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What To Do If You Get Lost in the Woods

Updated on May 24, 2013

You've passed that stump before. And there's where you skinned your knee. The big red boulder by the willow tree? There's no doubt now: you're lost.

But don't panic! If you keep your head, you can make it back to camp in no time!

It all looks the same - or does it?
It all looks the same - or does it? | Source


Firstly - and most importantly - DON'T PANIC. If you panic, your chances of getting home plummet. So take a deep breath, hold it a moment, and let it out. Tell yourself that you will get home safely - and believe it! The 'power of positive thinking' isn't a joke.

Mossy Tree
Mossy Tree | Source

Note: The Rocky Mountains have electro-magnetic fields that disrupt the compass's natural functioning and cause it to point falsely. Use compasses with caution there.

Get Oriented

Before you can figure out where your camp is, you need to know which way you're facing. If you have a compass, this part is easy. If you don't have a compass, or if it is unreliable, you can find your way with these woodsmen's tips:

  • Moss Density: Moss thrives in wet, cool climates. The sun's warmth dries whatever it shines on. In the northern hemisphere, the sunlight comes from an angle, the south side of things getting full sun, and the north side none (the southern hemisphere is opposite this).
    Use a pocket knife or sharp rock to determine where the moss is thickest. Remember to take several samples from different places: you don't want to be thrown off by unusual conditions.
  • Sunlight Angle: What's the time? Since the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the sun can give you an idea of which direction is which. Remember that the sun's path tilts to the south (in the northern hemisphere) during the winter!

An average compass
An average compass | Source
  • Landmarks: Perhaps you can see a peak from where you are? If you know where the peak is in relation to your camp - bingo! (It has to be very far away, or it won't help to orient you at all.)
  • Listen: I was once lost in the woods in the middle of the night. For a second, I was a little worried, I'd forgotten my compass, and had no way to make light to check moss, it was a cloudy night - then I heard the highway. Bingo! I knew where the highway was, so I made my way in that direction.
    A river or brook would work too. Follow the sound!

Orion's belt
Orion's belt | Source

If You're Lost at Night:

  • Stars: If you know your astronomy, you can use the constellations to find your way.
  • The moon: If it's shortly after sunset, the light on the moon will be on the west side.


  • Go in a Straight Line: If you keep turning and wandering around it will take longer for you to find your way home, if you ever do.
  • If you find a river, try following it. People fish and swim in rivers, and kayak and hike along rivers; you're more likely to be found near a river, just watch your step.

If You're Lost at Night:

  • Use a Flashlight: Get attention by waving it in the air. In the dark of the woods, a flashlight might be noticed.

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An ounce of preparation...

You can minimize the danger of getting lost by following these tips:

  • Make sure someone knows where you're going any time you leave sight of the camp.
  • Always check before leaving camp that you have your water and compass with you, and maybe even some food.
  • Keep a lookout for landmarks, these will help you find your way back.
  • Stick to the paths. In many places, it is illegal to wander off the path. Even if it's allowed, think carefully and make sure you are prepared.
  • Keep an eye out for snakes, especially on warm days. Snakes like warmth, and large warm rocks are prime places to find them.
  • Carry a whistle with you. If you get lost, you can blow three quick blasts on it: the universal distress signal. If you don't have a whistle, use your voice: yell or scream. Don't be embarrassed of being lost, just get safe!
  • Keep an eye on the time. Make sure you have time to get back to camp before dark, unless you're an experienced hiker.
  • Take your cell phone. You may not get service, but it's worth a try.



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    • Jordan Hake profile image

      Jordan Hake 4 years ago from Southwest Missouri, USA

      Thanks, c mark walker. I'm glad you liked it.

    • c mark walker profile image

      Charles Mark Walker 4 years ago from Jasper Georgia

      Jordan,good advice,I especially like your first line,"Don't panic" which is so important in many aspects of life.