Ten Things to Do If You Get Lost Trail Running

Paul Pinkerton

Trail running offers the rewards of a grand adventure, from breathtaking sunrises and sunsets to glimpses of animals in their natural habitats. But with any adventure comes risk and the chances for that adventure to go awry. One of the biggest risks can be getting lost on the trail. In their forthcoming book, “Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running” (Human Kinetics, 2016), authors Meghan Hicks and Bryon Powell pinpoint 10 things you need to know if you become lost, which can mean the difference between a mere misadventure and an unnecessary tragedy.

1. Don’t panic. If you do become highly emotional, stop everything and ride out those feelings. “Literally, don’t move, make decisions, or do anything until your emotions settle and your rational side returns,” says Hicks, winner of the 2013 Marathon des Sables in Morocco, the world’s largest, oldest, and most competitive expedition-style trail running race.

2. Stop moving forward. If you don’t know where you are, you most likely have even less of an idea of where you are headed.

3. Consider retracing your steps. The goal here would be to backtrack to the last place you knew where you were. Are your footprints visible in dirt, sand, or snow? Are you nearly 100 percent confident that you’ll recognize the features of the landscape that you passed through earlier? If so, carefully retrace your steps until you are again in familiar terrain.

4. Triangulate your location. If you have a map, compass, and a good view of the terrain, triangulate your location, something Hicks and Powell cover in the book. After you have located yourself on the map, plan your way back to your intended route. Do so by retracing your steps instead of taking a new route, using a compass to guide you back.

5. Don’t take a shortcut. “Don’t leave the trail to cut cross country in an effort to take a shortcut,” urges Powell, publisher of iRunFar.com, the world’s premier trail running website. “Often, terrain deviations and difficulties aren’t fully visible, and the shortcut may not be one after all,” he continues. If you do leave the trail, be prepared to turn around if you encounter dangerous terrain. Don’t add more risk to an already-risky situation.


6. Don’t split your group. Pooling resources and working together are much easier and safer than splitting into smaller groups or going solo. The only exception to this rule is if a member of your group is incapacitated and unable to move. Depending on the situation, you may have to leave someone alone so that you can get the needed emergency assistance.

7. Work together as a group. If you are part of a group, you can work together to create a search system of people exploring out for your last known location, but be certain to stay in voice or visual contact with each other. This method will allow your team to search a greater area than you could solo but keep you safely together.

8. Take note of your supplies. Survey your emergency provisions such as food, water, fire-making tools, clothing layers, light sources, first-aid supplies, and communications technology and their power supply. “Make a plan for rationing them in a way that keeps you healthy now and for a reasonable period into the future,” Hicks recommends. “Gather emergency provisions from nature, such as water, kindling and wood for a campfire, and dry leaves or pine boughs that can be placed inside your clothing for extra insulation.”

9. Personal climate control. Taking care of your personal climate control is of utmost importance if you become lost. Staying warm, cool, or dry depending on your circumstances is key. If you need to get warm or dry, make a fire or keep moving and consume available food and water to keep your metabolism working. “Don’t hesitate to huddle with your companions,” Powell advises. “Cold appendages can be warmed against your body or someone else’s, especially in the armpits, between the legs, or against the torso. Friction creates heat, so work together with your companions to rub cold body parts.”

10. Seek professional rescue assistance. If you can’t resolve your situation independently, consider the access you have to the outside world. Do you have cell or satellite service? If so, make appropriate outside contact with search and rescue (SAR) or a reliable person who can make such contact for you. Relay crucial information on your last known location, the number of people in your group, the condition of the group, your survival provisions, and the landscape features around you.

Targeting distances up to 26 miles while covering techniques for running on various kinds of terrain, “Where the Road Ends” provides details on essential equipment; information about trail safety, including navigation, map reading, and dealing with threatening wildlife; the development of trail running training plans; and advice on competing in off-road races.


jack-beckett is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival