Keeping Your Head When Lost In The Wilderness (part 2)

Ok folks, here we are at the meat and potatoes of last Monday’s post.  I didn’t mean to turn it into a cliff hanger, but due to the length of it I decided to break it up into two posts instead of one big ol’ honkin’ article.

Let’s get started.

The moment arrives when you’re hiking in the woods and you suddenly realize you’re lost.  Your heart jumps, adrenaline floods your system and your first reaction is to take off running over the next hill where you’re sure you’ll find the path you wandered off.  You run and run and when you reach that hill you really start to panic when you don’t see the path.

What you do next could very well save your life.

Just remember to S.T.O.P.!

Sit – Sit your butt down and take a deep breath.  Running through the woods will accomplish two things:  1.  You’ll probably become even more lost and 2.)  You’re likely to injure yourself in which case you’ll be even worse off than you were before.  Take a drink, slow down, get your breathing under control and stay put!  If you move around it’ll be harder for rescuers to find you.  You’re going to be all right if you just:

Think – Now it’s time to take an inventory of the gear you have and the skills you possess.  Do you have a compass and map with you?  Knife?  Lighter, matches, or some kind of sparking device for starting a fire?  Can you see the sun?  Where was it when you went in on the trail?  Is it getting late?  Do you have water or food with you?  A plastic garbage bag for making a shelter?  What do you have to signal with?  A whistle?  Mirror?  Fire?

Know that fear of the unknown is way worse than the unknown itself.  Being alone in the woods can be scary, but don’t let it get to you.

Keep a positive mental attitude!

Once you’ve taken stock of your gear and reaffirmed your positive mental attitude it’s time to:

Observe – Are there any landmarks around that look familiar?  Is there natural shelter nearby?  What do you see around you that can help?  Think like MacGyver!  Don’t throw anything away in a survival situation.

Sometimes you’ll find that simply by looking around with a rational mind you’ll see that you’re about ten steps off the trail.

Once you have done this it’s time to make a:

Plan – Take the information you’ve gathered and formulate a plan.  Find water and shelter.  Make a fire for signaling and to help you stay warm.  A fire will also help you feel better about being alone in the woods at night.    Let the Survival Rule of Threes be your guideline when coming up with a plan.

Stay safe!  If you’re in a dangerous situation or area find someplace that’s not and stay there.

The Survival Rule of Threes

This is simply a mnemonic for helping to remember the survival sequence:

You can live three minutes without air.

You can survive three hours without shelter in bad weather.

You can survive three days without water.

You can live three weeks without food.

You can live three months without human contact.  (This is very generalized of course.)

What to Carry for Minimal Survival Gear 

Here’s a list of gear that I carry with me in the woods no matter where I go.  If I go into the wilderness more than 1/4 mile I always have my pack with me; however, if I’m going a short distance or want to test my skills I’ll carry the following on a strap:

  • Survival knife with a firesteel attached
  • Steel water bottle with  a steel canteen cup and a pot stand.  (The pot stand wraps around the steel bottle)
  • A larger fire steel
  • Button compass
  • Energy bar
  • Coffee packet.  (Yes, it might dehydrate me, but nothing will make me feel more relaxed than a cup of coffee.)
  • Small LED flashlight
  • Multi-tool
  • Garbage or contractor bag
Again, this is what I carry for minimal survival gear.  You need to find what you’re comfortable using and make your own kit according to your own skill set and comfort level in the wilderness.
Your kit might contain a whistle and/or signalling mirror, lighter, and other items that will make an unexpected stay in the wilderness merely unpleasant instead of fatal.
 Knowledge and Experience Trumps Gear

In a worst case scenario you may not have any gear at all except for what’s on your body.  Let’s assume you’re dressed for the weather.  In the summer you’ll likely have shorts, shoes, a shirt, maybe a hat to keep the sun off, and if you’re smart you always have at least a folding knife on you.  In the fall and spring you may have long pants, hiking boots, a thermal shirt of some kind, a hat, and maybe some gloves in addition to your folding knife.  See how I keep throwing the knife in there?  If you don’t have a good folding knife go get one right now, put it in your pocket, then come back and finish reading this.

In the winter you’ll probably be wearing a few layers over your core such as a polypropylene under-shirt, wool shirt and a Gortex shell, a good warm hat, warm boots and wool socks, a good pair of gloves, long underwear and warm pants, and a knife if you’re smart.  One small note here:  Cotton kills in the winter!  Don’t wear it.

