Wilderness Survival–Increasing Your Chances If You Get Lost

Hiker in wilderness
Do you know what to do to increase your odds of survival if lost in the wilderness?

Wilderness survival is a mandatory thing in our family.  We don’t go overboard, but we all know–even the kids–what to do if we find ourselves lost in the woods. Most of the time, this is information that never needs to be used. We’re all pretty vigilant about staying together and within earshot.

But what about the few cases where it might become necessary? What if you discover you’re lost? Do you know how to increase your odds of survival? Remember these tips:

the very first thing is to sit down.

  1. Stop. Control your breathing. Sit down.
  2. Think. Are you really lost? Where did you come from? How much daylight is left? What can you do in the next ten or fifteen minutes that will help you survive?
  3. Have a drink of water and/or a snack bar. Calm, calm.
  4. Once you are calm and have had a drink of water and/or a snack, check to see what you have on you that will help you survive your situation. Make plans.

three. three. the rule of three.

  1. Three fires, either in a row or a triangle, is the international sign for help.
  2. Three minutes without air, three hours without shelter in an extreme environment (such as winter conditions in the wilderness), three days without water. You can also survive three weeks without food if you have the other three.
  3. Three minutes of severe bleeding before loss of consciousness and death. Stop that blood flow.

try these emergency shelters.

  1. Look for shelter from wind, rain and snow.  Underneath a large fallen log, rock outcropping, or cave (though they may not be empty). Underneath a huge pine or spruce tree is an option if there is nothing else; usually the ground is springy and thick with pine or spruce needles, which also insulates to some extent.
  2. Try building a debris hut; make a depression in the snow or clear to the ground, depending on what there is in the way of snow. Make a teepee out of longer branches. Shore up the sides with shorter ones. Pile branches, shrubbery and debris over it.  The hut should be just big enough for you to fit into. This will conserve body heat. Make a bed of debris to insulate you from the ground.  An excellent article that actually argues against a debris hut for a shorter term emergency shelter is written by Wolf Camp and the Conservation College. It makes for informative reading. You can access it here. 


  1. If nothing is available for a shelter and it’s cold at night, walk in small circles, do jumping jacks, do push-ups–anything to keep moving and stay as warm as possible. It will be a long, miserable night, but you won’t freeze to death.
  2. If you can build a fire, create a firewall behind it to reflect the heat back to you in front of your shelter.
  3. Many survivalists recommend the best way of starting a fire is a magnesium-and-steel firestarter.  It is the most reliable way of starting a fire in the cold, even more reliable than matches or a lighter, because you can get a ton of spark to start a fire even in windy or wet conditions. Carry some waxed cotton balls with you as tinder and you’re good to go in nearly every situation. If you have a knife with you, peel the inside of tree branches for dry shavings for tinder.  Cut kindling.  All these things will help you build a fire in adverse conditions.
  4. Get as much firewood as you think you’ll need to get through the night, then double the amount, at least.  Campers will tell you–it takes a lot of wood to keep a fire continuously burning for hours.


  1. Boil your water if you can. This will kill any pathogens in it and aid in keeping you warm.  If you have nothing to boil the water with, and you have the supplies, you can make a water filter with a plastic drinking bottle or bag. Instructions can be found here.
  2. Of course, the best thing to do is to be prepared. You can get something called a Life Straw, and that’s kind of what it is–a straw with a filter in it to drink directly from water sources. Keep it in your backpack or even a back pocket when you go running or on hikes.

signal for help.

  1. As mentioned before, three fires is the international call for help.
  2. If starting and keeping a fire going is difficult, consider building a smudge fire instead–a hot blaze with green branches to give off smoke.
  3. If lots of tree branches, logs or rocks are available, create an SOS in a clearing nearby your location.  Make it as large as possible.
  4. Use reflective surfaces to signal for help.  Glasses, a mirror, even a dead cell phone face, can all be used. Take a whistle with you.
  5. Stay put! In wilderness survival, you can worsen the chances of being found if you wander off.  It’s all too easy to go deeper into the bush, thinking you’re going the right way, putting you further and further away from the area searchers think you might be.

Of course, the best thing to do is to be prepared for getting lost in the woods, even if you’re sure you won’t. Take a cell phone with you. Tell someone where you’re going, or better yet, go with someone. Don’t veer off the trail or the route you said you would take. Pack a fire-starter, tinder, water, a Life Straw or purification tablets, snack bars, an emergency medical kit, a tarp or emergency bivvy (check out this one.) Take that whistle!

Take the time to build an emergency survival kit and take it with you, even if you’re just going out for a walk. You can get ideas for building a good one here.

Don’t be one of the hundreds of people that disappear in the wilderness and are never found alive, each and every year. It can happen even if you just go jogging one day. Don’t think so?  Check out this gripping–and sobering–true story by John Billman.

And then go and build your survival kit.


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