Knowing how to survive if you get lost in the woods is an important skill to have if you spend any amount of time in the wilderness. This is a detailed guide on how to survive, maintain your strength, stay physically and mentally alert, and help your rescuers find you.
Table of Contents
How to Survive Getting Lost in the Woods
1. Don’t Panic
Keep a cool head. Your ability to think logically is the best tool you have and the most valuable resource in this situation. Panicking won’t do a body any good.
Of course, confusion and fear are natural responses when you begin to realize your situation. But if you stay calm and accept the predicament sooner, the sooner you’ll be able to think and make sound decisions.
Recognizing a Panic attack
Staying calm is easy to say but sometimes not so easy to do. It’s important to recognize the symptoms of a panic attack so you know if you need to calm yourself or your companion down. Here they are:
- Racing heart, sometimes accompanied by missing beats
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling like you’re choking, dying and/or losing control
- Feeling sick, dizzy
- Tingling and numbness in fingers and toes
What to do
Follow these steps:
- Breathe deeply.
- Recognize that you’re having a panic attack and remind yourself that it’s temporary.
- Close your eyes and relax your muscles.
- Ground yourself using some mind tricks. For example, the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Think of:
Five things you can see (trees, leaves, a bird, etc.)
Four things you can touch (your water bottle, backpack straps, etc.)
Three things you can hear (rustling of leaves, chirping of birds, etc.)
Two things you can smell (pinecones, wet earth, etc.)
One thing you can taste (your peanut snack, coffee you had this morning, etc.)
The STOP acronym is always mentioned in survival guides and there’s a reason why this is so. It’s a simple way to remember the basic steps on how to act if you find yourself lost in the woods, or worse, injured.
S for Stop, yep.
You’ll be tempted to go just a teeny bit farther because maybe you’re not really lost and just strayed away a little. Ignore this urge and stay where you are once you realize that you’re lost.
T for Think.
- Once you’re still and calm, take a closer look at your map and surroundings. See if there are landmarks that can give away your location.
- Study the trail you were taking for clues and recall when you were last certain of the right location and which direction you were traveling.
- Make a note of what time it is, where the sun is, the direction it’s heading, and how many hours of daylight you’ve got left.
O for Observe.
Observe your body and your surroundings.
- Take note of and remedy anything that may cause you further distress.
- Is it too hot or too cold?
- Do you have blisters or do you feel the beginnings of a cramp?
- Do you need first aid? Do you have sunburns or blisters?
- Are you thirsty? Hungry? Tired? Confused?
2. Make an external survey.
- What tools and supplies do you have with you?
- Is there a water source nearby?
- Do you see a potential shelter?
- Is the weather changing?
P for Plan.
After inventorying your body and surroundings, you’ll have enough knowledge to take control and plan what to do. As long as you’re safe where you are, don’t rush yourself so you can decide on the best option.
a) You can decide whether you can get back on track or if you are indeed lost.
b) If you’re confident that you can find your way, do you have enough daylight to go now or is it better to take shelter for the night and start in the morning?
c) When truly lost, establish communication and prepare to apply your survival skills.
3. Administering First Aid
It’s important to be in tip-top form when you’re out there exposed to the elements. Anything requiring immediate medical attention must be treated posthaste. Ideally, you’ll have the basics in your kit:
- irrigating syringe
- antibiotic ointment
- hydrogel pads
- blister treatment
- bandages and gauze
- athletic tape
- elastic wrap
- personal medications
Here are some life-threatening injuries and situations, and how to treat, remedy or combat them.
Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke
In extreme weather, the body may be forced to deprioritize other bodily functions in order to maintain temperature. The inability of the body to maintain core temperature can lead to heatstroke when the temperature goes beyond 104°F or 40°C.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion are heavy sweating confusion and weakness, pale, cold skin, dizziness, headache, muscle cramps, and nausea or vomiting. Not sweating, having trouble breathing, flushed skin, seizures, and fainting are warning signs of a heat stroke.
You must pause physical activity, take shelter under a shade, and drink cool water. Lie down and elevate your legs to get blood to your heart.
Drink when you’re thirsty to prevent dehydration. A headache, dry or sticky mouth, thirst, dark urine and dry, cool skin mean your body may be using water more than you’re taking in. Dehydration and heat exhaustion often go hand in hand. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water. Urine should be lightly colored. Whether in hot or cold temperatures, dehydration is possible.
In cold weather in the woods, hypothermia is a big possibility if your body starts losing more warmth than it can generate. If you are shivering, get warm. Replace wet clothing with dry. Drink warm liquids to help increase temperature rapidly. If you’re not alone, sharing body heat will help warm you both up faster.