Even if this is all you have you can still survive if you know what to do.  This is where your knowledge of the wilderness will come in handy.  To build a fire you can fashion a bow drill using your knife and one of your shoelaces as the string.  For shelter you can use what’s available in the forest to make a lean-to, a bark shelter, a debris shelter, a snow cave, or whatever the situation calls for.  You can make a shelter out of a fallen tree if you know how to look for it thus saving precious calories.  You can make a cup or bowl out of birch bark and use stones to heat the water to boiling so you don’t get sick.  These kinds of shelters are labor and time intensive, so factor that into your plan.

Once you’ve got boiling water you can make tea out of pine needles, which is an excellent source of vitamin C.

If necessary you can fashion some Figure Four traps out of wood and set them out for possible protein sources.

You can gather Cattail roots for carbs and acorns for fat.

Starting to get the picture?  Gear makes things a lot easier, but just because you don’t have it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to die.  Knowledge and real world experience is the only way to reach this level of proficiency though.  Don’t think that you’re going to watch a bunch of Youtube videos and be able to get out there and survive when the chips are down.

You have to get out there and practice this stuff.  Lighting a fire without a match is difficult.  Lighting a fire without a spark is exceedingly difficult.  Knowledge and experience will tell you what kind of materials you will need to gather in order to start a fire using a lighter, match, firesteel, or a friction fire such as the bow drill.

Start Practicing Now

You’re never too young or too old to get started.  My father was teaching me about the woods when I was very young and this is something I am passing on to my own son.  Of course my dad is still around and is passing some of the same lessons on to my boy as he did to me.  Not only does this pass on valuable skills to the younger generation, buy my son absolutely worships his papa and any time they can spend together is time well spent.


 A Last Note On Surviving When Lost

Surviving means just that.  When the rescuers find you or you’ve managed to extricate yourself it simply means that you’re still alive.  You’ll probably be cold, hungry, thirsty and maybe even suffering from exposure.   It will likely be hard on you physically, mentally, and emotionally, but never give up.

As I wrote this post it became apparent that this topic could easily become a book, which I just might write, and I caution the reader that I’m merely scratching the surface of each of the points listed above.  Something so important – your life – should be taken with the utmost seriousness and I encourage you to do more research in all of these areas.  The life you save could be your own.

I hope this has been helpful.

 -Jarhead Survivor



Consider this a test and post your answers below:

Survival Scenario:

You’re fifty miles in on the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine on the Appalachian Trail.  The sign way back in Monson warned you to carry enough food for at least ten days or more because once you pass the sign there’s no place to resupply.

Now it’s five days later and you’re hiking at dusk trying to make the next lean-to so you can bed down.  Suddenly you realize that you haven’t seen a blaze mark in at least 45 minutes and what you thought was the trail is merely a game path.  When you turn around and look back you can’t tell where it came from.  It’s now fully dark in the woods and it’s starting to rain.

Panic wraps tight bands of fear around your chest and you feel the urge to flee.

You’ve got your pack (what do you keep in there?), five days of food, and you’re ok in the water situation for the moment.

What do you do?

I’ve been out there and it gets mighty black at night folks.  Hope you brought a flashlight!





38 comments… add one
  • Ray September 21, 2012, 12:42 pm

    Jarhead ,That ones easy, Rig a rainproof ,bed down,get out the SVEA stove, make Coa-coa or cha, + get som ZZZZ s.You got me within two miles of the trail, so shooting a back azmeth in the AM is no big. Its WAY easeyer than trying to hit an known grid ref. useing azmeth+pace count( you know ,a RP/ORP at night)Summer? Right? Then I don’t need a fire, and its not much for “lost”. A lean-to! got girls with? P.S . Are the blue berries/blackberries ripe in this story , that could keep me busy half the day.berrie dumplins for supper!!

    • Jarhead Survivor September 23, 2012, 11:26 am

      Ray – and that’s what I call thinking in a stressful situation. You’ll have to supply your own girl though!

      • Ray September 23, 2012, 8:27 pm

        Jarhead, Dady started to take me to the woods when I was 5, the same year I learned to shoot. By the time we were 8 my brother and I were allowed to spend friday and saterday night in the woods. That was the same year we got to hunt on our own with our .22s .(I liked my bow better) By the time I was 10 I was on a first name basis with every snake,spider,coon ,possom&skunk wihin 5 mile of the house. By the time I was 13 I could sneek up on a deer(on a dare) and touch its butt(REALY BAD idea,they kick) Honestly I can’t remember the last time I got “lost” . I feel safer in the woods than I do at Wal-Mart. Sadly most of the girls I’v known in my life thought “camping” somehow involved an RV— OR a beach front walkout with room service.

