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11 Tips to Avoid Getting Lost Hiking

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Hiking is something that we do to get away from the hustle of everyday life. A hustle that is all too easy to get lost in if you’re not paying close attention to the things that really matter: your family, your friends, and your free time.

One of the best parts about hiking is being lost in the beauty of the trees, wildlife, and sounds all around you. Forgetting about what bills you have to pay, when rent is due, and the busy work week ahead.

Nobody plans on getting lost while hiking, unfortunately, accidents happen. The GPS on your phone is not always going to be there to save you and a little knowledge goes a long way. You don’t have to be an outdoor expert to avoid a bad situation and find your way back in the unfortunate instance when you take a wrong turn.

11 Tips to avoid getting lost while hiking

It doesn’t matter how skilled you are, accidents happen to everyone. One wrong turn and you’re off the trail in unfamiliar and unforgiving territory. Here are 11 steps to take to help you if you get lost while hiking.

1. Let two people know where you’re going

I’m sure you’ve seen the movie 127 hours. If not, here’s the gist of it: A young man with a passion for the outdoors decides to do something that he’s done 100 times before, explore Utah’s Canyonland park. Tragedy strikes and he’s literally stuck between a rock and a hard place and it occurs to him that no one knows where he went or is coming to help. Spoiler alert, he barely gets out and loses an arm in the process.

Before you leave for any backpacking trip, hike, or climb be sure to let at least two people know where you’re headed. This increases your chances of survival tenfold and gives search and rescue teams a general idea of where to start looking.

2. Sign the trail registry

Most established trails offer some sort of place to sign in before you begin your hike. This is what’s known as a trail registry and is usually not much more than a book with weathered pages. You’ll be asked to write down where you’re going, how many people you’re with, a start date, and an expected return date.

While it may seem like a pain in the ass, it can lierally save your life. Nobody likes paying for life insurance or car insurance, however, most of us do it knowing that when we need it, it helps tremendously. The same goes for the trail registry, it seems silly until you need it. Sign the book.

3. Plan ahead and prepare

The number one rule of the Leave No Trace principles is to plan ahead and prepare. There are a number of reasons that you do this, however, understanding the dangers and risks of each and every hike may be the most important. Before you head out, take a look at the terrain, elevation gain, weather reports, and plan accordingly.

In the unfortunate situation that you do get lost, having a general understanding of where you are and the potential pitfalls goes a long way to keeping your sanity and getting home safely.

4. Pack a GPS

Pack a GPS and know how to use it. One of the biggest drawbacks of researching a trail on paper is that it’s common to get information that’s not always entirely accurate depending on the source. Modern GPS units track all kinds of information, most importantly, your location and where you came from.

If you end up off the trail and have no idea where you are or which way to go, a GPS gives you all the information you need to find your way back. They are small handheld units that rely on satellite technology to pinpoint your location, on other words, they are way more reliable than a cell phone.

5. Pack a compass and a map

Modern technology like your phone and GPS have their advantages, however, they also run on batteries which means they can malfunction. A map and a magnetized compass are tried and true tools of outdoor adventurers and explorers all across the globe. Having a paper map and compass to rely on gives you the peace of mind that no matter where you are, you can find your way home.

6. Leave a note on the dashboard

The first thing that search and rescue teams look for in a rescue scenario is the vehicle. This gives them a general idea of where to start looking and increases their chances of finding you. Leaving a note on the dashboard with information such as where you’re going, when you expect to be back, and when you left will increase your chances of being found drastically.

7. Pack the ten essentials

The ten essentials is a systems approach to packing everything that you’ll need in case of an emergency situation hiking. The list covers everything from food to navigation and you should never leave home without it. The items on the list can be modified for your specific adventure, however,  to goal is to be prepared for minor injuries, weather changes, and unexpected delays.

8. Check the weather report

While the accuracy of weather reports are a little sketchy, however, they do give you a pretty good idea of what to expect. Rapidly changing weather conditions can cause havoc on the trail and blur your sense of direction. Take a look at the weather report and avoid hiking if there is any chance of weather that you’re not prepared for.

9. Keep an eye on the sun

Watching the sunrise and set is one of the best parts of every day. That being said, watching the sunset while you’re 6 miles into a 12-mile hike is a little terrifying. Not only is being on a dark trail with no sunlight to guide you upsetting, but it’s also a recipe for disaster. Keep an eye on the sun and remember that there’s no shame in calling a hike a little early so you can safely get back to the car with daylight to spare.

10. Hike responsibly

Hiking responsibility is another way of saying stay on the trail. One of the tenants of the Leave No Trace principles is to travel and camp on durable surfaces and this includes staying on the trail. While the main reason is to preserve the environment, this also keeps you from getting lost attempting to blaze your own trail.

11. STOP

If you do find that you’re off the trail and have no idea where you are or how to get home, stop. If you panic and rush to get back to familiar territory it’s easy to become disoriented and worsen the situation.

STOP is a nifty little acronym that can help you stay calm and collected if you end up lost in the woods.

  • Stay: Staying put and waiting for help is often the best plan, even though it may not seem like it at the time.
  • Think: Stay calm and take a look at the map and compass, think about where you are and where you came from.
  • Observe: Take a look at your surroundings and see if you recognize any landmarks.
  • Plan: Brainstorm you’re next step and solutions to the situation, maybe you camp out or mark the trail going forward. Whatever you do, just make a plan and stick to it.

While these steps aren’t going to magically fix the situation, they do give you a defined method for getting back on track. The most important thing you can do is stay calm and make a plan to get home, and of course, think and observe somewhere in the middle.


Getting lost while hiking is a scary thought and the repercussions are real and potentially deadly. It’s a scary situation that happens to the seasoned hikers and backpackers. As long as you understand how to avoid getting lost while hiking and know how to react if you do end up taking a wrong turn, hiking is generally a safe activity.

The most important thing to remember in an emergency situation is to stay calm and make a plan. Take the necessary precautions, prepare for the worst and plan for the best. Hiking is a fun activity and just like anything else in life accidents happen. It’s how you react to the accidents that make all the difference in the world.

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