If I am lost in the woods, and I find a trail or a road, how do I decide which way to go?

Autumn Veatch was 16 years old in 2015, when her grandparents small plane crashed in the North Cascade Mountains. It was two days of hiking before she found a trail.

Just ahead, spanning the small river is a mystical-looking bridge made of logs. To either side of it, heading in opposite directions, is a well defined, trampled down trail. Getting Out Alive: The Autumn Veatch Story

Finding a trail or a road, is only the next step in a journey to survive, how do you decide which way to go?

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    @TomasBy It matters. What if the trail or road is not used? In many wilderness areas where there is logging, Logging roads can go miles into the wilderness and just stop. There are many variables. It matters! – James Jenkins Nov 4 at 13:44
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    @TomasBy It might be 100 km in one direction until rescue, or just 1 km in the other direction. – gerrit Nov 5 at 9:31
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    @TomasBy That works if you know you are at most x km from civilisation. You might end up walking 2 km in the right direction, then concluding it's wrong and turn around. I agree with commentators that intelligence is needed to deal with a specific situation. Downhill is generally good, except in the Grand Canyon. Walking is good, unless you've found a rare water source and you're worried about losing both the faint trail and the water source, then it's better to stay put hoping someone will pass. Etc.: there is no one-advice-fits-all answer. – gerrit Nov 5 at 11:49
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    This should go without saying, but if you are seriously lost and find a trail, the first thing you should do is leave a message or sign who you are and where (and when) you went. – undercat Nov 6 at 2:43

10 Answers 10

Settlements tend to be near water like rivers, lakes or oceans and the larger the body of water, the more likely there are people. A small stream is likely to join another at some point. This is why going downstream (or merely going down if there is no stream) is the safest bet if there are no other clues. Even if you're not actually on a mountain, it's more likely that streams of water will join each other than that they will split. So you should follow the trail in the direction of the stream going down as much as possible. Some situational awareness will probably come into play as well, it’s unlikely you will have absolutely no idea of the surrounding settlements. If you know you’re near an ocean where this stream might end up, or near a river that this stream might join, that would make it even easier.

As an added note, of course this is not exact science. This is about making a choice in a situation where you have two options and one of them is more likely to get you safe.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Rory Alsop Nov 5 at 12:39
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    @Deolater no, an actual trail would more likely lead to civilization, this is about the direction you should ideally take on that trail. – Sebastiaan van den Broek Nov 5 at 15:00
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    This seems to be predicated on a stream always being nearby the trail ... do you mean "go downhill"? – Azor Ahai Nov 5 at 18:19
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    @AzorAhai I based my answer on the quote in the question about a nearby stream, but you’re right, if that’s not there then I would just head downhill if there were no further clues. – Sebastiaan van den Broek Nov 5 at 19:14
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    Yes, follow this answer. Pull out a topo map at home sometime, and trace the streams downhill. Watch what happens - you'll cross roads eventually. This doesn't always work - sometimes streams lead to impassable waterfalls, but it works a lot. And if you come to a trail...who uses it - humans? Maybe it's a heavily-used deer trail. Cross the trail and keep right on goin'. – Don Branson Nov 6 at 19:48

In many parts of life, you have to play the percentages. The likelihood is higher that going downstream will lead you to a trailhead or some other sign of civilization than it is for going upstream.

As for the comment that

....as long as you stay on the road, you will find civilization.

This may be true of a road, but it is often not true of a trail. Many trails have one end at a trailhead and the other end at a glacier or waterfall or a high lake or a sheer cliff. Examples: trail leading from Tenaya Lake to Pieywack Cascade in Yosemite (waterfall, high precipitous cliff) or the trail (actually a ghastly four wheel drive road that turns into a trail) leading from Camp Dick to the St. Vrain Glacier (Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado).

Also, if you choose incorrectly, you may spend an extremely uncomfortable, even fatal night out. Several years ago, a couple stumbled into our camp near the latter trail, lost, wearing shorts, no food, little water, only light jackets, hiking upstream when the trailhead was less than a mile downstream. If they had continued, they would have spent a night out in freezing rain on their way to the glacier.

So if you have a choice, go downstream unless you have a good reason to think the correct choice is upstream.

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    But the trailhead is on a road, no? – Tomas By Nov 4 at 15:32
  • Just to clarify: I meant maintained road. Following a trail is more risky, but probably preferable to cross country if you have no map or any general knowledge of the area. – Tomas By Nov 4 at 15:37
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    @ Tomas By Yes, a trailhead is usually on a maintained road. If you can get to a trailhead, you are close to civilization. Take the bet that following the stream downstream will lead to a trail and then to a trailhead or a town, unless you have good reason to chose to go upstream. – ab2 Nov 4 at 17:30
  • Influenced by your mention of temperature, downhill will generally be warmer and low-lying areas more likely to have water. In the desert going up might lead you to water (snow caps) and good visibility, but desert temperatures fluctuate significantly and nights can be very cold. – Nelson Rothermel Nov 6 at 0:21
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    To add to this, it depends on the kind of road—logging roads don’t really go anywhere except into the forest. Abandoned logging roads surrounded by secondary growth can easily be long roads going nowhere. – Dietrich Epp Nov 6 at 18:21

Trails show less use the farther from the trailhead one goes because fewer people walk the trail all of the way to the end and most turn around far more quickly.

The odds are that going downhill will lead one back to civilization, but in the odd exceptions where this is not true such as when one needs to go uphill to reach the trailhead, trail usage will be the much clearer sign as to which way to go.

Also, note that you may not be lost and reach a trail and be confused as to which way to go which is why people aim off.

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    This isn't going to be all that useful, you're going to have to hike a long way to see this effect. – Loren Pechtel Nov 5 at 6:06
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    What I'm saying is you can't just look at the trail and see which direction has more use. You're going to have to hike a fair ways to figure this out. Furthermore, if the trail has a destination most people who go much down it at all will go to the destination, not turn back part way. Heavier use near the trailhead, equal use for the rest of the trail. – Loren Pechtel Nov 5 at 7:10
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    @CharlieBrumbaugh In Scandinavia, I've sometimes found that a trail became clearer when rising out of the forested area above the treeline, probably because higher up, vegetation takes longer to recover so a trail is quicker to form. Or it's marked with cairns above the treeline, surviving centuries, but impossible to follow in the forest if the trail has fallen in disuse. I've certainly seen >50 km long trails that get <50 hikers per year. – gerrit Nov 5 at 11:57
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    This is slightly confusing wording "Also, note that you can not be lost", maybe it should read "Also, note that you may not be lost" or "Also, note that you can be, not lost" – James Jenkins Nov 5 at 14:28
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    Perhaps "Also, even when you're not lost, you may reach a trail..." would be clearer (assuming I've interpreted correctly). – Toby Speight Nov 6 at 10:16

There are some good answers about trails that I am not going to expand on.

For roads that are not heavily used like logging roads These may extend many miles into the forest, with multiple branches, all ending in dead ends. There can be 10's or 100s of miles (or kilometers) of roads. Often there will be a locked gate at the entrance to these areas, preventing vehicle access except during active logging.

As mentioned in answers about trails, downhill is a good choice, but roads may cross many valleys or travel long distances in them, so downhill may not help on roads.

Decisions are mostly made at intersections. The most travelled road is usually evident from the width (wider) and lack of vegetation. At "Y" intersections normally you want to choose the base of the "Y", traffic tends to enter and exit from a single main road. Logging roads are built one segment at a time over decades, they have cut offs to different directions, with the major traffic flow expected to coming from or going to the main road.

There may be power or pipe lines crossing the road you are travelling. These can seem like a short cut, but if they show little traffic compared to the road you are on, avoid them. These routes often include areas impassable by foot or vehicle, maintenance is conducted by accessing from different side of the impassable area. If it was really the shortest point to nearby civilization there would be more traffic.

Related: What is the longest dead end road on US public land?

P.S. There may be multiple locked gates. When you come to one, keep walking, there may well be another locked gate farther on towards the main road.

