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With over six billion people on this Earth and technological advances opening up new areas to settlement, it is quite difficult for the average person to get lost in the wilderness. Hopefully, it will never happen to you. But by fluke chance, you might be stranded out in the middle of nowhere, in a place where old cartographers would have put 'Here Be Dragons' and gone off to the pub and the current ones will draw in a lot of forest and then go off to the pub.
Your plane could crash. You might be in a shipwreck. You could be kidnapped by radical goatherds and make a lucky escape. You might simply be a very determined sleepwalker. Of course you wouldn't be stupid enough to leave a marked trail unless you know exactly what you're doing... Whatever the reason you're stuck out in the great big somewhere, without even an idea which country you're in, you'll probably quickly decide that nature is better viewed through a windowpane from the comfort of your armchair. Let's get you back to civilisation.
Remember that this is an emergency situation, in which many of the usual rules, be they laws or common courtesy, will not apply. Some of the tips described below definitely aren't meant to be tried out just because you feel like it. Use your common sense.
The cruel thing about situations like this is that unless you got lost while hiking, you likely won't be carrying most of the items that survivalists recommend. That doesn't mean you won't have anything useful on you. You'll just have to think creatively - one young snowboarder lost in the mountains used his mp3 player to help him navigate back out! Get a good overview of what you have, and think of helpful new ways to use it - it will help pass the time until you're rescued, if nothing else.
You can't very well go through life carrying a huge pile of gear just in case, and in many scenarios, you'll be literally empty-handed. You might even have lost your towel! There's one resource, however, that can't be taken away from you. You'll always have your brain, so make sure it is prepared!
Having knowledge of the subject will come in handy - you can browse the Guide for relevant entries, find out more in your local library, join a scouting organisation or even become a survivalist! However, it's equally important that you realise that your brain controls more than just knowledge. You'll be under a lot of physical and psychological stress, so know in advance how to keep yourself calm and thinking logically. Don't Panic! is a very useful mantra. If it's not the kind of thing that will keep you awake at night, you can design thought experiments for yourself, mentally playing through various scenarios so that if the worst should happen, you will be prepared to cope.
You Are Not Alone
Someone, somewhere will have noticed that you are missing. People will be looking for you. In general, this means that you should stay put unless there is a pressing reason for you to move or you can tell that there are people nearby. This is especially true in situations like a plane crash, because emergency services will know roughly where the plane was going, and of course something as large as an airplane is much easier to spot than a little lost human.
If you'll be travelling off the beaten track, whether on foot or by car, always leave an itinerary of where you're going, your route, and how long you'll be travelling1 with someone who can contact the proper authorities - or even with the authorities themselves. If your car stalls or you are injured - don't stray from the trail or the road! This is especially true in desert areas, where all that's on both sides is a whole lot of nothing. You're more likely to find help - and water - on the road, since that's where people will be travelling. It is much harder for rescuers to find you if they have to search an area rather than a linear road.
For the first few days, stay as close as you can, and only leave for very important reasons. Finding shelter2 and water is important. Food, for now, is not. If it looks like something will explode or bury you in a mudslide, run for it, of course, but stay as close as you can later to observe the site - chances are, someone will come investigate.
Conserve your resources!
Since you don't know how long you'll be out here, careful rationing is advised - you'll definitely want supplies left if you do have to move out.
Try to rest as much as possible. Do anything necessary to keep yourself alive and get yourself noticed, but don't waste your energy, especially not on mindless panic.
If you have bottled water, save as much of it as possible - clean drinking water will be harder to come by when you're on the move.
To carry water back to your campsite from a river, you can tie shut one arm of a waterproof jacket and use that.
Boil your water for five minutes before drinking. If you have no pot, you can use large leaves - the leaf will char down to the water line, but not burn completely.
Build a solar still. Choose a sunny spot and dig a hole in the ground until you reach moist earth - except if you're in the desert, then just dig a hole. There will be more moisture in it than you think. Dig a slightly smaller hole in the centre and line it with a plastic bag, or simply set a cup or a jar at the bottom. Surround it with plant matter - succulents are especially useful in the desert - or pour water of uncertain quality in. Even salt water will work. Then stretch another piece of plastic over the hole and secure the edges with rocks, and put another rock in the centre to make a low point. The sun will heat things up, making the water evaporate. It will condense on the plastic and drip into the cup.
