Writers and lyricists often romanticize the idea of getting lost in the woods. But in real life, getting lost in the woods can be a lot more dangerous and daunting, especially if you don’t know basic survival skills.
Don’t worry though, you don’t have to be Tarzan or Bear Grylls to be able to survive in the woods. A bit of guidance and training can help you a lot.
Assuming you are on this page because you want to be prepared, let’s get right to it. Here’s a handy guide for you on how to survive in the woods, and eventually find a way out in case you get lost.
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The United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service’s website suggests the STOP method for when you get lost. STOP stands for four things:
S is for Stop
When you realize you are lost, stop immediately. Stop moving, stand where you are, and just pace yourself. Getting lost can cause a lot of panic and anxiety. Instead, try to regain composure by practicing deep breathing. While your first instinct will be to keep frantically moving in any direction, you need to stop and take stock of your situation.
T is for Think
Once you have managed to regain your bearings, try to calm yourself down enough to think clearly about how you got where you are. Can you recall a particular path? Do you remember any distinct landmarks? A gnarly tree that looked like a cloud, or perhaps a little river that you happened to pass by could be clues to help you find your way back home.
Try to think of the route you were initially following, and do not move at all until you have a specific reason to move in the direction you choose.
O is for Observe
Being observant is key to finding your way out of the woods in case you are lost. Instead of wandering, try to observe your surroundings and understand your terrain better.
If you have a compass, this is the time to whip it out and check your directions. But, in case you have no access to the internet or digital devices, don’t panic. Humans have survived without technology for years, and you can too.
Look for trails left by previous hikers. Most trails have markers on them to help you find your way out. If you’re lost in the wilderness, try to find streams or drainage passages and follow them downstream. In most cases, these streams lead to roads or areas of habitation.
P is for Plan
Based on what you have observed, try to come up with a plan. While you need to focus on finding your way out, stay put if you are injured or extremely unsure about your route. Try to analyze your situation and whether it would be safe to travel if it is after sunset.
What if You Get Stuck?
Most people who lose their way in the woods are eventually rescued, or manage to find their way out.
In most cases, family and friends file missing persons’ reports, and local police end up combing through the forest or mountain where you were last seen.
According to Dan Baird, a search-and-rescue team member in Placer County in California, it takes search-and-rescue teams an average of three days to find you. But in any case, if ever you’re stuck in the woods waiting for help, these tips will help:
Look for Water Sources
People can survive for up to 40 days without food, but dehydration will kill you in under two weeks. So, try to find a source of fresh water.
Caves and freshwater streams are your best bet.
Springs are a great source of groundwater, while lakes and ponds are surface water sources. Boil river or lake water for three minutes before drinking.
In case you don’t have a fire source or a container. Rainwater or dew on tree leaves can be an excellent, and safer source of drinking water.
Avoid lakes with no vegetation, or lakes covered in algae, since the water may not be clean for consumption.
Make sure to set up your camp at least 200 feet away from the water body, so you allow passage to local wildlife.
Don’t Drink Your Urine
While this is a popular myth, drinking your urine if you don’t have water actually makes you more thirsty and dehydrated.
After dehydration, the next thing you have to watch out for is hypothermia. In some climates, nights can get really cold, and you need to be able to warm yourself by making a fire using wood and any kindling that you can find. In case you are wearing wet clothes, take them off to prevent catching hypothermia. Wrap yourself in your safety blanket if you have one.
When looking for food, forage for plant byproducts like fruits, berries, and edible flowers and roots. In case you have the right gear, insects or small game can also be hunted and roasted over a makeshift fire.
However, do not risk injury trying to hunt animals if you do not have the skills or equipment to do so. Remember, you can survive for many weeks without food, or with limited food. It is far more dangerous breaking your ankle while trying to chase a rabbit than it is to go a few days without eating.
Keep Track of Sounds
Keep your ears open for any kind of human activity and sounds. A keen sense of hearing can also track streams and anticipate approaching wild animals, both of which are essential to surviving the woods.
Navigate with Nature
Make a Sundial
In case you are stuck without a GPS, try to navigate by following the sun. You can do so by propping a stick about 3 feet long on a flat patch of land, and marking the shadow of its top.
Now, you have to wait some time and look again; the stick’s shadow would have moved, with the second mark now being to the left of the first. This is east, and your first mark is west. This is a rough calculation, and of course, the sun is not the most dependable compass, but it can be your best bet in extreme cases.
Consult the Moon for Directions
At night, you can turn to the moon to understand your location and make sense of the directions a bit. While the moon itself has no light, it glows with reflected light from the sun. The shape of the moon can thus help you find due north.
The bright side of the moon always faces the Earth, and can offer a line connecting east to west. In the case of crescent moons, join the two horns of the crescent and draw a connecting line. Then extend this line to the horizon. According to some, this can help you find due north.
Don’t Ignore Your Body
Heat exhaustion, broken or sprained bones, or a light fever can all turn fatal in the woods if you don’t take the proper precautions to protect your body. Don’t ignore smaller problems or injuries, as they may turn into more significant problems later. Treat minor cuts and scrapes immediately with whatever sanitizer and antiseptic is available to you. Several plants also have antiseptic qualities; these include aloe vera, yarrow, and goldenrod.
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Is There a Way to Avoid Getting Lost?
Most backpackers, hikers, and mountaineers have had the experience of getting lost at least once. But, that does not mean rookies can’t avoid getting lost in the first place. To give yourself the best chance of not losing your way:
- Tell your friends and family where you are going,
- Research the areas you are visiting beforehand
- Take a GPS unit and portable power bank to keep it charged
- Carry a compass and extra batteries for your phone as navigation backups
Covering All Your Bases
For any trek into the wilderness, it is absolutely essential that you purchase travel medical insurance or travel insurance that can provide coverage for the activity you plan to take part in. You should make sure the insurance policy can provide coverage for emergency medical evacuation as well. Though safely finding your way back to civilization is your top priority when lost, you will be glad to have the financial protection an international insurance policy can provide to help mitigate the cost of treatment if you are injured.
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