What to Do if You get Lost in the Woods

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Idaho is full of endless opportunities for outdoor recreation, but with opportunity can come danger. It happens to the best of us—you’re out for a hike, either alone or in a group, and suddenly find yourself directionless. You don’t recognize your surroundings, and you don’t quite know which direction from which you’ve come. You don’t have any tools to help you find your bearings, and you only have a few hours before sunset. You’re lost.

Getting lost in the Idaho wilderness can feel like the end of the world; the trees are thick and tall, and the forest can seem to stretch forever. However, you don’t need to be a survival expert to find your way back to civilization (though it certainly helps). Stay calm and remember these five tips.


Use the STOP Method

Stay Calm, Think, Observe, and Plan. Panic is your worst enemy, so take a few deep breaths to calm down. Think through your situation—were you traveling in a straight line, or were there several twists and turns? Did you pass any familiar spots? Were you traveling north? Answering any of these questions can be useful. If you can’t figure out which direction is north, look for obvious landmarks, footprints, and clues that may lead you back to your original footpath. Then determine your plan of action, but do so with caution. Mark your progression with rocks, cairns, or sticks to find your way back.


Pinpoint your Location

Look around you. If the forest is dense, pinpointing your location can be difficult. If possible, find higher ground to give yourself a better view of the surrounding landscape. If finding higher ground is not easy, don’t go searching for it; conserve your energy.


Look for Signs of People

Be observant and periodically scan the area for signs of human activity. Look for old campsites, cut tree stumps, fishing line, food wrappers, or any type of litter. If you find any evidence, examine your surroundings to determine which way the people went. This is likely evidence of a trail or nearby road that can lead you out. Additionally, don’t forget to listen carefully. The sound of a road can be heard a fair distance away, even through dense forest.


Travel Downhill

If you are completely lost, your best choice is almost always to travel downhill. People tend to settle in valleys, often close to water. Unless you have seen signs of people at higher elevations, head down and out of the mountains. Additionally, you will be able to cover more terrain and conserve energy while traveling downhill. If you come across a stream or river, follow it in the direction the water is running.