  • T.R. September 21, 2012, 12:48 pm

    To be honest , I would much prefer to be lost in the woods in Maine than lost in the desert southwest . Be much much easier to deal with . just sayin

    • irishdutchuncle September 21, 2012, 2:49 pm

      either way, you’ll walk in circles without a compass.

      • T.R. September 21, 2012, 4:47 pm

        True that , but the desert is another ballgame . Upside : visibility is usually very good, lights can be seen for miles . If somebody is looking for you , it will be less difficult for them . Downside : Hot as hell even at night , no water around . Very little in the way of natural materials to use . Scorpions , rattlesnakes , black widows , wolf spiders , cactus , most plants are thorny . Water is going to be your biggest concern as well as burns from exposed skin . Not sayin the woods of Maine would be a cake walk , just sayin it would be more forgiving with more for you to make use of .

        • irishdutchuncle September 22, 2012, 2:10 pm

          good analysis. i always bring a long sleeved shirt, wherever i go, even in summer. if i spend time in the sun, i quickly begin to resemble steamed Maine lobster…

          • T.R. September 22, 2012, 9:45 pm

            LOL , its kind of interesting …I grew up in AZ and knowing what you should do in the desert is second nature . When we did a job out in Death Valley , it was 127 degrees on most days we were there ( I wanted the 135 just to see what that would be like ) but all these tourists kept walking around in shorts , tank tops and if you can believe it FLIP FLOPS ! …… crew just looked at each other and wondered if they had any real clue about where they were ? they apparently had no thought whatsoever to the possibility of their car breaking down ……..its a big park and at that temp , it wouldn’t take long before you are in bad shape . Most were frogs and krauts with the odd limey thrown in . Maine had it own peculiar set of rules I had to learn when I was there to . I remember going to work and when I got into the parking lot , all the cars had there windshield wipers up ……it looked to me like some kids were playing a prank . When I asked about it , they looked at me like I was from mars lol , they do that so that the wiper blades are not frozen to the windshield when they get out of work ………… bad .

          • Jarhead Survivor September 23, 2012, 11:28 am

            T.R. – and that kind of temperature is exactly why I live in Maine! If got lost in the desert you’d probably be able to find me by the buzzards circling overhead.

          • irishdutchuncle September 23, 2012, 8:32 pm

            T.R. : that windshield wiper thing is something relatively new… starting maybe real late eighties, to mid nineties.
            can’t do it with my car. i put a cover across the windshield, and hope for the best.

          • T.R. September 24, 2012, 1:57 am

            Lol , I also learned real fast that you cant leave liquid in your car overnight if you dont want a big mess . Overall its a great place to live .

      • child of Odin October 3, 2012, 3:20 am

        Rarely carry a compass. Know I should, and do own several, but even when I lived in Arizona, I never used it. Course, I was familiar with all he major landmarks, and used them to locate direction (Superstition mountains in Arizona, Timp and other mountains here in Utah. If I was in a new area, orient with the sunrise/set, and pick landmarks. Course, I never tried this in Texas or Kansas. How anyone finds their way around in places that flat, I have no idea, unless it is map and compass. As for your scenario… I lost a trail while backpacking here in Utah. It was around noon, so I had lunch, did some fishing (the lake is how I knew I’d gone the wrong way, no lake on my path) and took a swim. Spent three days there before using terrain features to figure out I was on the wrong side of the mountain, found an alternate path to my destination, (my pickup point) and had a ball. Was two days late, but my grandma knew not to call for at least a week. I was a pain in her ass.

        In your scenario, I’d do about the same. I’d have dinner, and worry about it on the morning. See what opportunity chance gave me. If none, get back on the trail in the AM.

        Would have the usual gear. Would love to get truly lost, where I had no chance of coming across people. Could go three years without face to face contact. (Wife says I’m an antisocial asshole. She is probably right).

    • Jason September 22, 2012, 2:44 pm


      How’s the new career going?

      • T.R. September 22, 2012, 9:00 pm

        Going good so far , a lot more to it than I expected , but its fun . My little vampire has turned around 1000% overnight . Seems she hated my traveling …… that I dont do that anymore its better than ever .

        • Jason September 23, 2012, 11:37 am

          Glad to hear that you keep going especially after discovering that it is more than you expected – most people would quit at that realization point.

          • T.R. September 23, 2012, 3:07 pm

            True , but going back to what I did before is not an option ……….too much disdain for the industry , classic burn out .

          • Jason September 23, 2012, 7:34 pm

            Then you are in the perfect position my friend. Like Alexander the Great – burn the boats.

  • irishdutchuncle September 21, 2012, 3:57 pm

    you aren’t short on equipment, or food, since you were “backpacking”. (instead of bugging out) i would shine my headlamp around, and up, looking for obvious “widow makers”. then i’d sit on my foam pad, under my poncho. (in the most open spot, not against any tall trees) i’d be doing my best to keep my gear and myself dry. (thunderstorms can pop up, any time, you’re trying to avoid being struck by lightning) i’d say a prayer for my soul, then try to get some sleep. (it would have been better to have made camp sooner, but i didn’t) if there are any terrain features that i can use, to help protect myself from falling objects, that’s the place i’d try to sit.

    • Jarhead Survivor September 23, 2012, 11:30 am

      Good point about making camp sooner, but I’ve got to admit I’ve hiked after dark in the past and have just been lucky not to get lost. If you know the area it’s not that big a deal, but if you’re way out in the wilderness I’d suggest setting up camp while there’s still light.

      • irishdutchuncle September 23, 2012, 5:08 pm

        I like walking around at night, in familiar places. I don’t do it much anymore because the local police regard it as suspicious…

        my problem with this exercise, is that I don’t know whether I’m “north” of the trail, or “south”. in this thick tree cover, it may be impossible to pick out major landmarks, come daylight. the only worser situation, is if you’re in the woods, past the end of the trail. (…thanks Bradford Angier) with the AT, at least that isn’t your problem.

        in this situation, once there’s daylight, I will flip a coin. “heads” I walk one hour on a north-west heading.
        (“tails”, one hour, due south) if I haven’t intercepted the trail, in that hour, I will then walk due south for a few hours or so. (looking around, listening, the whole time)
        if I had started out on the south heading, (tails) and hadn’t found “civilization” after one hour, I would turn:
        north-west. I might still be lost, but at least I’d know I was west, of where I’d spent the night.

        • irishdutchuncle September 23, 2012, 8:51 pm

          … or alternatively I could continue due south until i reach

        • irishdutchuncle September 30, 2012, 3:10 pm

          …and yeh, what ThatguyinCA said. (see below)

          just don’t go into any real wilderness area without a compass. DON’T DO IT.
          (and having two would be better)

  • ThatguyinCA September 21, 2012, 6:01 pm

    I find a good spot to bed down (without dinner as I may need an extra meal later), secure my bear cannister (I even take it on desert trips) and get a good nights sleep (not hard when backpacking). Wake up in the morning, have breakfast, pack up and ensure I’m practicing LNT, get out my map (I don’t backpack without one), orient myself (my pack ALWAYS has a compass in it), and get back on trail or orienteer my way to my next supply point. Actually this is not a worry/stress situation at all.

    • Jarhead Survivor September 23, 2012, 11:31 am

      Excellent point about the compass. Everybody should have one and at a minimum know how to follow it in one of the cardinal directions.

  • Ned Ludd September 21, 2012, 6:10 pm

    The same advise for getting hurt. About 10 years ogo I fell off a trail about 30 down a ravine. Was cut up pretty bad (20 stiches to the wrist) and many other scratches and bruises. At first panic set in then I just sat on the log that stopped me, drank some water and checked myself out. Put a pressure bandage on my wrist and ascertained the situation. Figured a way up the ravine and back to the trail. It was only a mile back to the rig then a 30 mile drive to the ER. The nurse asked me who drove me and when I said myself she was rather suprised.

    No matter what Keep Your Head, stop and think…

  • Joe (PreppingToSurvive) September 22, 2012, 9:02 am

    EXCELLENT post, Jarhead. Everyone heading into the woods should read this.

  • White.Buffalo - Doug September 22, 2012, 11:15 am

    Well after I first said a few choice words to every tree that was within 10 meters and I get over the initial shock and recover from telling myself how stupid I was for not paying attention – I would sit.
    I have been ‘lost’ (4 days) in a very wooded area (just as your post indicates) and it really was not a lot of fun – scared yes (essentially, no real panic), but an adventure = yes (which I learned a lot about myself).
    I essentially did what you have outlined in the posting and survived quite well to make it now some twenty-five years later – but, your posting sure brought back some incredible memories. {It is always very easy to say ‘what I would do in such a situation’ = but, when you are in the middle of it all – the reality of the situation becomes very evident}. And I was then and still do consider myself an experienced backpacker – believe me reality has an effective ‘wake-up-call’ !!!!!!!!!!!
    One issue I did learn was to ‘next time’ be sure I have more than enough water (I had everything else – but, I was very surprised at how much water my body requested).
    Thanks so much for your postings – many-many will benefit from such careful research and the details you have shared about surviving ‘when lost’. Keep up the good work.

