There are many ways to get lost, but significantly fewer to get found.
A car could break down in the middle of nowhere, or an improperly labeled path can lead a hiker astray. An injury can also debilitate a traveler, leaving them trapped in the wilderness. Whatever the cause, anyone that spends time outdoors should be aware that, even for a seasoned hiker or camper, the possibility of getting lost is still very real.
If you’re a savvy traveler, you should realize that and bring a small survival kit whenever you go hiking, even if it’s somewhere that you’ve been before. This kit doesn’t need to be extensive; items such as a survival blanket, water purification tablets, firestarters, and basic medical equipment will give you an edge if you end up stuck somewhere for a short period of time.
Of course, it’s when you’re lost for longer than things begin to get dicey. That’s why the first thing you need to do once you realize that you are lost is to stop moving and assess your situation. If you’ve prepared for your trip properly, you should have at least informed friends, roommates, or family members of where you are going with the hopes that they’d be able to assist if you found yourself in a bad situation.
Additionally, if you don’t know where you are, then moving has a very high chance of simply putting you in a worse situation. It’ll also waste valuable energy that you may need in the near future. I recommend taking stock of your situation; assess your inventory of supplies, where you think you are, and your own physical state, in addition to the environmental conditions around you. If you are hurt, then your injuries complicate matters. The terrain and weather can also influence your chances of survival and being found.
So, once you’ve acknowledged that you are in fact lost and need to survive until you are found, the key is ensuring that you last long enough for rescue teams to find you. Regardless of how dire your situation is, there are three things you’ll want to obtain to sustain yourself: warmth, shelter, and fire. Fortunately, the last two contribute to the first, and if you’re adequately prepared, you should be able to fashion yourself a fire.
As far as shelter goes, there are often natural spots you can take advantage of without wandering far. One of the most common is a fallen tree; if you can find the small pit left by the dislodged roots of the tree, you’ll have a small dugout that you can rest in. You’ll also want to find ways to keep the rain off of you; rocky outcroppings and large pine trees can often provide some relief from the elements.
A critical element of planning shelter and maintaining temperature is keeping yourself off the ground. You lose a lot of heat when sleeping directly on the forest floor, so try to put about six inches of space underneath you. Pine needles are perhaps the best insulator, but leaves can work as well. If you’ve packed a garbage bag with you, you’ll have even more material to shield yourself and your shelter from the weather!
Another need you’ll have to account for is water. Given that you can survive longer without food than without water, you may need to leave your makeshift camp to find some. Check low lying areas where streams and rivers may pool; you’ll want to collect yourself a supply and purify it if possible. Hunger is a secondary concern, and you’ll generally be rescued before you need to resort to scavenging for more food, but without it, you’ll quickly become weak. Complete any intensive survival tasks as soon as possible so that, if you end up lost for longer than expected, you’ll be prepared to deal with the effects of hunger.
Other than that, you’ll want to ensure that you are visible enough to be rescued. A line of three fires indicates distress, but anything reflective—such as a survival blanket or mirror—can be used to broadcast your position to anyone flying overhead. A whistle is also often part of a survival kit, and you’ll want to use it regularly to help any searchers find your position, listening for any sort of response on their part. Stay visible, and you’ll greatly assist rescuers.
Survival may sound like a daunting possibility, but an intelligent and prepared hiker will be able to maximize his or her chances of being rescued by playing it smart. As long as you’re aware of which bodily needs should be prioritized—heat, water, rest, and food—you have a good chance of being found, even in an unforgiving environment!