What to Do When Lost in an Unknown City or the Wilderness

Being lost is one of those ‘worst nightmare’ situations that can easily happen – even in your own city. Post disaster, when everything around you is dramatically changed or reduced to rubble, you could find yourself swept along in a crowd of panic-stricken people. When you get a moment to look up, you discover you’re lost!

forest road in Vinton County Ohio
forest road in Vinton County Ohio

Far too many people loose themselves in wilderness situations too. It’s certainly not difficult to mistake or step off the track, even for experienced hikers. And if you are blazing your own trail or hiking alone, it’s a real danger.

Prevention is better than cure. Precautions are better than remedies. Wise preppers take every possible action to secure themselves against trouble so if it does come their way, they are prepared to deal with it.

What advance preps can you make to safeguard against, or ease this horrible situation?

What To Do If You Get Lost

Scenario #1: Wilderness situation / Bush walking / Camping / Hiking

You could easily get lost hiking or bushwalking. But what about a martial law situation where you have fled to the mountains for safety?

Here are a few preps you can make:

Leave a note

Before you leave town for the back tracks, let someone know what you are doing. Make a phone call or send a text to a friend.

If you really want to go out without anyone knowing, and you are certain an enemy won’t find your note and follow you, then leave a note in the house, car, or in your diary saying where you are heading and how long you expect to be.

Worst case situation, at least they’ll know which direction to take to start looking for you.


Take a good GPS. They’re not expensive and could save a lot of stress, time and ultimately, your life. Make sure you pack extra batteries too – a GPS that goes dead right at that crucial moment is worse than useless.

If your destination is remote, how about investing in a PLB (personal location beacon)? They are about as big as a mobile phone and can transmit distress signals via satellite from land or water. Once activated, they generally transmit for a minimum of 24-hours.


Make sure you also take comprehensive, up-to-date, and detailed maps. If you end up somewhere where there’s no satellite reception your maps could be your salvation. Put them into a zip-sealed plastic bag or laminate them to keep them free of water.

Extras to pack

Your pack already contains the basics for survival, but here are a few extras that could be really useful:

  • Florescent tape is cheap, light, and is invaluable for marking your position. Grab some and take it with you.
  • An umpire’s whistle is also a great tool to have close at hand. A few hours of yelling will make short work of your voice and you may need to be heard from some distance away. Three whistle blasts is a recognized distress signal and this cheap little piece of equipment could help emergency services locate you from some distance.
  • A brightly colored blanket or groundsheet. If you are caught out, a highly colored blanket spread out can be visible from the air.

Keep track of the time

Wear a wrist watch and be familiar with the current time of sunset. In some places there is little if any twilight and hikers are caught out too late. Knowing the seasons and how long the day will be, is very important.

Ok. So you’ve set out, now what precautions should you take?

Trail blazing

If you aren’t following a known track, it’s wise to mark your own trail. And I don’t mean Hansel and Gretel style either! Use your fluoro tape to mark branches, or pile stones as beacons to follow on your return. Make sure each marker is clearly visible from the last one.

Notice your surroundings

When we walk, especially if the terrain is tricky, we tend to walk with our head down, focusing on just the few meters ahead.

While we are busy watching where to put our foot next, we are not taking note of our surroundings, which makes it less likely we can recognize them when we have to retrace our steps.

Try and look around while you walk. Take note of any specific landscape features. Every now and again, turn around and look back over your shoulder so you know what the track will look like on your return. Constantly keep in mind your return journey.

It’s happened – now what?

Supposing you have been hiking alone and find yourself off the track and lost, what should you do first?

1. Natural instinct may be to just turn around and try and run back the way you have come, but don’t do it.

2. Find somewhere safe to sit down. Take a few deep breaths. Practice conscious relaxation and allow your mind to focus clearly on your situation. Don’t allow yourself to panic.

3. Have a good, refreshing drink of water. Eat something nutritious. What we are trying to do here is allow the mind and body to relax, come to grips with your current situation, and make clear, sensible, and accurate judgement.

4. Once you are rehydrated and rested, start to think logically about where you may have overstepped the track. How long ago did you last see a track marker? The average adult walks only at about 3 mph, so it’s highly likely that you are not a long way from where you should be.