You can strip the dew off leaves in the morning - it will be pure - or leave a spare t-shirt or towel out during the night to gather the dew.
Water can also be obtained by squeezing moss - it acts like a sponge, so if there's been a moderately recent rainfall, chances are it will have collected water.
Don't forget to set out containers to catch water when it's raining!
Your health and strength are valuable resources. Tend to any injuries immediately, no matter how minor.
Unless it's cold, stay out of the sun! It will burn, exhaust and dehydrate you. Nap at midday, and save the most physically demanding work - building shelters, carrying firewood, hunting for food - for the early morning and late evening.
Remember that the weather is not your friend. If it looks like there will be a storm, take shelter early. Being cold and wet not only makes you miserable, it saps your strength.
Fashion is secondary at the moment - if you're cold, stuff your clothes with dry leaves or grasses for extra insulation.
Get religious, if you are thus inclined - prayer can have a wonderfully calming effect, and let you preserve a bit of normality. Just don't get too religious - this is not a good time for deciding you don't work on the Sabbath or can't eat certain foods.
If you've survived some kind of transport disaster and it's unlikely that you'll be rescued soon, resources can include other people's luggage. Just use your common sense, so you won't be in a tight spot when you do finally meet up with the proper authorities - you can get away with borrowing someone's sleeping bag and an extra sweater, but not their credit cards and jewellery! In a group, look for salvageable goods together and store them somewhere central, so there's less chance of being accused of looting and you can get a better overview.
Unlike the heroic amateur rescue missions beloved of Hollywood, whoever comes looking for you will have a good idea of what they're doing. They'll be fully equipped, they'll know the terrain, and they'll be trained in finding and helping lost people. Don't go wandering off to find them; a moving target is much harder for them to spot. You can help them out by staying calm, keeping yourself alive and well, and being as noticeable as you can.
Build a fire!
A fire not only keeps you warm, but is easy to spot even from great distances, by its light at night and by the smoke during the day.
Be sure to build the fire on a properly fireproof surface - clear the area of brushwood and other flammable things, watch out for overhanging branches, and elevate it on rocks if you're on peat! You don't want the fire getting too big - someone would come douse it eventually, but that's no use to you if you and half the countryside have been burned to a crisp!
To make more smoke, put green wood or leafy branches on top of a good fire. If you have a heavy rug, a wet towel, or a very leafy branch, you can interrupt the smoke at intervals to send smoke signals like a Hollywood Indian - perhaps using Morse Code.
There are many ways to light a fire, even if you don't have access to matches. You can even make a simple lens by putting a drop of water on a bit of glass or clear plastic, then use it to concentrate a sunbeam.
A fire is important in the desert, too, both for getting you seen and for warmth. It gets very cold very quickly at night! In the absence of wood, you can use dried animal dung for fuel.
Look to the skies!
People searching for you in trackless wilderness will most likely be flying over to search a lot of territory at once. That means you need to stay out from under trees and do something that will catch their attention, because looking for a lost person wandering around in a rainforest is like trying to find a needle that keeps moving in a haystack still on the field.
This is no time for undue modesty - if you have to remove your shirt and wave it to get attention, do so! Flashing your bra at them may make the rescue team all the more eager to come and get you...
Adapt your surroundings to show that there's a being capable of logical thought here - think in terms of the signals being sent into outer space to tell the aliens we're sentient beings.
Arrange stones or branches into huge letters - SOS3 and HELP are pretty universal - or stack things into geometrical patterns.
Go ahead and scare the animals - a flock of birds flying into the sky is a good signal.
You can also try sending light signals with a bit of mirror.
Shouts don't carry far - you're better off using some kind of a whistle, or building a drum, with which you can send signals over enormous distances.
You've probably heard Mark Twain's adage Dance like nobody's watching; love like you've never been hurt. Sing like nobody's listening; live like it's Heaven on Earth. This is your chance! Sing! It will keep your spirits up, and if it summons help, all the better.
Of course, you might find yourself in a scenario where being found by the wrong people is likely to be worse than being lost - at least for a while. If, for example, you escaped from kidnappers, you must ask yourself whether you are really better off wandering around by yourself than being found by them. If you decide to keep hiding, don't fall into the fallacy of travelling at night. Chances are that your pursuers will know the area much better than you, and you probably won't have any idea where you're going or what you're doing. You'll only injure yourself, or blunder into things and make enough noise to alert everyone in the area. Dusk and dawn are much better suited to a bit of covert sneaking.
If, after a reasonable time, you've not been rescued - or nobody knows you're gone, and it could be days before you'll be missed - you'll have to prepare to walk out. It's important to do this while you still have the strength - don't wait until you've nearly starved! Decide what you'll take, and how you'll carry it. Don't load yourself down too much, but take anything that has a good chance of coming in handy.
Show Where You've Been
Don't give up on being rescued just because you're moving. While you're looking for people, people are still looking for you. It is vitally important that you mark your trail - both so that anyone trying to find you can reconstruct your path, and so you can retrace your steps and try a different direction if you need to. Don't fall into the 'trail of breadcrumbs' trap - it's time to forget everything you ever learned about taking only pictures and leaving only footprints, and make some permanent changes. Keep in mind how the weather will affect your marks, and try to leave signs that will endure a hard rain.
You'll need to leave marks that stand out, and can't just be a random fluke. The best way to contrast the texture of nature around you is either by colour or by shape. Straight lines and geometric figures made of branches, stones, or deep gouges in the earth are easy to spot, as are strips of cloth torn from a shirt, if you have one to spare. Just don't be too quick to sacrifice clothing, you may need the additional warmth sooner than you think!
If you're in a hurry, you can simply snap off branches, though others might not be able to read that sign - the damage might have been caused by a large animal crushing through the underbrush.
Try introducing materials where they're not meant to be - a bright pine branch in a bare tree, gobs of mud high on tree trunks, berry juice staining stones...
It is important that you leave explicit marks at your point of origin and any landmarks along the way.
Places to leave more extensive marks are at any signs of civilisation - streets, buildings (abandoned or not), and logging sites are all places where people may pass by.
Don't just indicate that you've been there, but preferably also when you were there and where you're going. Try to make marks to reflect the date, if you can remember it - Roman numerals may be easier than Latin ones, because they don't have curves - and also build a rough sundial by putting a stick upright in the ground and marking where the shadow is. Add an arrow to show the direction you're travelling. A strand or two of your hair and your initials scratched on something may help identify you to the search party.
Make sure you leave a mark when you change direction, especially at forks in the path or when you come to a riverbank.
In the winter, leave several sticks upright in the snow - they're less likely to be covered completely in the next blizzard than a flat marking.
In this case, it's better not to clean up after yourself, though you should make sure all fires are properly extinguished.
Try to spot others' marks - where someone has blazed a trail, you can simply follow it to find people.
If you hear a one-time noise indicative of people - a gunshot, a dog barking or a horse whinnying, a vehicle - stop for a moment to get the bearing, either using your compass or the sun, rather than running straight for it. You'd be surprised how easy it is to veer off your course when accounting for obstacles and uneven terrain.
Remember to turn around once in a while and look at the way you've just come. This will make it easier to retrace your steps if need be, because things look surprisingly different from the other side!
How To Walk
It may seem obvious, but you need to conserve your energy and move efficiently. Besides leaving any dead weight behind, that means walking at a slow but steady pace, rather than running and resting. Don't take any risks. Circumnavigate obstacles rather than trying to climb over. You don't want to injure yourself, or make existing injuries worse, just because you attempted to shave a few minutes off your journey. And keep your feet dry to avoid blisters!
A walking stick will be of great assistance, helping you balance, taking some of your weight, and making you feel safer because after all, you're armed. Choose a stick that is well-dried, but not brittle, about as thick as your wrist and as high as your shoulder. If it has a natural fork at one end, all the better - you can wedge it between rocks to help you climb. The small indentations it makes in the ground will also help mark your trail.
Be prepared for dark. Dark that will come quickly and inevitably and when you can least use it. Dark you can't do anything about. Stop walking in time to prepare for the night. Gather enough firewood to last the night, find water, and prepare your shelter and campfire before dark. Now is not the time to be a night owl. And don't let the dark frighten you, despite all the strange nature-y sounding noises you will hear.
To estimate roughly how much daylight is left, face the evening or late afternoon sun and hold your hand out at arm's length, with your wrist bent so your fingers are parallel to the ground. Each finger you can fit between the sun and the western horizon means about 15 minutes before sunset. You should prepare your camp at least an hour before dark.
If at all possible, take an easier route rather than brave any of these hazards - they'll slow you down considerably, and there is a very much increased risk of injury. Go around, even if that way seems longer.
Snowy areas have their own rules. You will need to choose your path carefully. Remain aware that the seemingly solidly-packed snow can be very fragile, and might give way at any moment. Above all, keep your feet dry - stay far enough away from the river to avoid falling in or breaking through a crust of ice, or you risk hypothermia and frostbite. Usually, snow also means that the days will be short and the nights will be long and draw in very quickly. Make sure you are prepared for this, and have an adequate shelter. Avoid eating snow to stay hydrated; it will lower your body temperature and might give you diarrhoea.4 To avoid snow blindness, wear your sunglasses - or take a strip of wood or leather, cut a very narrow slit in it, and fasten it in front of your eyes for makeshift snow goggles.
Swamps can be crossed by looking for animal trails - larger animals such as deer can be almost as heavy as a human. Just be aware that the trails may not go anywhere in particular. Otherwise, walk softly and carry a big stick to help distribute your weight. Move slowly, testing each foothold before you transfer your weight. It is very important to boil the water here, and to make sure you keep walking in the same direction rather than in circles. To spend the night in a swamp, try to build a platform to get you off the ground. You can make a framework of sturdy sticks between trees or poles you've rammed into the ground.
Quicksand does not work like in the movies - the farther down you go, the denser the layers become, and the human body is too buoyant to sink entirely. That means you won't drown; you'll starve, or die of thirst or exposure. If you step on ground that wobbles, stepping back quickly is usually enough to get you off the patch - it takes a moment or two for the sand to liquefy. If you do get stuck, keep calm. Get rid of as much weight as you can - drop your backpack - and kick off your shoes, because they might create suction when you're trying to pull your legs out. Lean backwards with your arms spread to distribute your weight over as much of the surface as possible, and float on your back while you free your legs. Putting your walking stick behind you will help. If the sand is particularly thick, moving your legs in circles will mix in more water and help you free yourself. Move toward the edge with slow swimming motions. It will require patience to free yourself - don't struggle. Allow yourself plenty of rest in between, unless you're in a tidal zone, in which case you will need to work quickly, but calmly.
Rivers can be a major obstacle. If you know that you'll need to get to the other side of a river you're following downhill, cross at the earliest opportunity, while it is still as narrow as possible. The best way to go across a river is to go through it - don't try jumping from rock to rock. Instead, take your boots off for better traction underwater, and carry them high on your body so you won't have to continue with wet feet. Find a natural ford, if you can - a place where the river becomes wider, shallower, and calmer. For especially-wide rivers, places with an island inbetween, where you can rest, may be helpful. Angle yourself towards the current, and walk slowly, testing the ground with your stick and using it to help you keep your balance. Choose a place where the current is slow, and never cross right above a waterfall! Remember that you will be wet when you get to the other side, so avoid crossing at night or in the evening - you'll need the sun to dry your clothes. The only exception to this rule is if you absolutely must cross a river that is infested with crocodiles or piranhas - they will be more sluggish at night. Remember to check yourself for leeches when you get to the other side!
Where To Look For Civilisation
Generally speaking, towns mean people. Roads mean people. Cultivated fields mean people. Fire means people. Once you've found someone - provided they're not lost as well - you're basically home free, because they'll know how to contact the outside world, and they must have food somewhere. Before you can figure out where you need to go, however, you need to make an attempt to figure out your present position.
Where Are You?
Look around for any signs of people. Use your other senses, too. Can you hear traffic? Smell sewage? If so, you know where to go - but it's unlikely. Do you recognise any major mountains? Try to get a good idea of where you are before you start walking, if only to make sure you're not going in circles later.
If you're carrying a mobile phone, check for reception5. If there isn't any, you're probably far away from any people - or just in an area with bad reception. Keep checking at intervals - especially when you're up on hills - but keep it turned off otherwise. You might need it later, even if it's only for the light from the display, and it's highly unlikely that someone will call you and come to your rescue, though stranger things have happened.
And if you're in a group, stay together! Unless one person is seriously injured and someone has to go for help, don't leave anyone behind, or worse still, go walking off in different directions.
Where To Go?
Here's where a little knowledge of history comes in handy. People and animals need to drink. Also, before cars, the best way to transport goods was by water - that means that many towns were founded on rivers, lakes, or seashores. Water runs downhill to form streams. From there, it runs downhiller to the rivers, and, eventually, the sea. That means that by going downhill, you'll generally find rivers, and by following the rivers downstream, people. It just might take a while.
Following a brook or river has the added advantage that you'll always have enough water to keep you going, though the closer to people you get, the more important it is that you boil it before drinking. If it's polluted, that's a good sign there are people nearby!
It's better to walk on a hillside with a view of the river than right on the riverbank - the microclimate of the river will generally be worse than that a little higher up, and the terrain more difficult.
Rivers can help you get through especially-dense forest, because they'll have cut a path for you. Just don't go wading if you can avoid it, because of risks ranging from leeches to hypothermia, or simply slipping on a rock.
If you're not even sure which hemisphere you're in, look for creepers growing around a tree trunk, since they follow the sun. In the Northern Hemisphere, they'll grow counterclockwise, in the Southern Hemisphere, they twine around clockwise.
Moss growing on the north side of things is more of an old wives' tale than a reliable indicator of direction - moss does grow on the north side of rocks and trees, but also on the south, east, and west - the microclimate of the tree's surroundings usually has more of an influence than the sun.
The most reliable way to tell direction without a compass is by the celestial bodies.
The North Star (aka the 'pole star') is easy to find. It is large and bright and will be one of the first visible - and both Ursa Major (the 'Big Dipper' or 'Plough' asterism) and Cassiopeia (shaped like an 'M' or a 'W') can help you locate it at any time, as neither constellation sets. Draw an imaginary line from the pole star straight down to the horizon. That's your north bearing.
The four brightest of the five stars in the Southern Cross form the corners of a tilted cross. Find the two stars defining the longer axis, and add the distance between them about five more times on the same vector, angling down towards the Earth. Then draw your line straight down from this imaginary point to the horizon for south.
The moon can help you determine the rough direction in which you're going - if it rises before sunset, it will be lit from the west; if it rises after midnight, the illuminated side is to the east.
To get an east-west bearing from the sun, put a stick upright in the ground like a sundial, and mark the top of the shadow. Wait for as long as you've got patience - about 15 minutes - and then mark the position of the second shadow. A line drawn between them will run from east to west, with west being the mark you made first.
If you have an analogue watch, point the hour hand at the sun. A line halfway between the 12, or the 1 if you're on Daylight Saving Time, and the hour hand will point south if you are in the Northern Hemisphere and north if you are in the Southern Hemisphere. Keep in mind that this method is more effective the further you are from the equator!
For navigation when the sky is overcast, you can make a simple compass. Find a piece of iron - a nail, a pin, or similar - and tap the end hard with a stone while pointing it north or south. It will become slightly magnetised. You can float it on a bit of wood in a container of water so it can turn freely. You can also temporarily magnetise the pin - or a razor blade - by stroking it through your dry hair repeatedly in the same direction or rubbing the top with a magnet.
Naturally, you don't want to go downhill at any cost - other people won't climb down a sheer cliff face as part of their daily commute, so why should you look for them there? And rivers sometimes go downhill in a great big hurry - watch out for waterfalls, and don't attempt to climb down wet, slippery rocks! Go around instead. If you're walking right on the riverbank, you should go up once in a while to get an overview of the surrounding country.
