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How Do I Survive a Lost in the Woods Disaster?

There are several reasons that even the most experienced outdoorsman can find themself stranded in the wilderness. Here are few of the most common scenarios and ways to deal with them.

Plan Before You Leave

Before you embark on any wilderness trip, it is essential that you notify at least one person of where you are going. If possible, provide a map and a detailed itinerary so rescuers know where to look for you. This will significantly lower the amount of time you have to survive should you find yourself stranded. Stay as close to this itinerary as possible; your life may depend on it.

Another way to ensure wilderness survival is to pack a good emergency survival kit with enough supplies to keep you alive for up to three days. It takes surprisingly few things to sustain life and provide for the most common scenarios, so this is an easy way to protect your life.

Physical Injury

This is a common scenario for hikers and hunters: You trek deep into the woods, then sprain an ankle so severely that you cannot walk. How do you hike out of the woods with only one good leg?

Regardless of the type of injury, your first action should be providing good first aid. This will be easy if you have a first aid kit--and you should, because every survival kit includes one. Once you have treated the injury, your next step should be to evaluate your chance of successfully making your way back to civilization. If you can contact help via satellite or radio, this is the best solution. If not, ask yourself whether you can hike out without worsening your wound or endangering yourself. If neither is possible, sit tight and wait for authorities to find you. With a well-packed survival kit, you know you will at least survive.

Lost in the Woods

Just a short meander off the beaten path can leave you hopelessly lost in unfamiliar terrain. Unless you have a landmark to guide you, wandering will only exhaust you and leave you even more disoriented. When deep in the wilderness, the chances of running into a more experienced hiker are next to nil. How do you find your way home?

First, try that cell phone. Contacting authorities and then letting them find you is always the best plan, however embarrassing it might be. If you have no way to call for help, look for a body of water. Rivers usually flow toward towns, so following one will likely take you out of the woods. Experienced outdoorsmen may be able to orient themselves by finding landmarks or by using constellations, but do not attempt to find your own way unless you are confident you can actually do it. Because wandering usually leaves you even more lost, the best plan is to sit tight and wait for authorities.

When Bad Weather Strikes

Even with satellites and radar, the weather experts are often wrong. How do you stay warm and dry while stranded in a cold and wet forest?

In most weather situations, the wisest choice is to make a shelter and stay there. This includes rain, snow, blizzards, thunder storms, and even tornados. The key to a good homemade shelter is to make it on high ground (so water rolls away from it, not into it) and to cover it with a water resistant material such as leaves. If you have that survival kit, you can wrap the whole thing in a plastic garbage bag and huddle in the dry warmth until the weather clears or rescuers find you. Again, the key is to stay warm and dry. Hypothermia and other exposure-related illnesses can set in rapidly if you are cold enough for a long enough period of time.

Running Out of Necessities

You knew you forgot something! And now here you are in the middle of the wilderness without some essential item. What do you do?

This depends on what you are missing. First, consider the nature of the item as well as how far into the woods you happen to be. You may be able to live without socks, but water is a necessity. If you cannot live without the item, your choices are to go back (if you are near enough to do this), call for help, or find an acceptable substitute.

Even in these very different scenarios, the advice is surprisingly similar. Contact authorities if possible; if not, think critically about different means of escape and their odds of success. If finding your way home safely is not probable, wait for authorities to come to you. With appropriate planning and this solid logic, you should be able to successfully navigate any wilderness emergency.


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