I Can’t Believe I’m Lost in the Woods!


It’s understandable, it’s a normal mental attitude that “It can’t happen to me.” But it can happen to anyone, yes including you. A wrong turn, a freak late spring snow storm erupts, the truck breaks down and we’re forced to walk miles in unfamiliar environment. There’s a multitude of reasons we could find ourselves suddenly lost, and terrified whether we want to admit it or not.

Now the question is … What to do now?

Most anyone can survive a night or two in the woods, unless the weather turns crazy, below freezing temperatures and feet of heavy snow, but surviving for an extended period of time takes a whole lot of thinking and skills.

This first rule is “Don’t Panic.” It’s more important than ever to keep your wits about you, think about the situation and develop a plan to deal with it. Any rash or hasty action could make a bad situation … worse, much worse.

This is where we back up in time to before the incident happened. We’ll call this segment, preparing to survive. Survival, and the degree of discomfort you may endure, begins before you ever go into the woods.

You watch television shows where people are dropped into hostile territory with nothing, sometimes not even clothes, and they survive reasonably well. For starters, these situations are fabricated and under close scrutiny of medical professionals. Additionally, most of these people are professional survivalist, experts in the art of subsistence living. We do not fall into that category. At least I don’t.

The first thing everyone needs to do is have a survival kit in the car. This is a very easy and inexpensive item to put together and if you think about it, it’s stupid to not have one in every vehicle. Whether you’re stuck in the woods or stuck in a ditch a few miles from home, I’d rather be over-prepared than under-prepared.


The kit, or bag, is simple. It’ll include such items as a fire-starter (much more reliable than matches or a lighter) water purifiers, an emergency blanket, a few hand tools, knife, perhaps a few energy bars and a bottle of water or two. Starting on any trip without a kit is asking for trouble, especially as easy and cheap as it is.

The next big thing to do is tell someone where you are going and when you’ll be back. Most people won’t think of this and others refuse to do it because they are adults and answer to no one. That’s dumb. Letting someone know your where bouts doesn’t mean you’re not an adult … just the opposite. Then if you fail to return, the concerned person can let the proper authorities know of your intended actions and approximate location. Think that’s silly? Which is better … searching a 10,000 acre National Forest for you or not knowing what state to start looking.

By the way, don’t count on your cell phone to locate you. Most rugged areas have no cell reception, batteries go dead and phones fall into water or down 100 foot cliffs.

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Let’s get serious now:

The first thing to do, after accepting the fact you are indeed lost, is to stop and think. Ever forgot where you laid your keys? Everyone has and it’s not because we’re stupid or getting senile, we are so preoccupied with everything going on in our lives we often act without thinking. You may amaze yourself at what you can figure out if you stop and think. Besides, running off and taking action, usually wrong, but seems right at the time, wastes valuable energy which you very well may need to survive. Ask yourself these questions:

Where do I think I am? Have I been in this area before, maybe only once, or not at all.

What do I have with me? Hopefully a survival kit. If not take stock. Can of soda, light coat, bag of potato chips.

What’s available around me? Lots of dead tree branches for fire or making a shelter.

What’s the weather like? It’s going to snow, gotta find shelter.

How long until they realize I’m lost? Told them I’d be gone for 4 days … must survive at least 5 days, probably more.

What kind of condition am I in? Injured … not injured.

First Big No – No.

In some areas in America you can travel for days and never see any sign of civilization.


The last thing you want to do is make your situation worse. If you aren’t sure where you are and absolutely sure of which direction civilization is located, stay put. Any additional travel could take you deeper into the woods or worse.

Rescue teams search areas for lost people in a plotted search diagram. They divide the area map into quadrants, search one area fully, mark that area off, and move onto the next area. If you are stumbling around lost you could end up going from the next quadrant to search to the area they just deemed clear. Rescuers do not back track into finished areas without a specific reason. You could have just killed yourself.

Next, minimize your most likely danger. Hypothermia. “But it’s 85 degrees!” Ironically several people die of hypothermia every summer in the Colorado Rockies. They’re normally fishing or hiking, fall into a stream late in the day and aren’t able to make it back to their car before the sun sets. Temperatures can easily drop to the 40’s in higher elevations and that is low enough, combined with wet clothing, to kill you.