  • Doodle September 22, 2012, 2:10 pm

    If any gear should include a PLB registered with SARSAT

  • Doodle September 22, 2012, 2:37 pm

    Sorry, should read “any gear should include a PLB”. Mine was only $250 – super cheap life insuranse

    • Watchdog September 23, 2012, 1:27 am


      Great idea! Sure beats running around, screaming like a girl. Lol. However, at the very least you MUST have a compass with you no matter what (no batteries required). Oh yeah, and don’t forget that darn folding knife!

      Happy and safe hiking.

      • child of Odin October 3, 2012, 3:29 am

        Um, am old and have no idea what a PLB is… but at $250, is outta my price range.

  • Jason September 22, 2012, 2:52 pm

    About the pitch blackness ….

    A few years back my son & I went out boar hunting deep in the hills of Kauai at night. I swear you could barely see your hand in front of you when the headlight (on the hat) was turned off. It was pretty spooky & needless to say we didn’t stay out long. The worst was the ginormous spider webs – gave me the heebie jeebies!

    BTW Jarhead – great finish & well worth the wait. Also, very cool about your dad & continuing on with your son – that is awesome.

  • GoneWithTheWind September 22, 2012, 4:34 pm

    Everyone should do this once and preferably before it is a real emergency. It is an odd feeling to be deep in the woods with night minutes away and no fire, no camp and no place to stay. You will get through it and you will have a much better appreciation of being prepared. But most important when it happens the second or subsequent time you won’t be panicky.

    • D'ja'c September 23, 2012, 7:15 am

      I think I know what you mean. The biochemists and head shrinks could probably get real technical explaining it. Unless you experience the mental and physical reactions and sensations to Jarhead’s scenario there is no sure way to know what you’d do. When it happened to me my first reaction was everything but S.T.O.P. Even though I’d read about it many times. The next time I started to notice it coming on I recovered quickly and didn’t panic, turned back and walked out. However there is some masochist adrenaline junky in me that realizes this is one of those “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” things.

  • Brad September 24, 2012, 9:25 pm

    “See how I keep throwing the knife in there? If you don’t have a good folding knife go get one right now, put it in your pocket, then come back and finish reading this.” That is one of the FIRST lessons I learned from my dad. In the woods, at work, or at the ball park, you better have one on you. I bet there has not been but a handful of days since I was 10 or 12 that I didn’t have a knife in my pocket.

  • Nor' Country September 25, 2012, 8:01 am

    One more for the “rule of threes” : you have three years to publish your story if you survive, of course…

  • child of Odin October 3, 2012, 3:38 am

    Lol, Nor’ Country. Like that. If I was single, I’d drop out. Miss spending most of my time in the hills. Still not fond of town, but with a wife and three girls… and agree on the knife issue. Am glad I live where I do, would hate to navigate somewhere like Kansas Florida or Texas. Could, but would hate it. That always bugged me in those states. No reference points. Plus, I felt exposed all the time. Never been in the NE, and have no idea what its like.

  • bryan October 4, 2012, 4:45 pm

    New to this awesom site, so much to read. ive never been truly lost in the deep woods here in VA but have been twisted around acouple times, once for about 30 hours while hunting. I “ALWAYS” carry a fire kit, 80 lume LED flash lite & one spare set of aaa batt. a 5 1/2 fixed blade knife, a first aid kit & compass. Extra food and water is a given. All that stuff payed off one year when i got
    “twisted” around while hunting and wasnt able to make it back to the car before dark . i had an idea where i was but wasnt possitive so i set about collecting as much fire wood as i could (it was going to be in the upper 20’s that night) before it got dark. My fire kit is very basic and easy to use, 2 bic lighters, 1 magneseum(sp) with striker, and my version of a fire starter… 1 egg carton w/ wood shavings filling the egg holes. slowly drizzle several layers of melted parrafin wax from your wifes best sauce pan on to the wood shavings in the cardbord egg crate. allow to cool.. cut up in to 12 relieable fire starters. Any way, once the fire was started it was still a bit cold but much more comforting that if i hadnt had the fire. once it was light enought to travle i made it back to the car in three hrs, alittle cold but alive. I now teach my boys several different way to make a fire kit and to make a fire from them in most kinds of weather. they make a compatition of starting a fire with the least amount of equipment/stuff. teach some one how to make fire, if you dont they might not make itout alive if they get alittle “twisted” around.


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