5. Mark your current position clearly. Use fluorescent tape or a brightly colored piece of cloth and tie it around a branch or tree. Spread out a colored groundsheet in a place that could be visible from the air. Rescuers will look for variations in the typical landscape and this will make it easy for them to find you.

6. Try to get up high to look around. If you can climb a tree or onto some high rocks you may be able to see the track that you are meant to be following. You will certainly be able to get a better idea of the surrounding terrain anyway. Don’t stray too far from your marked position or you’ll only cause yourself more grief.

7. Consult your maps, GPS, and compass. You should have a basic idea of which direction you should have been travelling. Try and make an educated guess at which direction you have come.

8. Make a plan. You need to make some serious decisions here; are you going to retrace your steps? Are you going to stay put and wait for help to come? How long would either option take?

If you estimate that you are only a short distance from where you should be, you might be best to try and retrace, but “if in doubt, wait it out!”

Think and check over your resources. Is there fresh drinking water nearby? What are your food stocks like? These factors will also influence your decision. Unfortunately this is a choice that you’ll have to make and face the consequences for.

9. Discuss the plan with the people you are with and make sure everyone knows exactly what’s happening. If you are alone, why not say your plan out loud? It will boost your confidence and cement your own ideas.

10. Make a phone call. If you’re in an area with reception, call for help. Describe your current position and then wait for help, unless other specific instructions are given.

11. Check the time. How many hours of daylight do you have left? If the light is fading or you estimate that the day is drawing to a close, take the safe approach and make plans for spending a night out. You don’t want to end up wandering around the bush in the dark.

12. Going to try and walk out? Estimate how long you think you’ve been going the wrong way, then from your marked position, set out in the most likely direction and mark your track.

If, after travelling in that direction for what you consider to be adequate time to recover the track, you don’t find anything familiar, retrace your steps to your starting point and try again. Try all four points of the compass methodically and patiently.

Look out for specific landmarks that you took note of on the way in.

13. No luck with this method? If there is a river nearby, you could follow its course. It will likely flow through some sort of populated area eventually and in the meantime it will mean water and likely an easy food source.

14. Powerlines are another course you could follow. Think carefully and consult your maps before taking this option – sometimes powerlines cover huge areas of uninhabited and perilous terrain before reaching any sort of town or source of help.

15. Bugging in? You need to make a shelter. Hypothermia is the quickest killer, so you’ll need to protect yourself from the elements as soon as possible. Don’t camp by a river – the sound of rushing water could drown out your voice and those of your rescuers.

16. Make a signal fire. A smoky fire is often clearly visible, even from air, on a clear day. Use common sense about where you do it – you don’t want to burn down half a forest in an attempt to get rescued. Added bonus: you now also have a heat source.

Now it’s a matter of time. If people know you’re out there, someone will eventually come looking for you when you don’t return. If you’ve left a note at home or told a friend of your plans, a search party will eventually come out for you when you don’t show up.

Keep your senses alert at all times. Listen for sounds of voices or engines of rescuers. Most importantly, don’t panic. Try and stay calm and make sound and sensible decisions.

cars on the road inside city
cars on the road inside city

Scenario #2: Being Lost in an Unfamiliar City

You might be wondering how you could get seriously lost in an urban situation. Think about the aftermath of a cyclone, tornado or military attack.

Buildings gone. Streets washed out or too dangerous to follow. Crowds of panic-stricken people running from disaster. It wouldn’t be difficult to land up in unfamiliar territory, and in real danger from looters and sickness.

So, what sort of tools are going to be a real asset in this situation?

