In this article, I’m going to be sharing some of the best tips I’ve learned (the hard way) on how to not get lost in the woods and it will encompass preparation tips, what to do if it actually happens and more.
I’ve gotten lost in the woods on too many occasions (especially when I first began hiking seriously) and this is something that happens very frequently to hikers, even experienced ones and knowing how to not do that is key, and in some cases necessary for literal survival.
In my case, over the many times this has happened, my experience has built up to a point where not only does this situation happen less frequently, but whenever it does still occur, I’m able to figure out where I am very quickly, and exactly how to navigate back to where I need to go to get home.
And this is the experience I will be sharing with you today, and just as well sharing some of my not so pleasant stories of getting lost in the woods. The goal here is to help you avoid the unpleasant learning curve I went through and should you encounter the same situations, to be able to know how to get out of them.
Here are some very beginner friendly tips on how to not get lost in the woods:
- Do easy and short trails if you’re a beginner (it’s good/safer practice).
- Know how to follow trail markers and backtrack trails.
- Know how to stay calm when you feel like you’re lost in the woods.
- Make sure to pack accordingly when you go hiking (just in case).
- Use reliable mapping apps and have physical copies of a map to navigate.
I’ll be getting into these shortly to give you some further context and examples, but these are the most basic and honestly best tips I’ve had to learn the hard way over the many miles I’ve done (and gotten lost on).
These tips have honestly kept my head cool in serious situations and have guided me back onto the trail, back to my car and then home safely.
My video tutorial on how to not get lost in the woods (read trail markers, maps and more):
Some personal stories of me getting lost in the woods (and how I got out):
1) High Point State Park (the most embarrassing one):
I was doing a very short 1.5 mile loop hike in High Point State Park and to reach it, you had to park 1/4 miles away, walk to the circle, then work your way around the trail clockwise. I figured there was no way I could ever get lost here and just decided to jog it.
At some point on the trail, I ran across a cool looking bridge (the one you see above). I continued to run and figured I’d see the exit eventually. I kept running and running, and guess what?
I eventually crossed the exact same bridge and at first, I thought it was another bridge on a different side of the loop (yes, I was idiot), but a few seconds of objective thinking made me realize I ran past the exit and continued on the same loop.
I wasn’t exactly lost but man was I discouraged after literally getting lost on a short loop trail. To get out, I backtracked and carefully looked for the trail head exit, which I did find, shortly after which I got back to my car.
2) Harriman State Park (I’ve gotten lost here more times than I can count):
I’ve done numerous hikes Harriman State Park and just as well have also gotten lost several times on it too. For this situation, I’ll be sharing 2 major stories of how that happened:
The first is when I was doing the short (3.5 miles), but confusing Reeves Brook Loop trail, which involved hiking through 4 different colored trails.
The markers on this trail were really hard to spot and in some cases, I ran off trail thinking I was on the right path, only to stop noticing trail markers after awhile. I had to backtrack numerous times to find the right path and wasted at least an hour on this (but eventually did get home safe). This was also one of the hikes I did where I learned that relying on Alltrails was not always a good idea (it confused me a lot too).
The second time was literally a few days ago, when in the same park, I decided to run a custom trail I came up with, where I would pass at least 8 or 9 different colored trails over a 10+ mile hike. Here is a map of that trail:
For about the first 50% of the hike, I was fine, but the lack of good trail markers and the fact that some trails intersected with one another and didn’t actually show that, confused me often. And having started that trail around 12:30 p.m, I would end up finishing at around 6:30 p.m.
This was one of the most worrisome experiences I ever had because I must have gotten lost at least 7-8 times, was getting cramps (with miles to go), no civilization in sight, and the sun was quickly setting.
I was very panicked throughout the latter half of this hike, but this was a very productive experience for how to not get lost in the woods. I did get out, kept a calm head and found my way back to the car (and it ended up being a 13 mile hike).
3) Coyote Gulch:
This isn’t a getting lost in the woods example, but it does involve the desert and that may actually be worse, because in this case (Coyote Gulch), I was hiking through very uneven and confusing terrain and having to follow rock clusters which were used as markers, as well as my compass.
I did this hike twice, because the first time, I actually did get lost on this trail and had to rely on a compass to return back to my car. Here, besides there being no reception and me being in the great no man lands of Grand Staircase Escalante, the sun was also setting quickly, the temperatures were dropping quickly and I had to make sure the unreliable hiking buddy I was with at the time was safe too (He didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation and was not very physically fit either).
The second time, I was pretty good because the terrain and environment were familiar to me and that helped keep me calm and get through this hike safely. I have many more experiences to share, but these 3-4 were the most notable and really helped me get that much needed experience to avoid getting lost in the woods in the future (and if I did, being able to get out).
By the way, if you have stories of getting lost in the woods, I’d love to know about it and how you got out! Share your story below!
But anyway, with these stories shared, let me get to the tips I shared earlier and detail them further:
1) Do easy and short trails if you’re a beginner (it’s hard to get lost in the woods then):
Too often, people who are inexperienced at hiking and doing basic things like reading trail markers embark on advanced trails they have no business being on. This is asking for trouble.
