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Surviving the Wild: 6 Essential Skills for Lost Hikers

Getting lost while hiking can be a frightening experience, but having the right survival skills can make the difference between a tale of adventure and a story of tragedy.

Whether you’re an experienced hiker or a novice, knowing how to navigate, find shelter, secure food, stay hydrated, signal for help, and maintain your mental well-being is crucial. Here are key survival skills you want to master in the event you ever find yourself lost in the wild.


1.Navigation: Finding Your Way

Understanding Your Surroundings

When you realize you’re lost, the first step is to stop and assess your situation. Avoid the temptation to keep moving aimlessly. Stop and try to remember any landmarks or features you’ve passed. Assuming you have a map and compass, orient the map to your surroundings and use the compass to determine directions. Knowing how to read topographic maps is equally helpful, as these maps provide details about the terrain and elevation.

Using Natural Navigation

If you don’t have a map or compass, natural navigation techniques can help.

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, providing insight to all four directions. At night, you can use the North Star to find your bearings. In the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star (Polaris) is inline with the outer edge of the Big Dipper’s cup.

Moss tends to grow thicker on the north side of trees in the Northern Hemisphere. Observing the direction of wind patterns and cloud movement can also provide clues about your location and help you stay oriented.

Creating a Travel Plan

Once you have a sense of your direction, create a travel plan. Determine whether it’s better to stay put and wait for rescue or to move towards a known location. If you decide to move, mark your path as you go. Use rocks, sticks, or create markers with your knife on trees to leave a trace. This will not only help rescuers find you but also prevent you from walking in circles.

Always take note of prominent landmarks and try to move in a straight line. If you have a GPS device or smartphone, use it to log your path and waypoints, ensuring you don’t cover the same ground twice.

2. Shelter: Protection from the Elements

Building a Shelter

A good shelter protects you from the elements and helps conserve body heat. If you’re in a forested area, a lean-to made from branches and leaves can provide adequate shelter. Start by finding a strong branch or tree trunk to lean other branches against, creating a sloped roof. Cover this framework with leaves, pine needles, or other vegetation to insulate and waterproof your shelter.

Hiking Shelter

In areas with larger branches or tree limbs, you can construct a debris hut by piling leaves, branches, and other natural materials over a framework of sticks.

Using Natural Features

Natural features like caves, rock overhangs, and dense thickets can also serve as shelters. Be cautious of animal inhabitants and check for signs of activity before settling in.

In cold climates, snow shelters like igloos or quinzees (a hollowed-out mound of snow) can be lifesaving. When using natural shelters, always ensure you have an escape route in case of flooding, collapse or other hazards. For added protection, create a barrier using branches or rocks at the entrance of your shelter to deter animals and help retain heat.

3. Water: Staying Hydrated

Finding Water Sources

Staying hydrated is critical for survival. Look for natural water sources like rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds. If you find animal tracks, they often lead to water. Be aware that drinking untreated water can lead to illness, so it’s important to purify it.

Additionally, collect rainwater using tarps, plastic sheets, or even large leaves. Dew can also be a source of water; collect it using cloth or plastic bags tied around vegetation overnight.

Purification Methods

Boiling water is the most effective way to kill pathogens. If you don’t have a container, you can heat rocks in a fire and place them in the water to bring it to a boil. Portable water filters, purification tablets, and UV light purifiers are also effective. In a pinch, you can use the sun to purify water by placing it in a clear plastic bottle and leaving it in direct sunlight for several hours. Another method is to create a solar still: dig a hole, place a container in the center, cover the hole with plastic, and weight the plastic down in the center with a small rock. As the sun heats the ground, water will evaporate, condense on the plastic, and drip into the container.

4. Food: Finding and Preparing


Foraging and Fishing

While food is less critical than water and shelter, it’s still important for maintaining energy. Learn to identify edible plants and berries in your region. Some common edible plants include dandelions, clover, and cattails. However, always be cautious and knowledgeable about what you consume, as many wild plants can be toxic.

Fishing is another reliable source of food. You can create a makeshift fishing line from threads of clothing or shoelaces and use insects or small bits of food as bait. Constructing a simple fish trap using rocks or branches can also increase your chances of catching fish.

Hunting and Trapping

Small game can be trapped using simple snares. Look for game trails or signs of animals and set your traps there. Always ensure you are familiar with the local wildlife to avoid dangerous or protected species. Building deadfall traps, which use a heavy object to fall and trap the animal, can also be effective. If you have a knife or multitool, fashioning spears or other simple weapons can aid in hunting. Additionally, insects and grubs, though not appealing, are high in protein and can be an essential food source.

5. Signaling: Attracting Rescue

Visual Signals

Signaling for help increases your chances of being found. During the day, use mirrors or reflective objects to catch the sun and direct a beam of light towards passing aircraft or search parties.

Creating large symbols on the ground using rocks, logs, or other materials can also attract attention. The international distress signal is three of any kind: three fires, three blasts on a whistle, or three flashes of light.

Brightly colored clothing or gear can also be used to create visible signals from a distance.

Auditory Signals

A whistle is one of the most effective auditory signals. If you don’t have one, use your voice to shout in intervals. The sound of three short bursts, followed by silence, is a recognized distress signal. This pattern is more likely to be recognized as a signal for help.

Additionally, creating makeshift instruments, such as banging rocks or sticks together, can produce sounds that carry over long distances. Regularly changing the location from which you signal can increase the likelihood of being heard.

6. Mental Fortitude: Staying Calm and Positive

Maintaining a Positive Attitude

Survival is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. Staying calm and maintaining a positive outlook can significantly impact your ability to survive.

Fear and panic are natural responses, but they can cloud judgment and lead to poor decision-making. Take deep breaths, stay focused on the task at hand, and remember that rescue is likely if you stay put and signal for help. Visualizing your successful rescue and the steps you need to take can help keep you motivated.

Building a Routine

Establishing a routine can help maintain your mental well-being. Set small, achievable goals each day, such as gathering firewood, foraging for food, or improving your shelter. Keeping busy and having a sense of purpose can ward off feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Engage in simple activities that can keep your mind occupied, such as crafting tools or improving your campsite. Practicing mindfulness or simple meditation techniques can also help reduce stress and keep you focused.


In conclusion, while getting lost hiking is a scenario every hiker hopes to avoid, being prepared with these essential survival skills can transform a potentially life-threatening situation into a survivable adventure.

By knowing how to navigate, build shelter, secure water and food, signal for help, and maintain your mental fortitude, you can increase your chances of making it out of the wild safely.

Always remember to prepare before you embark on any hike: carry the necessary gear, inform someone of your plans and route, and educate yourself about the environment you’ll be exploring. These precautions, combined with the survival skills outlined, can make all the difference in ensuring your safe return.