In an era where smartphones and affordable GPS devices are everywhere, it can be all too tempting to rely on them at all times for emergency situations. Of course, having access to a power bank that lets you recharge your devices as necessary is one possible solution. But ultimately, any outdoor enthusiast should have at least a basic knowledge of navigation techniques that don’t require any technology. Remember that unless you’re injured or desperately in need of water, it’s better to stay put and wait for help than to risk wandering in circles, getting more lost, and using up the last bit of your energy.
#1 – READ THE TERRAIN
The first step is to realize that your surroundings provide you with a ton of valuable information — you just need to know what to look for.
We’re going to assume that you’re lost in an area away from an actual trail that you started on. Just a reminder that, especially for inexperienced hikers, staying on the trail at all times is recommended. If you do get lost off the trail, try to get back on that cut and cleared trail path as soon as possible, as it will greatly increase your rescue odds.
Take a minute to stop and clear your head. When you started your hike or adventure, was the starting point high up on a hill, or low down in a valley? Overwhelmingly, civilization will be found at the bottom of hills and mountains, especially if a river runs in that direction. If you’re not sure which direction to search for the trail or help, going downhill and/or towards the nearest water source is an excellent starting point.
If you’re already high up in the hills and getting all the way down will take a long time, take the opportunity to scan the horizon before you descend. Look for faint trails in the distance, streetlights, or even campfires. Any sign of human life is a huge boost for morale and step in the right direction; so if all you can see is a soft streetlight that’s 10 miles away, it may be the best idea to go that direction to where you know for sure there is civilization.
#2 – THE SUN, MOON, AND TREES
We can infer subtle hints about our orientation by what our natural surroundings look like. As you may know, moss grows most densely on the north side of trees. However, be careful when using this rule. In dense, healthy woodland environments, moss can grow almost everywhere.
Also, don’t apply that rule to the hills themselves. In North America, the north side of hills is likely to be the most barren and devoid of plant life; the south side should be the most vegetated.
As you know, the sun rises in the approximate east and sets in the approximate west. This can help if you’re utterly turned around and have totally lost your bearings.
There’s an old trick that uses crescent moons to help determine which way is north, as well. Connect the two points on the moon’s crescent and trace a straight line to the horizon. That general area should be north, and should align with Polaris (the north star).
#3 – HAVE THE RIGHT GEAR
There’s a reason why lovers of the outdoors own so much gear: it’s simply smart to be prepared at all times, for anything. When you’re in a tough situation, you don’t want to be complaining over and over again that “I wish I brought my lighter,” or “I wish I had a way to charge my phone,” or “I would do anything for a knife.” The best way to avoid a seriously bad experience outdoors is to prepare adequately beforehand.
Look for highly functional multi-tools that allow you to save space when packing, but still have access to a ton of features. Stock up on basic essentials like firestarting materials, a knife, a compass, and ways to get rescuers’ attention such as a whistle or mirror.
We can’t stress this last part enough. Survival tools can drastically increase your odds of making it out of a scary misadventure alive. If you’ve got a bag full of equipment and supplies, you can last a long time until you find the trail or help arrives. On the other hand, if you’re out there with nothing but the clothes on your back, you’ll learn extremely fast just how unforgiving Mother Nature really is.
Wilderness survival starts before you even leave home. Pack a bag with more than you think you’ll need, even if you’re just going for a day hike. Sure, you might not use it this time… or next time… or the time after that.
But when you do use it, you’ll be thanking the heavens you brought it.