Know Before You Go: How to Survive If You Get Lost in the Backcountry


To prevent getting lost yourself, take the advice of wilderness survival expert and Intermountain Life Flight manager Brent Palmer, who shared these tips to avoid getting lost and how to handle it if you do.

Before you go:

Notify someone: Tell a friend or family member where you’re going, how long you’ll be gone, and when you expect to get back. If you change the details of your plan at the last minute, update the person you told. That way, if something goes wrong, someone will know to start looking and alert the proper authorities.

Do your homework: Before you go, research the area you’ll be visiting. Know the trail and surrounding areas well so you don’t get lost, and in case you do, you’ll have an idea of how to get out.

“I’ve seen a lot of people just show up at a trailhead and have no clue what’s in store,” Palmer said. “They don’t know how long the trail is and where it’s taking them, and that’s a big mistake.”

Bring the right equipment: Don’t leave the house without the right supplies, including: appropriate clothing, food, flashlights, fire-starting materials, and most importantly, water. Palmer emphasized: Traveling with enough water to last the whole trip is a necessity. “On a 90-degree summer day, you’ll need at least three liters per person,” he said.

If you get lost:

Stay put: Sit down and don’t move. Someone’s looking for you.

“We find a lot of people who’ll try to find their way back to the trail or campsite when they realize they’re lost,” Palmer said. “That’s a problem. You get really disoriented and you get farther and farther from where people expect you to be.”

Know your priorities: Shelter, fire, and water (in that order) are the big three priorities of survival. For shelter, try to find protection from the elements under a pine tree or a rock outcropping, because nothing will wear you out faster than being exposed to the sun and wind. Build a fire next for two reasons: to stay warm and to signal rescuers. Only after shelter and fire are in order can you turn your attention to your water supply.

Make yourself visible to search and rescuers: It’s hard to spot people on the ground, so do your best to show people where you are. Wear clothing that stands out from the gray and green rocks. Keep your fire burning. Make noise. Sound will be the most noticeable in a ground search, so it’s useful to keep a whistle to alert rescuers to your presence.

“Really, anything you can do to send a signal will be useful, whether it’s blowing a whistle or making a help sign out of rocks,” Palmer said.

Life Flight emergency responders are very skilled at finding people lost in the backcountry, Palmer said. They’re also well-equipped to pitch in whenever they’re needed, with features like an emergency hoist and night vision goggles that can spot a cell phone light from 20 miles away, but preventing emergencies is always the better scenario.

Before you go on your next outing, make sure your entire group knows how to respond in case of an emergency, even the kids.

“Since the time my son was 5 years old, he had a hiking survival pack with everything he needed — whistle, water, blanket, protein bars, flashlight, etc.,” Palmer said. “And he knew that if something ever went wrong, he was supposed to sit down and wait until someone rescued him.”

Without a doubt, preparation is the best practice for avoiding disaster.

“If you’re adequately prepared for even just a short little hike, you’re never going to get into any type of problem,” Palmer said.