The best thing to do when lost is to climb a mountain (well probably not all the way to the peak but you want a ridge) to acquire your location. Generally speaking anyway. This won't apply everywhere, but most places on attaining a high ridge you can visually reacquire your location enough to determine which direction civilization is.

Once having done so, the best move is to make towards the closest civilization; note this is not as the crow flies but as the terrain is. On acquiring a trail, it will not typically be at a tangent to the direction you want to go unless you got step 2 wrong above. Take the direction that leads more or less towards the civilization you already know is there.

Ok yeah sometimes you can't get the ridge close enough to see which way to go in a reasonable amount of effort; however the one place I know where aiming for the civilization you can see is a bad idea is such that the ridge is where you want to be in the first place. So yeah. Downhill is good unless that takes you to desert.

Sometimes it's just not solvable though. Lost in the Panament range is simply bad news. I recall actually reassessing or walkout ability every fifteen minutes, and that on a road we knew where it went.

In the plane crash scenario that started this off, your best bet is to get a good Mayday off before going down and stay with the plane. If that's just not doable, you can probably forgo the climb ridge-acquire as you started from a plane with (hopefully) a much better vantage point and can take the information down with you. Oh, and you have a map.

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    Applying "climb a mountain and head towards civilization" to the places I hike is generally counterproductive. Mt. Kit Carson: head ten miles west rather than one mile east to the trailhead. Horse Mountain: head seven miles east rather than a half-mile west to the Quartz Mountain lookout. Stevens Peak: you're likely to end up going south because the freeway, two towns, and a ski resort, all within five miles to the north, are hidden behind a spur of the mountain, and the north face has cliffs where the south face has a gentle slope (correct answer: take the trail west, it loops north). – Mark Nov 5 at 22:20
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    @Mark: I fail to see how in any of those you would be so far lost as to not know which direction civilization already is. In which case you could skip immediately to take the trail direction heading towards civilization. – Joshua Nov 5 at 22:26
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    "Stay with the plane" may actually be the best advice. People are likely to be searching for the wreckage, and the wreckage is much easier to spot from the air than a person. Also, the wreckage may provide some shelter, which will increase your chance of survival if the weather is inhospitable. – 200_success Nov 6 at 4:55

I've heard said that if you are lost in the woods, the best solution is to stay where you are until help arrives. The same logic may apply even if you find a path since you don't know which direction to go.

https://www.fs.fed.us/visit/know-before-you-go/if-you-get-lost (also "follow a drainage or stream downhill", but it could be dangerous)

https://www.seattletimes.com/life/travel/if-youre-lost-in-the-woods-stay-put-says-outdoors-expert/

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    People have died staying in one spot waiting for rescue... – Charlie Brumbaugh Nov 6 at 7:31
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    @CharlieBrumbaugh They have. But having an overdue crashed aircraft nearby, and having avgas and a means to make sparks improves the attractiveness of staying put. | FWIW I've never heard a search and rescue spokesman say - He/she did all the right things and helped us greatly by changing position constantly. I have on numerous occasions over decades say good things about people who stayed in one place. – Russell McMahon Nov 6 at 10:30
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    @Charlie I'd assume there's not a single thing you can do outdoors that hasn't killed at least one person. – Voo Nov 6 at 19:51
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    @RussellMcMahon and Rick: Charlie is often blunt - I doubt he means to keep moving constantly from the get-go. Common advice is to stay put, but do not stay put for weeks until you die of starvation. Eventually you need to try to help yourself. In OP's case of finding a trail, "stay put again for a few days if you can" might still be good advice, as finding someone on the trail is going to be way easier. But again, eventually move before you die of starvation. – Aaron Nov 6 at 22:11
  • @CharlieBrumbaugh I doubt we'd disagree violently overall. I'm in NZ. If you've never visited you'd love it - a look at images from the Ansell Adams Wilderness shows great similarities. I've avoided rock-climbing, but riding "trail bikes" in obscure areas before 'trail bikes' were a think certainly qualifies as 'a thing to do outdoors that can kill you'. Hike information indicates that the AAW is nearish Tuolumne meadows - perhaps the most serenely beautiful place I've seen in North America. – Russell McMahon Nov 7 at 10:02

If you pick a direction at random and the go back and forth covering twice as big a distance every time before you turn around, you will walk about 4 times as much to your destination compared to a case where you picked the right direction from the start. If you pick a direction and stick to it, you'll only have to cover the distance once, but there is a 50% chance to pick the wrong direction.