The last hike I mentioned where I got lost on (at Harriman State Park that ended up being 13 miles), in the very early parts of it, I met a mom and daughter who were hiking a much shorter version of the loop I was doing (3 miles).
They asked me for directions and I asked them several questions:
- Do you have a picture of the map/trail you’re doing?
- Do you know which trail you’re actually doing?
- Did you bring the enough water and food just in case?
To all of these questions, the answer was “no”.
I had to give them the most basic directions to get back to where they started, but this was such an eye opener for how often unprepared people go on hikes they have no business being on.
This is literally asking for trouble. In their case, they didn’t even know they had to make turns and go to a different colored trail to get back to their car.
Now when I was new to this, I admit, I made the same mistakes, but the point in this tip is simple:
Do easy trails when you’re new. The easy trails are easy to navigate through and not get lost on. It’s also a good stepping stone for building experience to hike more advanced trails later.
How can you tell if a hike is easy or beginner friendly? Research it prior! Go to AllTrails.com, find the trail you want to do, read the reviews and then decide if you want to do it. Also check out my post on how to find easy hikes near me (great resource for that).
2) Know how to follow trail markers and backtrack if necessary:
Trail markers are colored icons marked on trees, rocks and the ground to help you navigate to the next step of the trail and help you get to where you need to go. Make sure to download a map of the trail/s you’re doing before going because depending on which park/area you’re in, you may have different colors for different trails.
In places like the desert, you will often find made made rock clusters that act as trail markers (they are called karins) .
Staying on the trail is literally one of the key points to not getting lost in the woods and while reading them is easy, sometimes you will run into these types of situations:
1) You are jogging and looking down and miss the next trail marker. This steers you off trail very quickly. Solution: Make sure to go slow and look for the markers. I’ve missed numerous trail markers by trail running, looking down and missing the next one.
2) Sometimes the trail markers are very far apart from one another. In this case if you’re going on what looks like a trail but not seeing any new markers, backtrack to the previous one, and see what looks to be the most obvious way to go. Follow that for awhile until you see the next marker. Backtrack once more if that doesn’t happen and just go back the way you came if you can’t proceed further.
3) Sometimes, trails will intersect with others and be shown as 2 colored trails (red and blue for example). Sometimes they won’t appear that way every time. In Harriman State Park, on certain mixed trails, I sometimes saw just red markers and sometimes just blue markers on a trail I knew was mixed and it confused me at first until I realized it’s just how they are marked.
This got me lost several times.
Here’s a simple way to look at trail markers:
You’ll most commonly see single trail icons and they will help you proceed.
Sometimes, you will see 2 or more markers such as to the right:
If you’re coming from the bottom (and working your way up), and you see this type of trail marker, it means you have to shift right to continue the trail.
Now if you were to doing this trail the opposite way and starting from the top, working your way down and you saw this marker, it would mean you would have to shift left to continue the trail.
Look for these markers very carefully when you’re hiking, and this is especially important for a first time trail you’re on.
When you already know the land and have been on the trail, it’s easier to cut corners, but as a guide, always stick to following the trail markers.
3) Know these 9 things to do if you actually do get lost in the woods:
One of the most difficult things to come to grips with is that when you’re lost in the woods, and that panic sets in, it’s tough to stop. In my cases, the times I got lost in the woods, I was alone and having another person with you then would likely make it easier to deal with the situation, but not many people are up for the kinds of trails I do.
Anyway, that panic is not something I’d ever wish on anyone and for anyone who has been lost in the woods before and freaking out, you know exactly how uncomfortable that feeling is.
Yet, if you’re going to make it out of the woods and get back home, you have to keep a clear head. There’s just no other choice.
Here’s are the 9 things I recommend:
1) Breath: Stop and calm your breathing. Focus on that as it takes your mind off the situation.
2) Know that freaking out isn’t going to help you. It is a downward spiral and it doesn’t get better if you let it take hold.
3) If you have cell phone reception, use AllTrails or similar apps. Alltrails has maps for many trails you do and can often show you the GPS location of where you’re at on the trail and this can help you get out. I strongly recommend reading that article to see how I use it to avoid getting into a situation where I’m lost in the woods.
If you can’t do that, you can at least call 911 and get help.
4) Backtrack to the last marker you were on. This will help you stabilize and know that at that point on the trail, you’re at least on the actual trail. From there you can look at a map (always have a map) and see where to go next (make sure your map is facing the proper way so you know where north, south, east and west are).
5) Backtrack the trail entirely if necessary. If you’re not getting anywhere further on the trail and are actually getting lost, you’ll have more difficult getting out. It’s best to just cut your losses here and backtrack the trail markers you’re at familiar with already back to your car.
6) Start a trail very early in the morning. The more time you have to navigate and the more daylight there is, the more options you have. Hiking when the sun is setting is not a good idea and there’s very little odds you can actually navigate at night.
7) Avoid trail running/hiking in the fall (unless you’re experienced). Generally, when fall sets in and the leaves fall, they can cover up a lot of trail areas and make it more difficult to navigate. Unless you’re familiar with a trail or it’s truly very easy and short, I’d avoid hiking it when the fall hits.