  • Your mobile phone or computer. Using your phone you can call or make contact via text with someone who can either give directions or come to your aid. Depending on your phone and the reception you might also be able to access google maps and work out where you are.
  • A lot of cafes have free Wi-Fi, as do libraries and other public places. This will allow you to use your computer to access google maps to work out your current position. You should also be able to access any current emergency warnings for the area you are trying to get back to.
  • A portable charger with a mobile emergency battery could be a real life saver. No good having your phone with you if it’s dead. These chargers aren’t expensive, but they could save you a lot of headache and time.
  • A Compass. Again, not hard to carry around and invaluable when the time comes, especially if you are caught between high buildings where reception is sporadic and unreliable.
  • Cash on hand to buy yourself a nourishing meal. You won’t be able to make intelligent or accurate decisions if you are fighting hunger pangs.
  • Food and water – invaluable if you have a backpack or time to pack some before you run.
  • Drinking water. Even more essential than food. You’ll last a little while without food, but drinking water is basic for survival. Depending on the disaster, there might not be clean sources of water either, so your personal supply is vital. Also, what about carrying something with which to filter or purify water when your supply runs short?
  • A blanket. If you find yourself having to bug out for the night, a blanket will help keep out the cold and provide some sort of security. Sleep is really important, so make yours as comfortable as possible.
  • Pocket knife. Excellent for all sorts of odd jobs, from bottle opening to cutting branches.
  • A basic first aid kit. Who knows if there will be doctors available if you hurt yourself? Or just to have Panadol or other medicine for a headache is such a bonus.

You might be able to add some of the smaller items to your EDC Kit to be sure that you have them right with you 24/7, in case the disaster strikes when you don’t have your survival packs handy.

The first few basic steps to getting out of this predicament are the same as any other ‘lost’ situation, so follow steps 1 – 3 as above.

4. Once you are rehydrated and rested, start to think sensibly about your situation. How long ago did I see something (landmark, building) familiar?

5. If you can, use your phone to work out where you are or call a friend. Describe your current position and ask for directions.

6. Don’t be scared to ask. Find somebody that you are feel comfortable to approach and ask them where you are. Otherwise, enter a shop or hotel and get a business card. This will have an address on it somewhere, so you can find out from where you are.

7. Enter a church. As a rule of thumb, Christian churches are generally built east-west, with the main alter facing the direction in which the sun rises (east).

Mostly, synagogues west of Israel have the Torah Ark on the eastern end, so that worshippers are facing Jerusalem. If your position is east of Israel, it will be facing west.

8. Take note of the flow of traffic. In the evening, the rush-hour traffic will generally be moving toward some sort of transport station – bus, train, etc. From here you can get directions or catch a ride to where you need to go. In the morning, walk against the flow to find these stations.

9. Always be aware of your surroundings. Take note of any particular landmarks or specific items of interest that will help you retrace your steps or describe your location to someone else. A building that’s tall or that pops out could make a huge difference when you orient yourself.

10. Take note of the sun and clouds. If sunrise or sunset are approaching, you can easily get your compass bearings from that point.

Another uncommon way of keeping your sense of direction is to note the direction that the clouds are moving, providing there are clouds to watch.

Try and establish your sense of direction using a compass or similar method, then look up and note which way the clouds are moving across the sky.

Example: if you know you are facing north, you might look up and see that the clouds are moving east-west.

Providing there are no dramatic weather changes, you can look up and check your direction as often as you like, without stopping to pull out your compass. This is extremely useful if you are using underground transport or find yourself lost between high-rise buildings.

11. Ask a police officer. It’s a way to find out where you are and whether it’s even safe to try and get back home. They will also be aware of other immediate dangers and can help you find a safe waiting place if your home area is dangerous.

Being genuinely lost is one of the situations that has been frightening to us since we were children.  How many times have you told your child to “hold onto my hand or you’ll get lost”? It’s human nature to need security and stability.

Unfortunately, life isn’t always nice. But, keep calm and carry on. You can’t predict if or when a situation will arise where you will need to know how to keep your cool and get yourself out of trouble.

Before we wrap this up, let’s not forget the little ones. Whether it’s an emergency, or if you simply lost your child, you need to anticipate these scenarios, to both prevent and know what to do when they occur.

So, how would you go finding your way home if your suburb or city was washed out by flood or reduced to rubble by an earthquake? If nothing was recognizable around you, wouldn’t you be glad you took the time in advance to learn how to find your way around?

1 thought on “What to Do When Lost in an Unknown City or the Wilderness”

  1. Your Comment is definitely FALSE #7. Enter a church. As a rule of thumb, Christian churches are generally built east-west, with the main alter facing the direction in which the sun rises (east).
    I thought of ten churches I know and only One of the Ten has the altar TYPO NOT “alter” east (by chance not your concept of design.) Same is true about direction churches are built. TOTALLY UNTRUE.

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