Life in the outdoors carries an extremely rare, but terrifying risk. The risk of getting lost. Losing a trail, getting caught in weather, getting separated from your party and other extenuating circumstances can lead to getting lost, which is the worst case scenario for anyone who lives for adventure. The most important thing to remember when you get lost is to remain calm. Panicking will get you nowhere, literally. There’s always a way out. Just remember the S.T.O.P. acronym:
S – Stop. Just stop. The realization that you are lost is going to set off your fight or flight response and will send you into a fit of hurried panic. This can lead to you aimlessly wandering around unfamiliar areas, ultimately ending up with you becoming even further away from where you need to be. Hours could seem like minutes due to the haze of this primal response. This is the most critical time for you to limit the damage and increase your chances of being found. Drink water. Eat food. Stop. Collect yourself by taking deep breaths. Stay where you are. Be of stable mind before you assess your situation. The first step is acknowledging that you are lost, then moving forward from there.
T – Think. Start asking yourself simple, necessary questions. What landmarks have you passed? Who was the last person you saw? Is someone looking for me? Last person you talked to? When was the last time you recognized your surroundings? When did you last have cell coverage? What direction are you facing? The average hiker travels at only two miles an hour. You probably aren’t as lost as you think.
O – Observe. Take landmarks into account. How much daylight do you have left? Is there a vantage point somewhere close so you can get your bearings? What’s the terrain like? What kind of resources do I have at my disposal? Take out your camera or phone and see if you can recognize anything in the background of a picture you recently took. Pay attention to the weather. Look for materials for shelter in case you have to sleep outside. What kind of wildlife can I expect to encounter? Is there freshwater nearby? Shelter, food and water and staying warm should be your top priorities.
P – Plan. At this point, you have assessed your situation. Now you need a plan. Under no circumstances should you move without a plan. Do not aimlessly wander in hopes of stumbling across some sort of civilization. If you can’t retrace your steps, the fastest way out of heavily forested areas is to move downhill. The lower 48 states are littered with old state highways and back roads. The odds are that you are never more than 10 miles from a road in the continental US. Even the most remote regions of the US, like Yellowstone or the Rocky Mountains, are less than 25 miles from roads, trails or railways. At the most, you are never more than a 10-12 hour hike from being found as long as you head in the right direction. Make a plan and stick to it.
The best way to prevent getting lost is to have redundancies at your disposal. A paper map, a two-way GMRS radio, a compass, portable weather radio and a firestarting kit are all things any hiker should have in their pack. Prepare for the unexpected.