Finding your way back in a survival situation

Nick Oetken

Realizing that you are lost out in the wilderness can be one of the most stressful moments in a survival situation and can also lead to panic.

However, panicking will only cause you to burn more energy, become thirstier, and increase your stress. Take a few deep breaths and calm down to assess your situation.

You may realize that you accidentally stepped off of the trail a few yards back.

In this article, we will go over some tips you can use to assess your situation and find out how to find your way back without panicking should you ever become lost out in the wilderness.

Myths of finding your way back

Try not to panic
Try not to panic

One of the biggest myths about getting lost in the wilderness is that if you do indeed become lost, the best thing for you to do is to turn around and walk back.

After all, if you make a wrong turn while driving on the highway, you should just turn around and drive straight back to find the exit that you missed, right?

Absolutely not. Navigation in the woods and navigation on the highway are two vastly different things. Furthermore, becoming lost and having or not having the essentials you need to survive are also two different things.

So even if you do become lost, as long as you have some essential survival gear with you, you do have the capability to survive. That alone should lower your stress and reduce panicking.

Another myth about getting lost is that only people not accustomed to the wilderness can become lost. This could not be any further from the truth. The wilderness is a vast place, and many experienced hunters or backpackers can become lost out in the woods as well.

Lost in the snow
Lost in the snow

Even if you’ve hiked an area hundreds of times and think you have the trails memorized by heart, you have to take into account that you could leave the trail for some reason and walk into an unfamiliar area out of curiosity.

In that case, it wouldn’t take long for you to realize that you’ve walked too far off the trail and now don’t know which direction to go. This will only be made worse if you don’t have your map and compass with you.

The fact of the matter is that anyone can become lost out in the wilderness, regardless of one’s experience or knowledge of the area.

Assess your situation

Once you’ve become lost, the very best thing you can do is to stop and assess the situation. Many people who initially become lost in the wild who do this can think about where they stepped off course and go from there.

However, stopping and assessing your situation is also harder than you might realize.

If you’re panicky and a million different things are racing through your mind, it can be difficult to remember exactly where you parked your vehicle, where your starting point was, or when/where you stepped off the trail.

Be aware of your surroundings
Be aware of your surroundings

Something else to think about is if someone knows of your general whereabouts.

If so and if you can’t remember where you need to go, then the best thing you can do at this point is to stay where you are and build a fire and shelter before night sets in.

If you don’t come back home, someone will likely get a search party for you in your general area and you can hold out in your shelter over the night.

You can use the time in your shelter to get some sleep so you can be physically and mentally rested for the next day. Then in the morning, if no help has arrived, you can come up with a plan for what you should do next.

Do you stay where you are or do you hike out?

If no help has arrived the next morning, you now have a decision to make: do you stay where you are at your shelter and live off the land while continuing to wait for help, or should you try to walk out yourself to civilization?

Asses the situation and decide whether to continue with the hike, or stay in one place
Asses the situation and decide whether to continue with the hike, or stay in one place

Most survival experts are in consensus that it is advisable for you to stay in your place, specifically in a shelter, and wait for rescue to come to you. You can build a signal fire to try and bring hikers and hunters to your direction, for example.

A danger to trying to walk out is that you make it more difficult for your rescuers to find you.

For this reason, you should only attempt to walk out if you have determined that no one has reported you missing and that walking out truly is your only chance of survival.

Hiking out to safety

If no help has arrived in the time that you were hoping for, or if other circumstances are against you, you may decide that the best thing to do is to try and walk out.

If so, you can use your knowledge of the local streams and rivers to your advantage. Rivers will always have settlements somewhere alongside them, and many streams lead directly into rivers.

Therefore, if you follow a stream downstream to a river and then continue following that river downstream, you will find civilization sooner or later.

Make sure you know how to “read’ the nature
Make sure you know how to “read’ the nature

Something else that you can follow is train tracks, which will always lead to civilization sooner or later as well. The only disadvantage in comparison to a stream is that you have to decide which direction to go.

For all you know, a town could be right around the corner in one direction but a week away in the other direction.

You can also use power lines overhead, but these can run for literally hundreds of miles in either direction before reaching civilization, so they aren’t as reliable as rivers or train tracks.

Under no circumstances should you try to hike out at night. Not only could you accidentally fall or run into something and injure yourself, but you could only end up more lost! In addition, never walk uphill when trying to find your way back.

Walking uphill always takes you away from sources of water and away from the coast… and thus away from towns and cities.

Be prepared

Be prepared for everything
Be prepared for everything

Remember that even if you do get lost out in the wilderness and if you’re prepared for it, your chances of survival increase exponentially.

Having the necessary survival training and essential gear with you will always make survival easier. Usually, it’s not those who got lost who didn’t survive, it’s those who weren’t ready for it who didn’t survive.


nick-oetken is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival