Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. Cars break down, devastating winter storms hit, and sometimes you simply take the wrong freeway exit and end up lost with no cell service.
Dr. David Townes, a professor of emergency medicine and adjunct professor of global health at the University of Washington, says unintended trips to the wilderness are often spurred by accidents — like taking a wrong turn or car trouble — or severe weather changes.
Even for adventurers seeking outdoor challenges, “the common theme is that they’ve underestimated what they plan to do and, tied in with that, nearly overestimated their own abilities,” Townes said.
“If you can avoid getting into trouble, then that’s obviously the most successful strategy.”
But, just like the Scout motto, it’s always good to be prepared. Being ready for life’s twists and turns can be the difference between safety and harm.
Experts broke down the key details for planning and preparing for worst-case scenarios.
Before you leave the house, be sure to do some research. Look online or talk to locals about your chosen destination, Townes said. Doing so can ensure you’re informed about trail quality, wildlife, water accessibility, maps, and more.
It’s a good idea to check the weather forecast as well, regardless of the time of year.
Once you’ve planned your trip, the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service says to give someone all the important details — including your destination, how many people are going, the vehicle you’re taking, the trail you plan to follow, and when you’ll return.
Depending on where you’re headed, you should also make sure to pack these essentials that could help prevent or mitigate emergencies:
- Water and water-purifying tablets or drops
- Nonperishable, nutritionally valuable foods such as dried fruits or nuts, energy bars, or beef jerky
- First aid kit including disinfectants, tourniquets, bandages, and aluminum splints
- Comfortable shoes with ankle support
- Insulation (an emergency blanket, jacket, hat, gloves, waterproof rain shell, thermal underwear)
- Sunscreen, and hat
- Lightweight shelter, if possible, such as a bivy sack, tarp, or one-person tent
- Flashlight or headlamp
- Waterproof matches, lighters, and fire starters
- Duct tape, knife, screwdriver, and scissors
- Map, compass, and locator beacon
- Charged portable battery
Be sure to dress for the elements. If it’s cold out, avoid cotton clothing because wet cotton doesn’t dry well and therefore won’t keep you warm, Townes said.
“A down jacket is a great insulating layer, but down is not very insulating when it gets wet,” Townes explained. “If you then cover your down jacket with some sort of thin waterproof jacket, you’ve now got a waterproof, insulated layer … Layering is important because then you have choices.”
Remember, even if you’re going to the desert, you should still bring a warm jacket. Temperatures can drop drastically at night, and in many mountain areas, weather conditions can vary dramatically throughout the day.
The Forest Service says that you should know that “panic is your greatest enemy” if you get lost.
“Your best chance of survival is to think rationally and calmly,” Townes said.
“Think, ‘What are my options? What are the things I need to worry about in terms of threats? Like the weather, is it getting dark? Is it late? Am I going to try to get out tonight or am I here for the night and I need to work on this in the morning? And therefore, I need to figure out where I’m going to spend the night.'”
The Forest Service recommends following its “STOP” protocol: Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan. First, stay put while mentally retracing your steps to recall how you arrived there. Ask yourself what landmarks you should see, and don’t move until you have a specific reason to do so. Use your compass to determine the directions.
Come up with a few potential plans based on what you observe, compare them, and then follow the one that has your confidence.
However, the Forest Service says that if it’s dark outside or you’re injured (or exhausted), you should stay put for the night. If you’re on a trail, stay on it — especially if it has signs or markers.
Townes said that following a drainage or stream downhill could lead to civilization, but it could also be dangerous if you have to travel through thick brush or steep terrain.
If there’s something you can climb on to see above the tree line, that can also help you locate civilization and choose which direction you should go in.
Survive the ordeal
At this point, your focus is staying alive until rescue. Townes said that staying hydrated is more important than staying fed since dehydration can be much more dangerous.
Every time you see water, top off your bottle even if you think it’s unnecessary. You can’t be sure when you’ll see another water source.
Running water, such as a stream or river, is usually cleaner than stagnant bodies of water, Townes said.
“If you do have to use stagnant water like the lake, people theorize that getting it from close to the middle is better than the edge.”
If you run out of food, any berries or proteins you find — such as fish or insects — are usually edible, Townes said. He didn’t recommend eating wild mushrooms since their toxicity can be a gamble.
There are optimal times to rest and eat or expend energy, according to the Forest Service. If you’re starting to feel tired, stop and rest for at least 30 minutes before you reach exhaustion. You’ll need to rest for at least half an hour after eating, too, since it’d be taxing to digest food and hike simultaneously.
Also, address small problems as soon as you notice them. “If you ignore your body and keep pushing, the pain or illness will only get worse and make recovery more difficult,” the Forest Service says.
If you’re stranded during a warm season, avoid hiking between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Instead, sit in a shady spot until the weather cools. Keep a comfortable pace when you hike.
When you need shelter, look for structures such as cabins, lean-tos, or rock formations. Only choose a cave if remaining unsheltered would be life-threatening, Townes said.
Don’t go into a cave far enough to get trapped, and watch for bats or large animals since those can pose a risk for disease or other harm.
Face the elements and wildlife
Townes advised that you should only make a fire in certain circumstances and with extreme caution.
“Always know the (local) rules about campfires and try to never violate those rules, because we’ve seen in the last several years these horrible fires on both coasts,” Townes said.
Build your fire so it’s blocked from wind that would transport embers, maybe surrounding it with rocks or other objects that aren’t flammable, he recommended.
Injuries are where your first aid kit comes in handy. According to Townes, any drinkable water is probably fine for flushing your wound if you don’t have a disinfectant. You can treat sprains or breaks with the aluminum splint you hopefully packed or an improvised aid made from branches.
If you researched the site ahead of time, that could help you to fend off any agitated animals. Staying calm and refraining from intimidating them is usually your best bet for most large animals.
Return to safety, and don’t give up hope
Though getting lost in the unforgiving wilderness can seem dire, stories from survivors help us realize that all hope is not lost.
Oregon resident Harry Burleigh thought he was headed out on a quick hike last May until he spontaneously decided to venture off on a trail before returning home. It turned out to be the start of the 17 days he had to survive in the wilderness while his wife, authorities, and volunteers searched for him.
Rescuers found Burleigh after spotting makeshift shelters. He was in minor pain but stable. He told a local news outlet how he fashioned a headcover out of his underwear and fishing gear and used a plastic magnifying glass to start a fire.
Alaska resident Tyson Steele lost his cabin, dog, and belongings to a fire in December 2019, leaving him stranded alone in the bitter cold. Rescuers found Steele three weeks later after helicopter troopers noticed his waves and large “SOS” sign carved out of snow. He ate canned rations and peanut butter and slept in a snow cave and shelter he built around his wood stove.
Sajean Geer spread her late husband’s ashes in Washington’s Olympic National Park in July 2017, then, disoriented by emotion, couldn’t find her car or any roads. Geer had made a makeshift shelter out of logs and moss, surviving on currant fruits, pine needles, ants, and stream water. Searchers found her after six days.
With some practical know-how and a clear head, it’s possible to make it out of a nightmarish scenario.