Camping & Survival

Keep Your Bearings and Find Your Way In the Woods

It’s the time of year where many people head out into the woods and mountains to do a bit of camping, hiking, and just get away from it all for a while.

Like many other things, a bit of planning and preparation goes a long way towards ensuring that you won’t become disoriented out in the wilderness. Get familiar with the terrain before you head out. Study maps of the area you will be in, making note of any prominent landmarks such as railroad tracks, power lines, creeks, rivers, hills and valleys. If you find yourself turned around you can use these landmarks to find your way back to familiar terrain. My siblings and I used techniques such as this when out exploring on the 1,200-acre ranch we grew up on. That amount of land is easy for an 8-year-old to get lost on, but whenever I found myself disoriented I could simply walk around until I spotted a power line and then follow it back to the road, ranch house, or one of the barns.

If you’re heading out into the woods, even if you’ll just be taking a small 30-minute hike, take along a basic survival kit including a compass or GPS. Many people who found themselves lost in the wild had only taken a few steps off of a trail when they found they were unable to find their way back. Without any means of navigation, it’s all too easy for a quick walk in the park to become a life-threatening situation. Even seasoned outdoorsmen can find themselves disoriented when weather such as heavy snow, fog, or rain makes visibility limited.

A good compass can save the day if you get lost.

If you choose to carry a GPS, make sure you’ve got spare batteries for it as well. If you carry a compass, make sure that you know how to use it in conjunction with a map. The best maps for navigating outdoors are 1:24,000 scale 7.5-minute topographic maps available from the U.S. Geological Survey. They are available online for a small fee at

The best way to prevent getting lost while out hiking in the wilderness is to keep an eye on landmarks and pay close attention to where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re heading. If you’re simply hiking a trail, this may be as simple as looking for curves and elevation changes on the trail that match what is indicated on the map. If you leave established trails, take a bearing or track your progress with a GPS device to ensure that you can find your way back to your last known position. Take careful note of landmarks you can use to guide yourself back to the trail. As you walk, periodically turn around so that you can see what the path you are taking looks like from the opposite direction.

Should you become lost, or suspect that you are, take a break, sit down, and relax. It’s very easy to give in to the panic that sets in as you become more and more convinced that you are lost. Instead, sit down and have a bite to eat if you’ve brought some food or a snack. If you have one, take out your GPS or compass and map and take a bearing. Mentally retrace your steps and the path that you took. Often times calmly reviewing what you did and where you went before you got lost is all you need to do to be able to find your way back.

If you don’t have a compass or GPS, use landmarks, the position of the sun, moon, or northern star to orient yourself. When this fails, it’s time to use whatever else you have at your disposal to find your way back to civilization. Even if you are stuck without a compass or GPS, you can still certain tried and true methods to find your way. One older method for navigating unknown terrain is to follow rivers and streams. Humans build most of our settlements along waterways. If you find yourself lost, one sure-fire way to eventually work your way back to a town or city is to head downhill. Continue moving downhill until you come across a stream, creek, or other waterway. Follow this waterway and you are assured of coming across a bridge or human settlement sooner or later. Just bear in mind, if you’re truly out in the wilderness that “later” may mean days or even weeks before a meandering waterway eventually brings you to a rescue point, making this a choice you generally only want to use when you have exhausted all other options.

Having a good survival kit is important.

If you do have a compass, GPS, or other navigational aid, you are in a much better position. Hopefully, you made preparations before heading out and know the general direction to take to find your way back. Even though your compass may tell you to go in a direction that does not seem correct, you should always trust your compass or GPS. Remember: you’re the one that’s lost. A compass rarely deviates from magnetic north. A critical mistake many people make when they are disoriented is refusing to follow their compass or other navigational instruments. Even trained pilots have been known to ignore a compass reading and instead trust their gut, often leading to disastrous consequences. While GPS readings can be less accurate under cloudy skies or a very leafy canopy, even under these conditions your GPS will give you a fairly accurate path as you travel: usually accurate enough to find your way back. If you’re going to be out in the wild for a couple of days, it’s best to conserve your batteries and use the GPS in conjunction with a map and compass. Paired up with a USGS topographical map, this makes it easy to use the GPS to get precise latitude and longitudinal coordinates that you can mark on the topo map.

When setting out, I mark the position of my vehicle or trailhead. Then, using the compass and map I navigate along the trail or through the countryside, stopping periodically to take the GPS back out and turn it on long enough to get another set of coordinates that are then plotted on the map. If I’m navigating a dense forest, such as I am forced to do when making my way to my deer stand during hunting season, I use fluorescent or reflective trail markers. Tied on a tree every hundred feet or so, depending on the visibility in the brush, these markers make it easy to find your way even under low light conditions. I use these paired up with a red LED headlamp to find my way in the wee hours of the morning, even in heavy fog, to navigate back and forth between camp and my hunting position.

Even if you’re prone to getting lost or turned around, with just a little bit of preparation you can be confident in your ability to navigate in the wilderness. Always make sure to tell a close friend or family member where you’re going, how long you plan on being gone, and when you expect to return. This way if you don’t return when expected your friend or family can alert rescue teams. Make sure to pack an emergency survival kit including first aid supplies and a compass or other navigational aid, even if you only plan on being out for an hour or so. Practice navigation and orienteering to improve your skills and keep them sharp. With enough practice and preparation, even if you do manage to get lost for a few hours or even day or so, it will be nothing more than a bit of an adventure that leaves you with some stories to tell around the campfire.

How do you keep your bearings and find your way in the woods? Let us know in the comments below!

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Comments (3)

  1. What a great post since I was just saying I wanted to explore alone. I now have some great tips on staying safe and making it back with little hassle.

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