Getting lost in the woods is a scary thing. If you’ve gotten turned around and can’t find your way back to camp, you could quickly find yourself in big trouble. With night falling, and no shelter to be had, getting disoriented and separated from your group and your camp can be a death sentence when you’re out in the woods.
Considering how much time we all spend in offices, it’s no wonder these types of backcountry skills are fading fast. Apps in our cars and our phones give us directions with a couple of clicks, so it’s not really a priority anymore to pay attention. Because Siri, or Google, or Alexa can jump in. Unless of course, you’re lost in the woods, your phone has long died, and there’s no signal out there anyway.
If you’re alone in the woods, there are a couple of techniques you can use to keep yourself oriented, and find the path to follow back to safety.
Learn to read a map
Back in my scouting days we were taught how to use a map and a compass, and it’s one technique that’s served me well in the wild. Heck, if you set me anywhere with a few large landmarks and I’ll be able to navigate my way around. So, make this a priority. You need to learn to read a map, and not only that, make sure you’re carrying a compass and a map whenever you’re headed out into the woods.
But what if you’ve got nothing?
Learn to leave a mark
Without a map and a compass, it doesn’t mean you need to get lost. If you’re wandering the woods, perhaps in the area surrounding your camp, are off on a hunt or even just foraging for food, one of the easiest ways to keep your bearing is to leave a mark. It’s far easier than it sounds, especially with a little practice.
Now, it used to be common practice to cut a notch or an arrow on a tree for this purpose, but that’s not really recommended anymore, as you’re doing quite a bit of damage to the woods and well, that’s not good for the environment.
But there’s a few ways you can leave a mark.
Check your footprints
The easiest mark to make is your footprints. Learn what impression your boots leave in the ground, and ensure you’re stepping in places that leave good footprints as you hike. Yep, that means right into some mud, or anything that’s going to hold the shape. Snow is very good, as is mud that’s already partially dry. Leave obvious footprints and retracing your steps will be simple.
On the flip side, if you’re surrounded by sand or hard-packed dry earth, you need to exaggerate your footprints if you want to have any chance to find them again. What I recommend, is making it a habit to kick up the dirt with my heel every so often. Digging it in to gauge out the ground. It leaves an obvious trail (in pretty much all conditions), and makes it an obvious trail to follow back to camp.
Flag your trail
If you know following your trail is going to be a problem, leaving flags is another option. You can use anything that’s bright and obvious for this, though personally I like crepe paper streamers because they’re not only lightweight, but also biodegradable and you don’t have to feel bad if you happen to forget where you tied the flags and leave a couple out. I just keep a roll in my pocket, and tie a new flag at eye level every 10-15 steps.
Failing that, you could always use something natural to mark your trail. A small tower of rocks is a pretty universal marker, though finding (or carrying) big stacks of rocks around isn’t fun. Another option is to scrape arrows into the trail. I’d do this in addition to another marking method, but remember that once night falls these arrows in the dirt are going to be near impossible to find. It’s far easier to spot a piece of bright orange paper at eye level.
Look for damage
If you’ve forgotten to leave any sort of trail at all, not all is lost, but you are going to find it gets much harder. Sometimes branches, plants and the brush around an area is damaged from where you’ve walked through. You need to identify these areas, and re-trace your steps until you get back on the right trail.
In days gone by, people used to intentionally snap branches as they passed through an area to make it obvious which way they’d gone. I wouldn’t recommend doing this amount of damage if you have another choice, but if finding your way back to camp is going to be a life or death situation, a few strategic branches broken to point the way could make all the difference.
Paint the way
If there’s a stream in your way that you need to cross, make use of the mud that’s there on the banks to mark your trail. You will have mud on your boots, so scrape this off onto some obvious rocks, pointing in the direction you need to head, in a couple of key spots that are readily visible. That way if you happen to hit the same stream on your return, you can simply follow the water until you hit your cross-over point, and use this as a trigger to get back on track.
Getting lost in the woods can be a death sentence, but with a little knowledge you’ll be well on your way to navigating effectively through even the most difficult terrain. The key is to leave a mark, and ensure the signs you’re making are easily visible, and show you the way to get back to camp. Do it right, and you’ll be exploring the wild like a pro in no time.