What To Do If You Get Lost In The Woods

Taylor Hilgard Unit of The Lee Metcalf Wilderness | Photo: D. Lennon
Taylor Hilgard Unit of The Lee Metcalf Wilderness | Photo: D. Lennon

Big Sky, Montana is an outdoor lovers paradise. Hiking, backcountry skiing, backpacking, peak bagging, dirt biking, rock climbing, snowshoeing, and fishing can take you far from the beaten path. But what happens when your adventure takes a wrong turn and you find yourself lost in the woods?

Anyone can get lost in the woods. It's easy to get disoriented in the sprawling Lee Metcalf Wilderness or the towering forests of the Gallatin National Forest. All it takes is one wrong turn or poor visibility and you're no longer where you thought you were. If this happens to you, don't panic.

Here's what to do if you get lost in the woods:

Hiker Looking at Map | Visit Big Sky
Hiker Looking at Map | Visit Big Sky

  • Stop - As soon as you realize that you're lost in the woods, stop moving and stay with your group. Only continue to move if you know where you are, need to find shelter, or are looking for water. It's much easier for rescuers to find a stationary person than someone who is moving around.
  • Assess Your Situation - Sit down and think. Ask yourself:
    • Where do I think I am?
    • When was the last time I knew where I was?
    • What gear do I have with me?
    • What's the weather doing?
    • Do I recognize anything?
    • What time of day is it?
    • Am I safe here?
    • Does anyone know where I am?

Stay focused and you may be able to rescue yourself. If not, it's time to make a plan.

  • Prioritize - Whatever you do, don't make your situation worse. Find shelter that can protect you from the elements. Build a fire that will keep you warm and will protect you from wild animals. Locate a water source as this is critical to your survival.
  • Be Patient - Backcountry rescue takes time. Conserve your energy. You'll need it to stay warm and to survive.
  • Create Signals - Noise will help deter wild animals, but it will also help rescuers pinpoint your location. Listen carefully for sounds of vehicles or people. Send out the universal S-O-S signal - three whistle blasts, three fires, or three of just about anything. This will increase your chances of being found.

It's easy to get lost and many people who get lost in the woods are totally unprepared. Try to prepare for the unexpected the next time you are in the backcountry by doing these three things:

  1. Let Someone Know Where You Are Going - Tell your friends, call your Mom, or leave a note on the fridge detailing your adventure for the day. If no one knows where you are, it will be much harder to find you.
  2. Get The Knowledge - If you play in the mountains, learn the skills you need to deal with emergencies. A little bit of knowledge can improve your safety, comfort, and survival.
  3. Bring The Gear - Always carry the things you need in case of an emergency in any season. That includes extra layers, food, water, first aid kit, map, compass, fire starter, emergency blanket, knife, and probably bear spray. It might be smart to invest in a satellite messaging device too.

If you find yourself lost in the woods, don't panic. Use your head and play it safe.

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