8) Let someone who is reliable know where you’re going. In case something goes wrong, you can at least have that someone call the police and inform them of where you’re missing.
9) Sign in at the trail head if it’s available. Many trails have a sign in sheet you can enter your name and info on and this is often used to find people who enter trails and run into issues.
4) Make sure to pack accordingly when you go hiking (just in case):
Besides knowing how long the trail you’re going to be hiking on is, make sure to absolutely pack accordingly when you go. I typically carry:
- A hydration backpack that can hold 3 liters of water (see something like the Salomon Hydra Vest for example).
- Another bottle of water with either apple cider vinegar or a little bit of salt in it (for stopping cramps).
- A incredibly helpful product I’ve been taking with me recently is pH pHour Salts (they help a lot).
- Some packaged snacks (nothing that smells so as to not attract animals) for calories in case I get hungry.
- A Lifestraw just in case I ever run out of water.
You can’t just rely on drinking water on a trail. And you have to be careful when you drink too much water and you’re sweating because sweat will take away salt in your body and cause you to get cramps and trust me, a cramp is one of the last things you want on a trail (as I learned the hard way).
That’s a situation where you may just have to call 911 to get out. But having a salt drink or food with salt can help prevent that problem.
5) Use reliable map apps, a compass and (especially) take pictures of trail maps:
People, do not be stupid. No matter how well you think you know a trail, always take a picture of the actual trail map before you go. It’s a simple 1 second click on your phone to take a picture of it.
I also recommend if possible getting a colored picture of the map if it’s available (some are black and white which makes it annoying to read). This is actually something I dislike certain map makers for. For example, in Mohonk Preserve, their maps are very poorly colored and while the trails are short there, you can get lost because there’s very little color to help you navigate.
Besides taking the picture, get AllTrails.com as an app on your phone folks. This is huge for double checking if you’re on the right path. They are free and their paid upgrade can actually help you track where you’re going. There is a (priceless) navigation option that tracks your path so you can backtrack correctly if you do get lost.
Compasses. I have a compass app on my phone so if necessary, I can look at the map on my phone, and see that the trail is supposed to go north. Then I cross check it with my compass to see if that’s the case and I’ll know I’m going in the right direction.
Worse case scenarios and what to do you are actually lost in the woods, can’t backtrack or call 911:
While your first go to options should be: Backtracking and calling 911, sometimes people get so far off a trail that getting back is just out of the question because that may lead to further confusion on where you’re actually at.
In those cases, provided you’re in the actual woods, one good rule of thumb people follow is this:
- Head down hill.
- Find a stream/river.
- Follow that to a road.
- Follow the road to civilization, and get help or a ride back to your car.
This should only be used as a last case resort.
The good news: The more experience you get at hiking in the woods, the less you’ll get lost on them.
This is what my experience has been. Before I’d freak out when I got lost, but today, I am far more calm and collected when this happens (much less frequently) and I’m able to navigate back on track pretty quickly. In fact:
I’ve done many hikes after having the bad experiences I listed above, and each time, the lost part of the hike gets less and less, and I’m able to more easily hike and get to where I needed faster and faster. For example, there have been many hikes I’ve done that would be considered complex (no trail markers, maps or stuff) and thanks to the experiences I’ve had that “built me up”, I was able to find what I was looking for.
- The secret gorge waterfall in the North Shore of Minnesota. This has NO maps and I had to follow my instincts.
- The Chasm of Doom hike which has no map.
- Hikes in Pinnacles National Park (had to plan a quick loop around the map and didn’t get lost once).
- Many hikes in Sedona like Soldiers Pass Cave, as well as the Subway Cave in Sedona too (just common sense, a compass and composure got me there).
I like to challenge myself and give myself some tougher trails to check out, but I’m a little crazy and for me, this is a requirement. Yet no matter how much experience I get, I never let my confidence turn to cockiness because that leads to misfortunes.
For you, don’t do stupid things when you go on trails, only hike where you’re 100% comfortable going and you’ll be able to avoid 99% of the problems in these spots.
Other questions about getting lost in the woods that you may find interesting:
How do I stop being lost in the woods?
Make sure you stick to easy trails when you hike to avoid getting lost in the woods. Then if you do go on advanced trails, make sure you are not alone and are with experienced people too who can help guide you back.
How common is it to get lost in the woods?
It is very common to be lost in the woods unfortunately and it can happen instantly if you are not on a specific trail or looking for specific trail markers.
How do you avoid getting lost while hiking?
The best way to avoid getting lost when you’re hiking is to be on a marked trail, have a map of it and know where you’re going and if you do get lost, backtrack to the last trail marker and follow it back home.
How many people get lost in the woods per year?
Some estimates say over half a million people get lost in the woods every year (and are never found) while an even greater number gets lost, but either find their way back or have to be rescued.
And with that said, I want to thank you for reading this post and I hope it helped you properly prepare for situations on how to get out of the woods if you’re lost! If you have any questions, let me know below! And I would love to hear your stories on this topic as well!