Lost in the Backcountry
This page presents information on what to do if you find yourself lost in the wilderness of canyon country while hiking or backpacking.
If you stay on marked trails and learn the basics of compass and map you should not have too much difficulty finding your way through the backcountry. But sometimes even the most seasoned hikers find themselves off of the trail and in a confusing situation.
Never travel alone. Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return. Be extremely cautious in this wild area.
When driving in the backcountry or the forest, always carry emergency equipment such as chains, shovels, extra clothing and food. This is especially true between October 1st and May 1st. Carry enough to spend an extra night or two. If you do have to stay longer than expected:
- Stay put. Don't wander aimlessly. Unless you're sure of the route to safety and know you can make it, stay with your vehicle. You'll waste energy and probably be harder to find.
- Put on extra clothing to stay warm.
- Try to locate a water source without losing your camp.
- Pile downed pine boughs, brush, or grass around you for extra insulation from wind and cold.
- Do not sit directly on the ground. Use needles, your pack, or some other insulation beneath you.
- Relax. Many people have survived several nights with what they had on their backs.
- If you need to signal potential rescuers, use the vehicle's mirrors during the day. Gasoline and rubber can create a smoky fire that can be seen for great distances. Just be careful when igniting flammable liquids. Don't compound your situation with a burn or by setting the landscape on fire.
- See also Backcountry Roads.
Don't wait until you're confused to look at your maps. Follow them as you go along, from the moment you start moving up the trail, so you have a continual fix on your location. If you get lost:
- Don't panic.
- Sit down and relax for a few minutes while you carefully check your topo map and take a reading with your compass.
- Plan your next move.
- Mentally retrace your route to the last point where you were sure where you were.
- It's often a good idea to retrace your steps until you find familiar ground, even if you think it might lengthen your trip.
- Ask for help if there are others on the trail. Don't be embarrassed.
- Signal with your mirror, whistle, or flashlight. Three of anything—whistles, shouts, flashes, etc.—is the universal distress signal.
Lots of people get temporarily lost in the wilderness and survive-usually by calmly and rationally dealing with the situation.
If you can't trace your steps, follow a wash or creek downstream, but try to stay visible to rescuers by staying on a ridge top if you can. If you're completely lost, don't wander. Striking out cross-country is the surest way to court disaster. Get to a place where you'll be visible from the air and make a large triangle (the international distress signal) our of rocks or by digging a trench. If someone in your party is injured, build a letter "I" inside of the triangle. Build and "X" inside the triangle if you are unable to proceed, and an "F" if you need food and water.
Keep a small fire burning during the day, and be ready to add plenty of smoky material to it if you see or hear someone. Use a shiny object, like a mirror, aluminum can, or tin foil, to signal distant people or planes. If you have a space blanket, and don't need it for shelter, spread it out so that it is visible from the air. Use the red or silver side for best contrast depending upon the surrounding surface.
- Dark Glasses
- Extra Food
- First Aid Kit
- Flashlight (spare bulb and batteries)
- Map and Compass
- Nylon Cord
- Space Blanket or Poncho
- Swiss Army knife
- Water Bottle
- Waterproof Matches
- American Red Cross Standard First Aid and Personal Safety
- Camping and Wilderness Survival: The Ultimate Outdoors Book
- Forgey's Wilderness Medicine
- New Complete Walker
- Scout Handbook
- Using GPS
How to Avoid Getting Lost
Some tried and true techniques that work.
Lost! Survival Guide
Getting through the night.
More Outside Links