Frostnip and Frostbite
Watch out for frostbite in extreme cold. Cold skin, a prickly feeling, and numbness are early symptoms. The nose, toes, fingers, cheeks, and chin are common areas. Slowly rewarm skin using body heat or lukewarm water. Never use friction i.e. rubbing.
Excessive friction can cause skin to bubble up into blisters. They can be quite painful and are at risk of infection. Hot spots and chafing are an early warning and should be treated with moleskin to prevent from becoming full-on blisters. Formed blisters should be protected with bandages.
Red, hot, painful skin is a sign of excessive exposure to UV rays. Find shade and cool skin with a clean, damp towel. Apply moisturizer and sunscreen if you have them. If you aren’t already, cover up to protect your skin from further exposure.
Insect Bites and Stings
Bites and stings from the unknown can get quite tricky. They can cause all sorts of bodily reactions, from minor irritations to anaphylactic shock. This is where prior knowledge of local flora and fauna and methods of treatment come handy. Although, as a general rule when bitten or stung, you should:
- move to safety
- remove stinger, if present
- wash the area
- apply cool compress
- take an antihistamine, if you have it
Cuts and scrapes
Minor injuries should be cleaned thoroughly to reduce the risk of infection. Apply pressure if there’s bleeding and cover wounds with bandages if necessary.
4. The Rule of 3’s
This rule of survival is simple. You will probably die in:
- 3 minutes without air.
- 3 hours without shelter or protection in extreme weather
- 3 days without water.
- 3 weeks without food.
It may not be an exact science but the Rule of 3’s is undoubtedly useful. It’s easy to remember when lost in the woods so you don’t forget your priorities: finding shelter, water, and food.
Depending on the weather and time of day, finding shelter can be the most pressing need. Extreme conditions can be fatal in as little as three hours, give or take, as the human body can only adapt to a narrow temperature range.
Clothing is our first line of defense. In hot weather under the sun, use a sun hat and wear something loose and light but with good coverage. In cold weather, wear clothes in layers and avoid getting them wet.
Building a shelter will further extend your temperature tolerance range. It will also likely be your point zero or base. Take an inventory of what materials you have. An effective shelter that takes minimal effort is the best shelter.
Important note: Build your shelter well before dark. It should be up before sunset. Stay put until light breaks the next day. Don’t attempt to navigate in the dark because the forest at night can be very dangerous.
Choosing the right location
High wind-, avalanche-, snow or sand drift- and flood-hazard areas should be avoided. Natural shelters like caves, large rocks, overhang mean less exertion. Being close to water is ideal but may carry greater risks, such as wild animals. Some 200 feet from a body of water should be a safe distance.
Building the shelter
Build one just big enough for your needs. A lean-to type shelter will be easy but effective. Natural floor insulation like fallen leaves will help keep heat inside. Mark the location for Search and Rescue to find easily.
Snow can actually help block the cold and wind. A tree pit beneath a big evergreen tree is a natural shelter. Or you can dig a narrow snow pit in deep snow and insulate the bottom.
*(insert Snow shelter video)*
Dehydration without access to water will become a serious problem fast if you’re lost in the woods. According to the rule of 3’s, you can only live for 3 days on average without water–less when in high temperatures or expending a lot of energy. Even in cold weather, you’ll get dehydrated if you don’t eventually find a water source. Carrying plenty of water and having a good idea of how you can replenish supply is the best preparation before heading out.
Once you find water, the next step is making it safe to drink by filtering and purifying it. Getting sick can vastly hinder survival. It would also be a shame to survive the woods, only to go down with diarrhea or worse afterwards.
Make sure to bring water to a full boil and you’re good to go.
These devices filter water through a screen with pores that prevent bacteria and protozoa from getting through. They’re effective and portable, and unlike chemical tablets, they don’t give water an aftertaste.
Chlorine and iodine tincture and tablets are small, light and effective against bacteria, viruses and protozoa. It can take an hour and leaves an aftertaste but the convenience makes up for it.
**The rule is to always filter or purify the water you find in the wild, be it from a stream, lake, condensation, and such. Any water you drink without treatment will carry the risk of ingesting pathogens. However, treatment is not always possible if you don’t have the right tools. But if the choice is life or death, it’s a risk that you will be forced to take. Luckily, there are methods of collection where water is less likely to carry harmful bacteria.
Streams and rivers
Clear, free-flowing water is your best bet. Bacteria can’t fester in moving water. Sit still and listen carefully, running water can often be heard even from a distance.
Rainwater is usually safe enough in rural, forest areas.
