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If you are reading this it means you are probably already more prepared then 99% of the population. But that does not mean you can not pass this knowledge on to your friends and family, or even print out my list at the bottom and put it in your bag or give it to your adventurous friends.
Throughout this page I am not ever going to harp on being prepared(until the end), because everyone with any sense knows that is paramount. I will attach a list at the end to help in preparation after I have outlined what to do. I will assume throughout that you are already lost and all advice will be based on that.
This all comes from experience, as I was lost in the woods myself when I was 19 for 2 days and nights and promised to never let anyone I knew experience the pain and hardship I went through. Without further ado here is the most helpful advice I have found.
Remember To S.T.O.P.!
Stop. The very first thing to do when you realize you may be lost is stop and take a deep breath. This step is absolutely imperative because it is very, very common for a person when they first come to the conclusion they are lost to go into shock and start running in one direction or the other which makes it much much harder to be found. Chances are when you are lost you are still on a trail or very near one. So the first and most important is just stop take a few breaths and stay calm. Doing this helps you gather your thoughts and stop yourself from making bad decisions. Almost anyone on the planet can survive a night in he woods as long as they are uninjured and don’t make any poor decisions.
Think. After you have calmed yourself down and have had a second to realize the gravity of the situation, it is important to make an educated decision based on facts and circumstances and not emotions.
This step involves remembering advice from the forest service, that states “Do not move until you have a specific reason to take a step.” Most of the time you will decide to stay put if truly lost.
Also do an inventory of what you have on hand. I.e. compass, emergency kit, cell phone.
Observe. At this point you will have done a mental and physical inventory. If you have a compass get it out and decide your next course of action. If you have a cell phone pull up your compass or maps and hope they load. Or obviously call 911. If not then try to find a high point for service and protect that phone from falling out of your hands.
If you are on a trail do not for any reason leave it, Ideally you would just head back from the way you came, but if this is not possible then continue on the trail until you find a trail marker, usually at intersections or mile markers.
Worst case scenario if you are not on a trail, try to find a drainage system or a stream and follow it downhill. This is the most dangerous option, but commonly streams and rivers lead to civilization, or at least a road.
Plan. This is the finally step before making the decision of what to do. Now that you have calmed down, done an inventory, and taken in all the information available to you, you must go through possible plans. If you have a clear path out or are still on a trail with plenty of daylight left, then take the trail. Otherwise, stay in place and prepare to spend the night. This may seem like a daunting option but a day or two in the woods is much better than ending up worm food.
If Staying The Night.
Assuming you have no gear, you must collect and prepare to keep yourself warm. Depending on the environment and your level of preparation their may be different options available to you.
The very first thing to do is start a fire if you have the means (a lighter, matches or other fire starting device). If you do not have the means and do not possess the skill to start a fire the traditional way, then this is no place to try and workshop that.
In the case you will not be able to start a fire then you must begin to prepare for a cold night. Do this by first finding a spot near the trail where you can still see the trail and would not miss anyone walking down it. The second thing to do is cut down ferns and pull off moss to build a buffer between you and the warmth stealing ground.
you can also stuff your clothes with moss, but ideally you would be able to find a cattail and take the cotton like substance off the top of it. This step is all predicated on where you are.
Here are a few more in depth links to building a quick shelter.
How to build a Survival shelter (best shelter designs)
How to build a survival shelter (11 simple designs)
How to build a Quinzee snow shelter
If you stay
If you are staying then you are just waiting for rescue. Make sure you are easy to see. Write help with rocks, Break down anything you can to make it clear where you are and stay hydrated. Food is not much of a worry in this situation because unless you are out there for many weeks you will be able to tap into fat stores.
When it comes to getting water, make sure you find clean water. Here is a great, more in depth link on how to find or even filter sources of water in a survival scenario.
Just bide your time and stay calm and try to stay sane.
Rescue is much more likely if you let someone know what you were doing. Which brings me to my final point, preparation.
If you are prepared with the proper equipment then your situation will be much much better and much less dire. For an excellent (if I do say so myself) list on what to pack check out my blog post here.
The bare minimum I would carry with me on any adventure would be this small survival kit.
It’s lightweight, fairly complete and could save your life someday.
Another extremely important thing to remember is to let someone know your plan.
If this is not possible because it is an impromptu adventure, then leave a note in your car that is visible that says where you are going and when you plan to get back. This will help with rescue efforts.
Of course preparation is the best solution to this problem, but it is not always possible, because sometimes you just have to do what you want, when you want. In that case education is necessary. I have attached a quick list you can print and throw in a survival bag or give to your adventurous friends. Have fun, Get wild, But get back home.