• Southern Ontario Hiking Resources


If you get lost in the woods

It can happen even to an experienced hiker. The trail disappears, you can't see any trail markings and you feel confused. It could be inattention to trail markings or a sudden weather change that leads you off the trail and forces you away from known landmarks. Suddenly that tenuous connection between you and civilization is lost. And you realize you're lost...in the woods.

The best way to avoid getting lost is to stay on the trail. Resist the urge to explore new territory off trail. Straying from the trail is environmentally unfriendly, contributes to erosion, causes destruction to sensitive habitats, and is discouraged on the Bruce Trail.

At this point your goal is not to panic but to make it as easy as possible for others to find you safe and sound. Being lost doesn't kill people; it's the lack of food, clothing, shelter and medical attention that can do them in. You need to prepare for this possibility even before you leave home.



Before you leave home

  • Prepare for a possible weather change  -not only for the conditions when you start out but for possible weather changes during the hike. Pack an umbrella or rain poncho in your backpack to keep dry. Dress in layers so you can peel them off and put them back on as the temperature dictates.
  • Always bring matches or a lighter. Put them in your backpack right now. Check them periodically to make sure the lighter works and the matches are dry in their waterproof container.
  • Always bring more water than you can drink. Even a small amount of water can moisten a parched mouth.
  • Don't leave home for an outing without someone who'll notice that you haven't returned. Let someone know where you're going and when you expect to return. failing that leave a printed note on your computer keyboard where it would readily be found.


Ok, I'm lost, now what?

  • Don't panic. It's normal to feel scared but remember that the unknown woods you are in isn't likely any more dangerous than the known woods you were in. It's just unknown to you at this moment.
  • Admit that you're lost to yourself or your group. Don't play the macho role of , "I know where we are!"
  • Don't run around wildly which may put you even further away from the trail.
  • Conserve your energy which will require less food and water.
  • Now that you are calm think things through. Trace your thoughts back to where you last knew your location. How long ago was that? In what direction have you been travelling? This is where a compass would be handy.
  • lostinthewoodsIf you haven't been lost for long and your surroundings seem relatively safe, you can try to retrace your steps. But if you've been lost for 10 minutes and a 10 minute walk doesn't return you to the trail, you may just be getting more lost. Return to your original lost location and try again in another direction. Look over your shoulder as you are retracing to try to recreate the view you had when walking in the first place.
  • If further wandering might be hazardous, like night is approaching and you are near cliffs, it might be best to stay put and wait for rescue.
  • If you don't have a compass, try to line up three landmarks in the area in the direction you wish to go. This will keep you walking in a straight line to where you want to go.
  • Leave a sign or marker. You can drag a heavy stick, prop up rocks in unusual ways. This will also notify if you are walking in circles.
  • If you find a different path, it's likely that path leads somewhere and that is better to follow than just wandering.
  • If these suggestions are not fruitful, hunker down and wait for the rescuers. Stay in a fixed position.
    Create a signal of some sort. It's best to stay in an open clearing where you are visible; spell out an SOS with dead branches or rocks.
  • Use the universal distress signal which is any kind of signal repeated three times at frequent intervals, like three shouts sung out or three blasts from a whistle. You do have whistle in your backpack, don't you? If not, get one.
  • Build a fire but be careful not to set the woods on fire. A fire makes smoke that is visible to searchers.

While you wait to be rescued

  • lost0280If you brought a cell phone this is the time to call home or a friend for help. Failing that call 911.
  • Put on any additional available clothing to stay warm as needed. It is important to keep the upper body warm
  • Use an aluminized polyester emergency blanket to keep warm if it's cold. These blankets can be life-savers as they reflect body heat back to the body. Carry one in your backpack for emergencies.
  • Try lighting a fire to cheer your spirits, keep you warm, and help rescuers locate you. Keep matches in a waterproof container in your backpack.
  • Look for a sheltered spot and use piles of vegetation, limbs, and brush around you to protect from the wind.
  • Sit on your pack to insulate you from the dampness or cold of the ground. Don't sit on cold rocks.
  • Try to conserve your water supply as much as possible in case your rescue takes time or it takes you a while to get out of the woods.
  • Try to relax. Many people have survived several nights with only the items they had on them.
  • If a member of your party is overdue, notify the local police office. Try to phone the missing person if they have a cell phone.


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