Walking in circles can be a major problem - most people favour one leg over the other, so you'll start to drift off sideways and might end up right back where you started, after days of wandering around lost. To avoid this, orient yourself using the sun or your compass, pick a direction, and stick to it. Continually going downhill will also help6. Over short to medium distances, you can keep yourself on track by choosing a landmark and walking toward it.
At dusk, you'll want to stop walking and find shelter. Do climb a hill, though, if you can. In the evening, you can see the lights from towns, farms, passing cars... lights at night generally mean civilisation, since only fireflies and certain deep-sea fish generate them naturally. Shelter in the lee of the hill for protection from wind.
Signs That You're Getting Closer
Roads are also generally found downhill - at the bottom of passes, for example. They'll make walking easier, they always lead somewhere eventually, and you might even meet people on them. If you find a road, stick to it!
Animals can be a good gauge of how close you're getting to people. If the wildlife isn't scared of you at all, that's a bad sign. Domesticated animals, on the other hand, must belong to someone, so there are bound to be people nearby.
Wolves don't bark, so barking dogs means people.
Young animals are often put to pasture far from people, since they're not needed until they've grown up. Someone will check on them once in a while, but if you have a more promising direction to go, stay with it.
With horses, it's easy to tell from a distance whether it's a young herd. Truly white horses are rare - most pale horses are in fact born dark, and grey out over time. So if there are only brown and black dots on the hillside, it's a fair bet that they're yearlings. Or cows.
Mammals with baby mammals means milk. Milk is a good food.
Narrow, wandering paths through otherwise untouched nature are usually game trails. They may not lead anywhere, but walking along them is easier than working your way through the underbrush, so follow them if they run in the right direction. Also, they'll often help you find water.
You may find traps along the trail - if there is small game in them, you have food. If the hunter catches you, at least you've found help! Leave a message if it looks like the traps are still in use. Someone will check them eventually.
Avoid the game trails if there is evidence7 of large predators.
If it's a true emergency, if you or someone in your group is badly injured, for example, you can get away with stealing horses. Don't try to control them too much - give them their heads, and they'll generally run toward their stables. Just be sure to leave a note for the owner, make a record of the brand or any identifying markings, and make every effort to return them when you've been rescued.
Power lines and pipelines may cross a very long stretch of nothing, but they go somewhere eventually - and someone got there to build them, so they can't be in the most impossible territory. You could do worse than follow them.
Cultivated fields need someone to cultivate them - but they might be pretty far from any towns, especially if they're just haymeadows. In Europe, farmers generally live in villages and drive out to their fields every day, while American farms can be huge. But it's a good sign that you're almost home free. Lines of trees between fields generally indicate either roads or brooks.
When you do find people, you most likely won't end up right in a major city - they are usually surrounded by a buffer zone of smaller towns to keep them safe from the wilderness. This may work to your advantage: as a rule of thumb, the more inhospitable the land is, the more hospitable its people will be. They couldn't survive out there without helping one another.
Unless you have a fairly good idea of where you are, be prepared to have to explain your predicament - don't count on people speaking English in rural areas unless the country's official language is English. Sometimes not even then.
It may help if you can think of a way to make your situation clear without using words before you encounter anyone - you'll feel less self-conscious practicing pantomimes with only the birds watching, and it will help take your mind off things.
Keep in mind that you'll be dirty, smelly, emaciated, unshaven, and exhausted - you'll be looking like a madman, or your average hobo. Approach slowly, stay away from the women and children, and remain polite.
Don't let your relief at finally having found help overrule your common sense. If your first encounter is someone who absolutely doesn't make you feel safe, don't throw yourself on their mercy. It would be a pity to have come all this way without incident only to be raped/killed for your possessions/taken hostage at this point! But don't be too picky, either.
This may be a good chance to use the phrase 'Take me to your leader!' - or at least the village constable. They can inform all the proper authorities of your return and call off the search.
After a hot bath, a good night's sleep, and a hearty meal you'll be feeling a lot better. Let a doctor check you out - there are many ways to be injured or catch diseases out there - and then take a while to rest. Before you go running to sell exclusive rights to your story, write an article for The H2G2 Post about your experiences! And be sure to thank the people who helped you along the way!