How People Get Lost in the Woods and What to Do if It Happens to You

Woman standing in the middle of the woods, looking lost

Pooja Sajan / Unsplash

You know how it goes. Camping and hiking and general cavorting in the woods is all fun and games until someone goes and gets lost. Then it's not so fun, as many a Brothers Grimm fairy tale reminds us. Given that more than 330 million people visit the country's national parks, forests and wilderness areas every year, well, sometimes people get lost.

Katherine, who grew up in the woods of Canada, gave us a great rundown last year on basic survival skills. (She also gives enlightening lessons in starting fires and shoveling snow, in case you're interested.) But this city mouse has always wondered, how do people get lost in the woods in the first place?

As it turns out, I'm not the only one to wonder. The Smoky Mountains portal,, mused about the same when they analyzed more than 100 news reports to find out what were the most common ways people got lost while hiking – as well as what they did to survive, and how they made it out. Here's what they found about getting lost.

How Hikers Got Lost

Wandered off the trail: 42 percent
Bad weather: 17 percent
Fell off trail: 16 percent
Got separated from group: 8 percent
Injury: 7 percent
Darkness: 6 percent
Loss or failure of equipment: 5 percent
Other: 1 percent

Strangely missing: Selfies and alcohol, although maybe those are included in falling off the trail?

How They Stayed Warm

Clothes: 12 percent
Built fires: 10 percent
Used camping gear: 10 percent

Other methods of keeping warm mentioned included using body heat of fellow lostees and dogs, hikers covering themselves, exercise and digging in.

What They Used for Shelter

Camping gear: 11 percent
Caves and other existing shelters: 9 percent
Trees: 8 percent

Other shelters listed included self-made caves and coverings, and taking shelter in rocks, inside fallen trees and in the ground.

What They Drank From

Natural body of water: 24 percent
Snow, rain or puddles: 16 percent
Rationed their own water: 13 percent

Other sources of hydration that survivors listed included drinking urine, going without water or licking leaves, moss and grass.

Staying Vs. Going

Kept moving to find their way out: 65 percent
Chose to stay put: 35 percent

And when it came to being rescued versus finding their way out on their own, 23 percent found their way, while 77 percent were rescued.

Hiking Advice From an Expert

The site also asked Andrew Herrington, a survival instructor, search and rescue team leader, and Wildlife Ranger in the Smokies, for his expertise on avoiding this nightmare in the first place. Here is what he recommends.

Be Prepared

• Carry the Ten Essentials
• Leave a trip plan and check in time with two trusted people
• Study your maps and identify a “bailout” direction in the area you’re exploring
• Check the weather forecast (including overnight in case you’re forced to stay out)
• Always use high quality clothing: Merino or synthetic base layers, mid layers, synthetic or dri-down puffy jackets and Gore-Tex shells
• Practice lightweight tarp shelter building at home
• Print off free maps at
• Download a backup GPS app, like Avenza
• Practice fire making and carry the gear (including petroleum jelly soaked cotton balls and fatwood sticks)
• Look into Personal Locator Beacons and Satellite Messengers for cutting edge signaling options

Avoid Getting Lost

• Identify features on the ground and find them on the map as you go
• If you’re off-trail, work out how to reach a linear trail, road or creek
• If you’re unsure of your location, start breaking branches in the direction you’re traveling, or skin a 6 inch cut on a sapling with your knife. The inner bark shows white and is easy to follow

Stay Warm

• Avoid sweating into your clothes in cold weather
• Stay cool when you’re active and warm at rest
• Monitor for hypothermia signals in the group
• Warm up with sugary foods, exercise, or a big fire

Create a Shelter

• Use your tarp, puffy jacket and quilt to create a warm cozy shelter
• Keep a 55 gallon trash bag in your pocket in case you’re separated from your pack
• If you have no other option, build a lean-to shelter (framework of sticks, covered with leaf litter, evergreen branches, or bark - whichever is most available) and heat it with a 6 foot long fire
• Build a bed out of leaves, grass, or pine needles, at least 8 inches thick

Prevent Dehydration

• Use a lightweight filter, Chlorine dioxide tablets, or a steel canteen to boil and purify water
• In the worst case scenario, just drink the water - statistically in the US, you will be rescued within 24 hours - death from dehydration is a bigger risk than infection

Carry High-Calorie Snacks

• Pack high calorie foods like almond butter and coconut oil packs
• If you have no food, don’t try to hunt, trap, or forage - it just exposes you to potential injury
• Instead, fast: the average person has over 30 days of calories to survive on
• Prioritize building a camp, staying warm, and hydrated

Move or Stay Put?

• If you left a trip plan and someone knows you are missing, or if you’re stranded in a vehicle or on a trail, old road, or creek - stay where you are
• Consider “self-rescue” if you didn’t tell anybody where you were going, and have no way to signal
• Navigate to an open area, high ground for cell signal, or your “bailout” direction, leaving a trail as you go

How to Get Rescued

• Use brightly colored tarps and clothing
• Call 911 on your cell phone, even if you don’t have service. By law, any tower that you can connect with will transmit that call
• Use signal mirrors or three blasts on your whistle to attract attention
• Add green plants to your fire to create a smoke signal
• Movement and contrast are the key to being seen if you hear a rescue plane or helicopter

And I always thought the secret was leaving a trail of breadcrumbs ... you really do learn something new everyday. For more, you can see all the research, and some personal accounts of being lost, at