How to Avoid Getting Lost in the Backcountry

Kathleen Roberts
Randy Gerke
Author and survival expert, Randy Gerke

Learn how to avoid getting lost in the backcountry and handle your situation if you should get lost while hiking or camping in this exclusive expert interview with Randy Gerke, outdoor survival expert and author of Outdoor Survival Guide.

It Can Happen to You

LoveToKnow: How common is it to get lost in the backcountry?

Randy Gerke: This is definitely the most frequent wilderness emergency to occur. Every year individuals, and sometimes groups of people and families, become lost or stranded in a variety of circumstances. Some of these mishaps develop into high profile international news stories, but most go unnoticed and many are unreported because they resolve themselves before outside agencies are called in.

I would say that most people who have spent much time in the outdoors in remote areas have been lost, at least for a short time, and those who haven't probably will be in the future. Being lost is no respecter of persons; it can happen to the experienced outdoorsman as well as the novice.

LTK: What situations seem most favorable to getting lost?

RG: People hiking and camping in an unfamiliar area are most susceptible to becoming lost. But scenarios like this not only develop in the wilderness but, surprisingly can happen in rural areas especially during the winter when people become stranded or disoriented because of severe snow storms.

Helpful Tips

LTK: What tips should readers remember if they get lost while camping or hiking?

RG: The key to fixing this situation is recognizing early on that you are lost, and then to immediately stop and begin following an organized plan to get back on track. An individuals pride, lack of attention, and lack of preparation, are dangerous enemies when traveling in unfamiliar territory. It's not a weakness or character flaw to admit that you don't know where you are.

When you discover that you're lost, stop immediately. To continue traveling once you realize you're lost only increases the depth of the problem. It also drastically increases the potential search area that searchers will need to cover during an organized search.

The first thing to do when lost is to stop, stay where you are and begin making a plan that will help you resolve the situation. Don't give in to the emotions and fear you're feeling. This only fuels panic. If you react to it, your situation will only spiral downward and become much worse. You must be methodical and deliberate as you work to solve the problem. It's better to think your way out of being lost than to try and walk yourself out of being lost.

Follow these steps:

  1. Attempt to discover your location. If you have a map of the area, try and match it up with the prominent landmarks in the area. Establish where north, south, east and west are. Take some time with this. You may be able to recognize an important landmark or feature that will put you back on track.
  2. Make a visual survey of the area. Mark the spot where you are with something that's easy to see. Make a marker with rocks or sticks. Begin walking in larger and larger circles out from your marker. Don't loose site of your marker. During this survey, look for recognizable landmarks as well as any tracks you may cross. The tracks may be your own and could lead you back to the place where you first became lost.
  3. Make camp. If you've followed the first two steps without success, then it's time to make camp. Build a shelter and a fire. Do this while it's still light.
  4. Begin signaling. Use visual and audible signals. Three of anything is generally recognized as a distress signal. Three fires in a row or in a triangle, three whistle blasts at regular intervals, three yells or three gunshots. Be creative in drawing attention to yourself. Be patient and don't give up.

How to Avoid Getting Lost in the Backcountry

Have a plan.

LTK: Can you tell readers how to avoid getting lost in the backcountry?

RG: A little pre-planning goes a long way in staying on the right track. Learn to use a map and a compass. Always carry maps of the area with you. GPS units are great, but don't depend on them completely. As with any electronic device, they can malfunction, batteries can go dead, and they can be damaged from water or rough treatment. No matter what technology you choose to use, become proficient with it. Don't wait until you're lost to begin reading the instruction manual for the GPS unit that's in your pack, or to look at your map for the first time.

Before you leave on your adventure, designate a reliable person as your emergency contact. This individual should be given your itinerary and travel plans. He or she should know the description of your vehicle and it's license number, when you're leaving and when you plan to return. If you don't return when expected, the person should notify the appropriate authorities that you may have encountered a problem. Don't forget to notify your designated emergency contact when you return or if your plans have changed.

When hiking, don't just look at your feet. Look for prominent landmarks that are easy to recognize. Make note of them on your map. Occasionally stop and look behind you so you know what the trail looks like from the other direction. This will be valuable on the return trip. You can even carry brightly colored survey tape. Tie it at eye level at intervals on the trail. On your return, collect the tape as you pass. This will give you assurance that you're on the right track.

Anticipate the unexpected. Always be prepared by carrying lightweight survival items with you. If the unexpected happens, you'll be ready. Even when making short day hikes, always carry a few items that can be used if you need to spend the night. Be prepared for changing weather conditions by carrying rain gear and extra clothing. Just because the weather looks good now doesn't mean it will remain that way.

LTK: What dangers should one be aware of while lost in the woods?

RG: In terms of things that present a danger to humans in the wild, let's break those down into categories.

  • Dangerous Animals - Generally in the U.S. there aren't many dangerous creatures that pose a threat to humans. Some regions of the country have more than others. Bears, both Black and Grizzly. Although people can be harmed or killed by bears, it's a very uncommon occurrence. 12 people have been killed in the U.S. since the year 2000. Generally bears as well as other animals avoid humans. When they hear or smell people they are prone to leave the area. If you know you'll be traveling in bear country, you should do some studying and learn how to travel there safely.

Snakes don't usually bother people unless stepped on or provoked. The majority of snakebites happen when people try and handle them. Never place your hands and feet under rocks, logs or other debris without first looking to see what might be under them.

  • Environmental Dangers - By far the most dangerous threat to humans is the environment. The effects of cold and heat cause more deaths than all of the animal related hazards combined. Hypothermia is the most common problem. That's why it's vital to carry some extra gear and know how to build an adequate shelter and fire in a variety of conditions.

LTK: What else should readers know about surviving if they get lost in the wilderness?

RG: The most important survival tool you have is your mind and your attitude. In the big picture, this is more important than any single item you might carry in a survival kit. Survival is really the art of solving problems without the tools you wished you had. Think like a caveman, not a businessman. Learn to improvise and be creative in your approach to the challenges you face. Don't ever give up. There's always a solution; it's just a matter of time before you find it.


LoveToKnow would like to thank Randy Gerke for sharing his tips on how to avoid getting lost in the backcountry. For more excellent information, check out his book, Outdoor Survival Guide.

How to Avoid Getting Lost in the Backcountry