Shelter and fire first. You know, for all practical purposes, you’ll be stranded for at least 5 days, therefore shelter from the elements is a requirement. If you have a vehicle, say you broke down in the middle of no where, Stay with that vehicle. It provides excellent shelter, plus is a beacon to anyone in the air searching for you.

No vehicle. You’ll have to find or build a shelter. When searching the area for shelter be sure to clearly mark your path by piling rocks, breaking branches, something easily identified in order to return to the original spot. You don’t want to get lost from the point you were lost. (Makes sense?)

A cave is an ideal shelter. However, caves in the wilderness are seldom vacant. Bears, mountain lions and other creatures tend to enjoy the protection of a cave as much as humans do. Be very careful entering a cave and scour the area for any sign of recent activity. Fresh waste, pieces of fresh meals, vegetation such as berries are all signs to vacate the premises while you can. Even in smaller caves or cliff overhangs be particularly vigilant of snakes.

No caves. Maybe a good thing. Now you must build a shelter. However, that’s an area for another post. In the meantime, look for a large pine tree. The limbs of the tree will extend to the ground helping ward off rain and wind. Once you navigate your way through the thicket of limbs the area next to the tree trunk will be open and even provide a bed of needles to sleep on.

Starting a fire is the next step, which solves 2 major issues. It will keep you warm. Conserving energy is of the utmost importance in prolonging survival and the energy the body uses shivering to keep warm is wasted energy if it’s not necessary. The warmth of the fire eliminates this waste. Secondly, a fire will deter a wild animal from becoming too nosy. Animals by nature are usually repelled by the scent of humans, but there’s always that exception to the rule possibility. You don’t need any further complications in your otherwise awful day.

Use common sense when choosing the area to start a fire. Yes it’d be nice to have it close to your bedding, but that might be impossible. Clear the area of any flammable material, dried pine needles, leaves, etc. Pile rocks around the perimeter of the fire pit in order to contain the sparks and prevent logs from rolling out of the pit. Look up. Is there low lying tree limbs above the fire pit that could easily catch fire from floating embers? You want a fire for warmth and protection, not for burning the woods down.


Shelter and fire obtained the next issue is water. If you have a vehicle for shelter and a case of bottled water in the back seat … you’re ready to go. If not, look for water.

Water will always adhere to gravity and will travel downhill. Walk down hill in a slightly meandering method, being sure to leave a trail to find your way back. Watch for animal trails, they’ll likely lead to water, as observing the flight patterns of birds, and lastly use your ears. You may hear the sound of trickling water and not be able to see it.

Getting Rescued:

The key to getting rescued, beyond surviving, is being found. You want to make yourself as visible to the world as possible. Searchers are experts in spotting things in the environment that don’t belong. You don’t belong and don’t want to belong, so make yourself visible.

If you have a vehicle .. stay at it. It’s a big target and definitely does not belong in that gully.


Start a smokey fire. Once smoke rises about the forest canopy it can be seen for miles. For general knowledge, three (3) fires set in a line is an international signal of distress.

Mirrors or anything reflective can be used to signal a plane or helicopter flying overhead. No, it’s not like the movies where you shine the light directly into the pilot’s eyes, blinding him from checking out the stewardess. Again, Pilots are trained to spot anything out of the ordinary and a flashing light emitting from the ground is not ordinary.

There will be people on the ground searching for you. Visibility in the woods is restricted. Ask any avid hunter if a deer ever walked right past them within 10 yards and you’ll get a “Yep,” for an answer. Sound on the other hand travels farther in the woods than sight. If you have a whistle, blow it every 5 minutes or so. Sound in the woods is strange. The rescuers may hear your whistle, but you won’t be able to hear their calls back. So don’t give up.

No whistle. Try hollering, beating on something with a stick, anything you can do to draw attention. After all, what else do you have to do?

Remember … you are responsible for aiding in your rescue. Making yourself as visible or loud will only increase your chances of rescue.


Check out other posts for more detailed survival tips.


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