What to do if you get lost in the backcountry

As the snow begins to melt and summer draws closer every day, alpine hikes become more and more accessible. We all are feeling a little bit of pent up wanderlust after a winter spent indoors longing for blue skies.

But be careful, early season hiking can be dangerous. It is easy to get lost while trail conditions are poor and weather is variable. Snow still covers high altitude trails and mountain passes. If you’re hiking in the mountains, take extra care in the early spring to stay on the trail and stay safe.

Up snow creek without a paddle

A couple of years ago I was hiking an incredible trail in Washington state. The route crossed three mountain passes heading east through the cascades from Mt Baker and exiting at Diablo Dam and Ross Lake.

The hike was scheduled to take five days and I was on my own. Snow still covered the high elevation passes and it made for wet and treacherous hiking. On the second day I was hiking up Hannegan pass, the first of three mountain passes when I got off trail and lost in a dangerous way.

Hiking on the top of the mountain
Hiking on the top of the mountain

Although the trail was well maintained and easy to follow, it began paralleling a stream bed as it wound steeply uphill. The higher I got, the more snow covered everything in sight and soon, the trail and the stream were both completely blanketed in white. I came to a critical junction on the top and it appeared as if my trail continued upwards before cutting left over the pass. But unbeknown to me, I was hiking off trail, up the stream bed. When I reached the next summit and looked for the continuation of my way, it was clear that I was in the wrong place.

Far across the valley I was able to spot my trail, a thin ribbon cut out of the hillside, descending towards the river valley below. It was immediately clear where I had erred and from up high I could clearly see where my trail must have been.

Yet I faced a difficult dilemma; do I go back the way I had come or down towards the trail I can see? Do I have enough time to safely make it down from the pass to the warmth of the valley and the next campsite before dark? What are the risks of each path?

You’re lost, what are the risks?

If you are lost, what are the risks?
Lost in the wild

When you are hiking in warmer climates in well traveled areas, there is relatively little risk of getting lost. Sure, you may have to spend a night in an unorthodox campsite, or you may spend extra hours hiking to find a trail.

However, risks increase tremendously the further from civilization you go. If you find yourself off trail or lost in the wilderness, the first question you need to consider are “what are the risks?”

  • How much daylight do I have left?
  • What will the temperature be like tonight after the sun goes down and do I have the equipment to deal with it?
  • How does the weather look and am I exposed if a storm were to come in?
  • How much food and water do I have and do I have means to purify more water?
  • Do I have any means of emergency communication or any way to send a signal?
  • How long ago might I have lost the trail and how far away could it be by now?
  • Does anyone back at home know my itinerary and my expected return date?

If your answer to the last question is no, then that was your first mistake. Anytime you are hiking solo or in a party through dangerous or mountainous areas, you should tell someone your plans. That way, if you do get lost and don’t return on schedule someone knows to come looking for you.

Stay calm

This may seem obvious to you now as you read it from the comfort of your office chair. But believe me, it is far more difficult when you get the gut-sinking realization that you are lost, on your own in a dangerous place and the sun is setting.

Context is everything. So if you do find yourself in that situation, a good way to keep yourself from panicking and to stay focused on what needs to be done is to ask yourself “what are the risks.”

If you are lost, stay calm.
It’s really important to stay calm

I like to focus on “what are the risks?” first and “what do I do?” second because it is easy to make mistakes and bad decisions when you are scared. Before you decide on a plan of action, it is important to fully and accurately assess the situation. Only after you know what you’re dealing with should you take action.

You may realize as you run through this list of potential risk factors, that your situation isn’t so bad. Perhaps you have plenty of daylight left and know that you can simply turn around, head downhill and are sure to meet the river you camped beside last night. Or maybe you can hear a highway in the valley to the west. Stopping and thinking can often clear your head of fear because your situation is not so bad after all.

But if you realize as you go through this list that you really are in a bad spot. Here are a few tips.

Whatever you do, don’t get hurt

Be careful and watch your step
Be careful and watch your step

This is the number one rule of the backcountry. It is true when you’re on the trail and it is doubly true when you’re off it. Never get hurt. Help is not on the way out here. If you are lost, getting hurt is by far the biggest risk there is. So do everything slowly, carefully, and do not panic.

If you feel your heart racing and your adrenaline pumping, stop and ask yourself if you are putting yourself in immediate danger. Are you rushing? Remember that accidents are far more likely when you are hungry, tired or stressed. So stay fed, warm and hydrated. If you feel panicked, stop for a moment and try to think it through. Relax.

You’re going to make it

In the end, you will find your way. You are both resourceful and intelligent. You got yourself all the way out here and you came prepared. Chances are you’ve only been off trail for an hour or two at the most and you can devise a way to back track. Always remember that it could be worse. You will tell this story to your kids one day and laugh at yourself. In the scariest of times it is important to stay lighthearted and optimistic.

You are lost, but you will find your way
Stay focus on the road

When you are lost in the backcountry, everything is situational. There is no one solution and no right answer. Everything will depend on you and your situation. Try your best to make sound judgements and to think carefully. Besides, if you weren’t up for a little adventure, you probably would have never left your house and hiked into the mountains in the first place. So trust yourself and be careful.

When at last you make it back to the trail and feel the flood of relief pass over you. Be sure to smile and pat yourself on the back. It can happen to the best of us. Keep your head on straight and you’ll make it out the other side just fine.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival