How Not to Get Lost While Outdoors

Getting lost while out in the field or on the water can happen to the best outdoorsman: the trail disappears, directions get confused, a change in the weather forces you away from familiar landmarks

There may come a time, if it hasn’t happened already, that you can’t seem to get your bearings. Suddenly the thin tether between you and civilization has broken. You’re no longer just “getting away from it all.” You’re lost.


But take heart; losing your way doesn’t have to happen. A bit of prevention can make the difference between just another day in the woods and the sad stories told about folks who don’t make it home – ever.

Map and Compass

To avoid getting lost, you must know approximately where you are at all times. The most reliable way to do this is with a map and compass. Learn to use these tools, then never leave home without them.

The best maps provide detailed information about the “lay of the land” (shape, elevation, etc.) and physical features such as woodlands, streams, lakes, roads and trails. The 7.5-minute topographic maps (with a scale of 1:24,000) produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and various companies fit the bill and are widely available. Do an online search to find a source, then buy those you need for the area you plan to visit and learn how to use them with your compass.


Compasses come in many varieties. Among the best for most outdoorsmen are the base-plate types pioneered by Silva. With one of these, taking a bearing on a distant landmark is simple. This compass also can be aligned with the edge of a topo map to give a precise bearing between two mapped positions.

The only fly in the ointment is that you must take into consideration declination, which is the difference between magnetic north and the true north that is marked on the map. (The angle of declination is marked at the bottom of the map.) To compensate, use a ruler and pencil to overlay the vertical north-south lines on your map with a series of diagonal north-south lines corresponding to the magnetic declination. You also can adjust by lining up your compass with the angled declination line on your map.

A good base-plate compass costs $15 to $20, and if you visit backcountry woodlands, you should obtain a manual such as the Boy Scouts’ Fieldbook, then practice on open terrain before taking to the woods. Better yet, sign up for an orienteering course or get an experienced buddy to teach you. Compass navigation is simple, but can seem complex when described in text. With an instructor beside you, you’ll pick it up in no time.


In the Field

Keep your map and compass handy, and use them as you travel. Look for landmarks periodically to make sure you know where you are and that you’re heading in the right direction.

Now and then, things may not be where you thought they were. By catching these little mistakes as you make them, you can compensate and get back on the right path. It’s a good idea to: 1) mark your progress on your maps, 2) take a bearing whenever you move between obvious landmarks, and 3) look over your shoulder now and then to see what landmarks will look like upon your return.

The key phrase here is “pay attention.” Pay attention to where you’re going, where you’ve been and where you are.

Navigation Tips

There’s not much excuse for getting lost if you follow two rules of compass navigation.

First, always trust that your compass is more reliable than your sense of direction. If you think your truck is one way and your compass tells you the opposite, believe the compass.

Second, plan your outing with regard to lines of reference such as roads, trails, power lines, streams or other features that follow relatively straight courses. For example, I often fish a backcountry oxbow lake just east of a north-south running river. No matter how aimlessly I wander, I can always find my way back to the river by heading west.

If you’re prone to getting lost, limit your excursions to areas bordered all around by straight-line features such as those mentioned above. Then, if worse comes to worst, you can travel a straight line until your path intersects one of the edge areas you can follow back to your starting point.

Finding your way within large tracts of unbroken forest, especially in flat terrain, can be unusually troublesome. In this situation, consider using markers to direct your return. In the wildlife refuge where friends and I fish, we flag a line from camp to a lake along which returning fishermen will travel. Brightly colored surveyor’s flagging tape tied to branches does the job well. When fishing till dusk, we add reflective twist-ties purchased at a sporting goods store. These glow brightly in a flashlight’s beam.

What About GPS?

Position-finding is simple with GPS (Global Positioning System) technology. Push a button, and satellite triangulation renders your position to your GPS unit’s screen. You then can look at your topo map and determine your position to within a few yards. If you stored the location of your vehicle or camp in the system’s memory, the unit will give you its bearing and tell you how far you must travel to reach it. A backtracking feature can retrace your steps to each waypoint locked in during your outdoor excursion.

GPS technology is among the greatest navigational aids ever invented. It’s great for relocating good fishing areas, and for keeping you on the right track when fishing remote waters. But for many outdoorsmen, GPS becomes a substitute for good woodsmanship. It encourages some unprepared people to wander farther than they should in country where they shouldn’t. And if night falls or severe weather sets in before they can get back out, these folks may wind up in severe trouble, even though they know exactly where they are.

If you’re considering the use of GPS, first lay the groundwork with map and compass. This is a more careful system of navigation, and develops the skill of knowing where you are inside your head, without having to punch a button.

Even with GPS, you should carry a map and compass to keep on course between checkpoints. If your batteries go out, if your reception is poor, or something else happens to your GPS, you’ll be glad you have them.

Always carry spare batteries for your GPS.

If You Think You’re Lost

Despite our best intentions, we may still find ourselves disoriented. Daniel Boone said he had never been lost, but he did admit to being “mighty disoriented for several days in a row.”

If you think you’re lost, don’t panic. Usually, if you sit and calmly reflect for a few minutes, mentally retracing your steps, the solution to the situation becomes clear.

Take out your map and compass and try to determine where you are if you haven’t been following along as you go. If you can’t determine your position, see if there are obvious landmarks you can try to reach. If you start feeling panicky, stop, calm down and collect your thoughts. Trying to find your way out under the stress of frustration and/or fear invites disaster.

Assess the situation. How long have you been lost? Mentally trace your thoughts back to the last point where you knew your location. How long ago was that? In what general direction have you been travelling since then?

If you have a compass, use it now to get your bearings. “I came from thataway and that’s northwest, but I started walking south, so the trail must have slowly looped ...” and so forth. Even if you don’t have a compass, try to approximate this kind of location-sense while your memories are fresh.

If you haven’t been lost long and are in safe terrain, you may try retracing your steps. Hike in the direction from which you came, keeping careful track not only of orientation but of time. If you’ve been lost for ten minutes but a ten-minute walk doesn’t return you to your trail, you’re just getting more lost. In such a case, pause and return to your original location, then try again.

Try tracking yourself. You weren’t on a trail, so you probably left tracks or other sign you can follow in reverse. If circumstances suggest further wandering may be hazardous (night is falling, cliffs abound), then you may want to stay put and wait for rescue.

Remember: if you’re properly prepared; if you told a family member or close friend where you were going, when you were leaving and when you planned to return; if you carry a survival kit that can get you through the night or a few days alone; if you’re mentally up to unexpected challenges; then getting lost should be nothing more than an inconvenience. If you’re really prepared, though, you’ll never get lost in the first place.

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