veered off course. If you have done your homework before leaving, someone is launching a rescue party, given your planned itinerary. If you start moving, there is a good chance you move further away and the rescue party won't find you. Also you get tired, you risk accidents, and you use your supplies faster. (Of course, there are cases where moving is a good idea, if you have good reasons to think you can get unlost)
    – njzk2
    Nov 6, 2018 at 6:47
  • @user1209304 also, I don't know which part of the world you are in, but around here 100km of wilderness is not uncommon. And walking 20-30km in a straight line for 5 days with no supplies in rough wilderness terrain is not realistic.
    – njzk2
    Nov 6, 2018 at 6:49

Personally, I have never been lost.

First thing is, don't panic.

If you are going on an excursion, you will have most of what you need already (ie shelter, fire starter, food, etc). You don't really need to build a refuge if you get lost.

Accidents and weather are your main concerns. Having a first aid kit, and knowing how to use it are key. Also having proper clothing for the time of year is key.

There was a quote that I remember attributed to Daniel Boone when asked if he ever was lost:

I was never lost, a might bewildered for a few days but I never was lost

The key message was that you aren't lost if know how to find your way. When I am in the woods, I try to keep general track of which direction if I can't remember where I am. Something like, "there is a road to the north going in that direction will get me to where I can easily figure out where I am." Keep it simple, features that are significant and broad enough that you will notice them. Rivers and roads are typical for me.

Have a good GPS or system on your phone. If you don't want to buy one, there is a service called onX Maps. They have an app that allows you to use your phone as a GPS with very good maps. It can be used without cell signal as well. This does not replace a map and compass, which you should have as well.

One last thing, would be practice. You should be familiar with the different skills and know that they work. Reading about matchless fire starting is one thing, but actually try it on a trip. If this is a major excursion, do some smaller ones to get ready. Particularly if you are concerned that you might get into trouble. Put yourself into situations where you don't have to worry if things don't go well. Seeing someone on TV start a fire with two sticks isn't the same as doing it yourself.

  • Why the downvote?
    – user16724
    Nov 3, 2018 at 16:25
  • Definitely see what you mean, yeah I was just wondering if there were any tips if I was planning a long hike, where I might not have GPS on my phone because of the phone signal, so I would be relying on a compass and a map. There was a time I was lost, but it was quite some years back, I was a lot younger, and with my father at the time, and we were in fact lost for days, but eventually found our way back following a river, I also got a little injured but looking back at the survival was something I might want to go back to.. Apr 3, 2019 at 18:41

Disclaimer: I have never been lost in the woods. I have mislaid myself a few times above timberline, but after I climbed to a local high point, I found myself.

The OP asks specifically about building a shelter in the woods.

What are some tips to setting up a refuge if I am lost in the woods?

Thus, I am not going to comment on avoiding getting lost, or mandatory supplies to carry on any hike, or emergency supplies if there is any chance at all you will get lost. Other answers have covered these points.

However, it would be easier to answer this question if you gave us an idea what you plan to take with you.

The first thing is to scout around and try to find running water. Following a stream downhill will often lead you to a trail, which can lead you to a trailhead. See I am lost, I found a trail, which way do I go?

However, take care to not go too so far afield of the point where you realized you were lost that you cannot get back, because that is likely to be closer to where you should be, and to be closer to where people will start looking for you if you told someone where you were going. And, build your shelter well before dark.

Find a spot that is (a) dry and, as I said above, if possible, (b) within clear sight of running water. You got lost once, you do not want to get lost again on excursions to get water. Finding an opening in the canopy where you can get sun part of the day is also wise.

The second thing is to figure out, if you can, whether you are close to the route you have told someone you are going to follow. If YES, follow the stream to see if it gets you to a trail or even to a trailhead. Make sure you know how to get back to where people will be looking for you. If NO, or if nobody knows where you were going, curse and berate yourself for being careless for a few minutes, and then follow the stream down. Eventually, it will lead you to a trail or a trailhead, or (sob!) turn into a waterfall over an impassable cliff.

Stop following the stream well before dark, or if the weather looks ominous, so you have ample time to find a good spot for your shelter and build it. (See above for the spot you want.) Now for the shelter.

Your best spot is, as we said, within sight of running water. You also want a spot near rocks and downed wood for a fireplace and a fire. Then, forget about any regulations or inhibitions about cutting live wood. (If you don't have a knife, preferably one with a saw blade, do what you can with a sharp rock.) Evergreen boughs are your friend. They will insulate you from the cold ground, and they will provide some shelter, albeit imperfect, from rain or snow.

I've never had to build a shelter, so I would have to fumble and experiment, but it seems obvious to heap your evergreen boughs against a large rock or wedge them between two rocks or trees for support and to criss-cross them in two layers to make them as impervious as possible against rain or snow. You can also stuff ferns or long grass, if available, between the boughs for added protection. Arrange your fire so that several large rocks can radiate heat into your shelter. Make your shelter low and small. Do not build a fire in your shelter.

This answer assumes that you have almost no equipment; if you have a large plastic garbage bag or a spare poncho, they will be of great help in building a shelter. If you don't have matches, it is very unlikely you will be able to build a fire, unless you have previously successfully practiced.

If you are lost in winter, and there is a lot of snow on the ground, you should ask a separate question.

I realize that this answer has left it vague when you should try to get unlost and when you should hunker down and wait for rescue. But that is not what you asked. All I will say is that it depends on the weather, how much you know of the terrain, how far you went from the last time you knew where you were, your route-finding skills and your physical condition. Whatever all these "depends on" are, it will be good to sit down and think through your situation before actually doing anything.

  • I can see what you are saying, thanks for replying to me. I frequently go to Yosemite area, and I have been watching local news a lot, heard a long story about a woman put her elder husbands ashes off into the mountains, however she got lost. Her survival tips were things like sheltering under a canopy of leaves, and foraging for non- poison berries, eventually she was rescued, what I am worried about is going this far out, and trying to clime Mt. Witney, or something and getting totally lost. Dec 13, 2018 at 18:56

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