Compared to more urgent needs, food is ranked very low in the list of survival priorities, and that’s for a good reason. Make an inventory of the food you have with you and make a plan on how you can stretch that supply for as long as necessary.
The majority of people lost in the woods are recovered within a few days. If you are going to survive for that long in the wild, eat sparingly from what you do have because your effort is best directed towards regulating body temperature, building a shelter, finding safe water to drink and making it easy for people to find you.
If you get overwhelmed by hungry cravings, take a deep breath and remember that you can survive three weeks or more without food.
But if you absolutely have to eat, try to be 100% sure that the plant is edible. We have a simple guide to eating some of the most common plants that grow in the wild. We’ll be adding more soon too.
For further reading, try this quick Beginner’s Guide to finding edible plants if you’re lost in the woods.
If you have the ability to make fire, and the energy expenditure is worth it (think: eat or risk starvation), try to catch game or fish. Cooking meat will be the better option if you are not entirely sure if the plants near you are safe to eat.
5. Making Fire
Being able to make fire is an indispensable skill to have, especially in cold weather. It’s convenient for staying warm, drying clothes, melting snow to drink, boiling water, sending a distress signal, and more. Lighters, matches and other fire-making equipment are the easiest ways to make fire. But knowing other methods without these conveniences is very important too.
You’ll need a fire source and fuel to start a fire. A lighter is the most convenient tool for fire-making, followed by waterproof matches, and flint and steel. Using a magnifying glass is a movie favorite but it’s not as easy as it seems. Also, the sun won’t always be conveniently present. But if eyeglasses or camera lenses are the only things you have, they work on the same principle as a magnifying glass. The key is lots of patience.
Rubbing two sticks together is a classic method to generate fire is quite tricky to do without prior practice. If you have a knife, you can strike it on a stone to produce a spark. Here’s an article for other creative ways to start a fire.
*(insert article link)*
These should be small, dry material that will easily catch at the touch of fire. Examples are wood shaving, dry leaves, and pine needles. One or two handfuls of these should be enough. Use dry, pencil-sized twigs for kindling. A small handful of kindling should be enough to encourage your fire. Finally, collect as much wood as you can for fuel. The ideal size is not bigger than a forearm.
Only start the fire once you’ve gathered everything you need.
When arranging fuel, place your tinder in the center. Place kindling in a tepee form around the tinder but allow some space in between for air to circulate. Finally, surround the set-up with smaller fuel, then full-sized wood in the same tepee form, allowing for air circulation. Keep adding fuel to keep the fire going.
*(insert Fire-making video)*
How to Find a Way Out
Now that you know you can survive, the next goal is to signal for help or find a way out to make your stay as short as possible.
1. Signal for Help
Once you realize that you’re lost in the woods, one crucial thing to immediately do is to try to get help by attracting attention. Help your rescuers find you faster by letting people know that you’re lost as soon as possible and then signaling your location. Here are a few ways you can do that.
The most obvious and probably the most useful tool for signaling, as long as you have service, would be your phone. Call 911 or the authorities, share your location and let them know if you need medical attention. If the phone reception is weak, make an attempt to call or send a text. This electronic “breadcrumb” may be enough for your rescuers to triangulate your position and find you. Don’t stray far from where you attempted contact.
The thing with being lost is that you have no idea that you can just be 30 feet away from the nearest road…or 30 miles. A high-decibel whistle carries sound farther and requires infinitely less effort than trying to call for help. Sharply blow three times on your whistle at short intervals every hour or so. This pattern of three blasts is a distress signal. If there are people nearby, the signal will let them know that you need help.
Smoke and fire
Fire can not only give you warmth and boil your water, it can also help you signal for help. (So, you know, don’t forget your lighter and matches.) The smoke in daylight and light at night will help draw attention to your location. Adding damp leaves and green vegetation to your fuel will produce more smoke but be careful not to put out the fire. Light three fire in a triangle about a hundred yards from each other to signal distress.
A signal mirror would be handy but any reflective surface would do during daylight, while three flashes from a flashlight will work well at night. Shine the light in the direction where it’s likely to be seen by people. If unsure, turn it every which way, at intervals.
In contrast with the forest backdrop, a moving bright material may broadcast your position. Hang pieces of bright material (clothing, gear, etc) from somewhere high, where it can be moved by a breeze. You can also tie bits of material on a stick and wave it like a flag.
Communicating with Search and Rescue
If you are rescued by air, it won’t hurt to know basic air to ground signal in case you need medical assistance, or if you need to let them know something about the terrain, etc.
