Whenever you go to a remote outdoor trip you should carry some basic devices like a compas and a local map. In times of GPS a small device is not a luxury any more but a useful tool. A thorough preparation includes a prior investigation of the main geographical aspects of the route: canyons, peaks, rivers and orientation points. It helps us to get a mental picture of the place.
Normally you don’t get lost but just loose the route completely but only a short strech of a path or road. And most often you are not too far away from your original trail when you notice that you have gone lost. You will make it worse if you start circling around looking for the right path. It is much more effective to sit down and try to reconstruct the trail that has led you to the actual point. Most probably you can trace your steps back and get to the wrong turning and just choose the right path. Another option is to start a controled circling around a marked place from which we expand the circles until we get to the path or point were we got lost.
At that point it is wise to mark our trail trials with some special signals that indicate us we already passed a certain point. In most cases, by ruling out the error, one can return to an indentifiable point on which to continue the lost route.
Another good option is to climb on some elevated point to get an overview of the area. If we know certain characteristic places we can try to get there even if we don’t follow the original path. From the target point we then return to the original path.
If we get lost due to an accident with a vehicle, the first and best option is to wait for rescue. It will be easier for a rescue team to find a lost vehicle than to find a lost individual. Besides, the vehicle may provide some shelter if the rescue turns out to go for a long time.
If things start to get slow and we can expect not to regain our lost route for the rest of the day, an exploration of the near area regarding water, shelter or food is a good idea. It would be a pity to freeze during the night and see in the next morning that there was a cabin only a mile away. It’s common sense to try not to get lost again. Leaving visible marks on our way is a good way to mark a path back to the vehicle, a good shelter or a water supply.
Rescue teams will found it much easier to locate a lost wanderer if there are some signs in the dark. A fire lit in the moment we hear a plane motor is a good idea. Putting wet grass or even some gas from the car on a fire makes a smoke column that is visible many miles away. We can write huge SOS letters in the ground with rocks or with a deep carve in the soil to be seen from a plane. If we decide to leave the car and go for help, we should leave a note indicating the route and basic direction we took. Maybe the rescue team finds the car and is able to track us down before we get to civilization. If the situation is extreme, without any orientation, don’t despair. Search for a creek, river, some water source. It eventually will lead you to some habited area.
How to find orientation without a map or compass
The easiest way is to apply what mankind has used for thousands of years, astronomy. During day or night, for centuries sailors have navigated by looking at the stars. So why not use this proven foundation of human knowledge? This can be fun, but when you are stressed, you will be relieved if you carry a small gps device or at least a traditional compas to find your north.
Find your way at night
At night, the stars show you the way. Polaris, the North Star, is lined up almost exactly with the Earth rotation axis. From every point of view in the northern hemisphere, if you face toward Polaris you are facing North. If there is a clear night you can get the north easily starting to look for Ursa Minor and Ursa Maior, or Little Dipper and Big Dipper.
Big Dipper is quite easy to see, but the Little Dipper should be not challenge if you are in an area without luminic contamination, as you certainly will be if you get lost in the wild nature. The North Star is the last star in the tail of the Little Dipper or Ursa Minor. If the sky is not that clear and you only see the Big Dipper, you will have to calculate about four times the distance between the two “back wheels” and then you get Polaris.
It’s one of the easier constellations to discover and it looks like this:
In the southern hemisphere we must look for the Southern Cross, a constellation shaped more like a kite than like a cross. If we extend the length of the kite and average four times, the point always indicate that we locate imaginary south. The cross is formed by four bright stars, from which two of them stand out for their brightness. Nearby there are to “pointer stars”, called that way because the sort of point to the south cross. It is not as easy to spot, as there are some stars in the same shape ironically called “the false Cross”. Anyway, the map you look for in the stars looks like this.
Anyone who is not used to look at the starred sky will find it very difficult to identify these constellations for the first time. You should try on you backyard with some useful nightsky app on your cellphone or tablet to check with.
Find your way at daylight
Sunrise and sunset always are on the same side of the Earth. Normally the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. This is exact only at the equinoxes, that’s the 21st of March and 23rd of September. The more we move away from that dates, the more the Sun will change the direction too. So it’s only approximate, but it is most probable that we know the date when we get lost.
With the shadow of a stick, we can start marking the shadow of the sun with a 15 minute interval. If we then draw a line between two shadow spots we get an indication of east and west. The first point will be east and the second point will be west. Then we can draw a perpendicular line crossing this and get the north and south. This will only be very rough. The longer time you let pass between the first and second mark and the closer to noon, the exacter it will be.
However, if we have time we can wait for noon, nailing a stick on a flat ground. This will cast a shadow of 20-30 inches. We mark the end of the first shadow and use a shoelace to trace a semicircle with the length of the shadow as radius. The shadow will get smaller as the sun moves on to noon. At noon the shadow reaches it’s smallest point, then it beginns to grow again. When the length of the shadow reaches again the semicirle we draw a mark. Joing this mark with the first we did draws a more accurate East-West line.
If it’s cloudy, you get no sun and don’t see anything, try to interpretate the nature around you. In most cases, in the Northern Hemisphere mosses grow in the darkest places, which usually correspond to the north face. This may vary locally because of a special microclimate. Usually also the north side of a mountain receives less sun, so in extreme cases this can be an indicator.