This looks like a waste of effort if one assumes that both directions eventually lead to help, but in that case the trail is likely frequented and you're not really in danger in the first place.

There is no fixed answer to this question. The solution depends on what type of a geography we are referring to.

Most answers say that going downhill is a good solution. But the reality is, in a forested area, if you blindly go downhill on a trail, you might not reach anywhere. For all you know, it might be going downhill for a while and then climbing up another hill to take you away from civilization.

In an area where you are above the treeline -

  • The solution is to go downhill on the trail. This has a higher probability of survival as the water sources and possible civilizations lie in the valleys.
  • Keep markings on the trail for you to trace back in case things go wrong.

In a forested area -

  • Get to a higher ground. Climb up a tree if you know how to. The only way to know which direction is more favourable is to see which way the valleys are.This might mean that you need to go out of the trail.
  • Make markings on trees as you try to find a source of water. The assumption here is that you are leaving the trail to find water which can guide you down to a valley.
  • Follow the water source downstream. The trail is not the solution, trails do not guarantee that they go downhill, water does.

In most of the situations where you are lost, the solution is to stay put and survive. This works only when there are people who know that you are lost and there's a search and rescue on the way. Hence, in case you are sure that people would come searching for you, you might want to stay near the trail and try to survive instead of choosing a random direction to walk in.

From personal experience: Note some visible and audible features of the point where you found the trail. Pick a direction. Count your paces to 100 and count the number of times you reach 100. Check behind you every 100 paces, more often on curves and turns that block your view short of 100 paces. Make note of any convergent trails behind you and keep track of which trail is yours. These points will will help you trace your route back to your starting point when you decide to go in the other direction. Count paces and note convergent trails in the other direction. Go twice as far in the other direction. Repeat as necessary until you notice a good reason to abandon your original starting point. Start the process again with a new count from this new starting point.

  • Follow the ducks with ducklings.

    • If there are no ducks travel downhill towards water until you find ducks with ducklings.
    • Follow them downhill to water.
  • Otherwise:

    • If you have water and food and can light a fire, stay with the plane. They WILL be searching for you.

    • Be in a position to signal them with a smoky fire. Do your utter utmost not to set the plane on fire. Aviation spirit helps heaps. You can light a fire with avgas and anything that makes some sort of spark. "Stuff" from planes is liable to be suitable.

    • If you MUST travel to survive, take avgas and some spark making stuff if at all possible. Stop at the nearest location to the plane where you are liable to be able to survive. Make a fire and feed it.

    • Ducks make good eating.

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Someone noted that people who stayed in one place have died. This is true. However, having an overdue crashed aircraft nearby, and having avgas and a means to make sparks improves the attractiveness of staying put.

I've never heard a search and rescue spokesman say - He/she did all the right things and helped us greatly by changing position constantly. I have on numerous occasions over decades heard an S&R spokesperson say good things about people who stayed in one place.

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    The question isn't about a specific scenario of a plane crash. It's about trails and how to know which direction to move on an unknown trail. And the idea that ducks would be present everywhere is flawed. – Ricketyship Nov 7 at 7:10
  • @Ricketyship 1. :-). I saw the question was 'reasonably' well covered. My aim was to add a few points with enough humour to vary from the 'another ~= identical answer' response, TLDR. 2. Those without ducks should follow the "otherwise" section. 3. Interestingly, in an interview with Autumn Vetch she is reported as saying ~= "I remembered being told to walk downhill to water and then to follow the water". I read that after I made the duck comment. 4. I agree with your "not necessarily a plane crash" comment. My stay put/make a smoky fire comment matches advice widely found elsewhere. – Russell McMahon Nov 7 at 9:51

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