2. Look for Signs of People
As we’ve mentioned, the road can be a mere 30 feet to your left and you’ll have no idea. Being observant will be the difference between finding your way out in 10 minutes or being found 10 days later.
Always be on alert and observant. Periodically stop and listen carefully. The sounds of traffic on a well-used road or the chimes of a church bell can travel farther than you’d think.
Scan the area for signs of human activity such as resting spots, old campgrounds, logging sites, and litter. It may lead you to a path or camp. It’s also a good idea to stay near places with signs of human activity. Chances are, if there’d been people there, local rescuers may be familiar with the area.
3. Find Directions
It is advisable to assign a point zero. Staying in one place increases chances of being found. Mark an area and return to it periodically after scouting the surroundings.
Pinpoint Your Location
An open flat terrain will make it easier to look for signs that may tell you where you are. But if you’re in a dense forest, try to find higher ground nearby to give yourself a better view. That said, don’t try anything too risky. The last thing you want is to take a bad fall or to unwittingly walk deeper into the woods.
Try to see if you there are roads, roofs, landmarks or bodies of water, etc. within sight to ground you and point you the right way. Without direction, you may end up walking in circles, wasting time, exhausting your strength and getting more lost. In this case, you’ll be better off staying where you are and signaling for help.
A good advice to follow is: Try not to leave point zero completely until you’re sure that no one is coming to your rescue.
Stick to Open Country
If you are already in open country, then you’re in a good position to find signs of people and civilization. It’s better to get out of the thick forest if you’re nearby. You’ll be easier to spot from the air and may actually be closer to people if the area was cleared for farming or logging.
Remember to flash your signals often so you don’t miss an opportunity to catch the attention of Search and Rescue or any passing pilot. Once spotted, stay where you are. If the plane is unable to land, they will radio your location. But if you have to move, leave a sign on the ground big enough to be seen from above that points in your direction.
On hilly terrain, it’s a good idea to always travel downhill, out of the mountains. You are more likely to encounter people as settlements are usually built in valleys and near water. You’re also going to conserve more energy but go faster heading down than up.
Follow the River
Not only will you be able to quench your thirst (after treating the water), following a river or stream may also save you. As we’ve mentioned, people are more likely to settle near water. It also flows downhill so you can simply follow where it goes and it might lead you to a populated lake or riverside village.
If you are unsure of the directions towards which a slow stream is moving, simply drop some leaves into the water and that will tell you the current’s direction.
How to Prepare and Avoid Getting Lost
Having the skills to survive is well and good but knowing how to avoid needing to use these skills is even better.
1. Do Your Research
Ideally, an avid hiker or backpacker should be first-aid trained, has a know-how in tracking and has an in depth knowledge on edible wild plants. Understandably, this is not possible for everyone. Trekking, camping, trail running, whatever your chosen recreation might be, it’s still important to know crucial information about an area if you intend to go anywhere near the woods.
Especially if you’re planning to stay for a few days, research is a must. No excuses. Ask around or read some blogs. A bit of Google search usually turns up a ton of information. Some questions you should find the answer to are the following:
- What’s the weather forecast?
- What’s it like up there this time of year?
- What are the appropriate survival gears to take?
- Where are the water resources located?
- What are the flora and fauna?
From there, you’ll know what to expect and what to pack. Forewarned is forearmed.
2. Bring the Right Tools
Having the right tools for the right job will increase your chance of survival exponentially. Always make sure to bring at least the ten essentials when hiking or backpacking, then tailor them to the requirements of the specific terrain.
- Navigation tools (compass, map, GPS device, etc)
- Sun protection (sunglasses, UV-protective clothing)
- First Aid Kit
- Fire Starter (lighter and matches)
- Headlamp and Flashlight
- Shelter (e.g. tent, tarp, bivvy)
- Water and water purifier
- Extra food
- Extra insulation (spare clothes, emergency blanket)
- Knife, Multi-tool and Repair Kit
And your phone, never forget to bring a fully-charged phone with credits. What with being a handy communication device and all the nifty things a modern phone can do, it has become an indispensable tool.
By making sure that friends and family know the details of your activity, you’ll always have someone who’ll notice if there’s an emergency and can right away sound the alarm and commence a rescue. Always, always let people know:
a) where you’re going,
b) what you’re doing,
c) for how long, and
d) what route you plan to take.
Better yet, have a designated minder who’ll know your itinerary.
Getting lost is no walk in the park. (It’s a walk in the woods! Hehehe.) Just remember to stay calm and know that you have the knowledge and tools to survive. Now, that you’re better prepared for an adventure in the woods, stay safe and enjoy!