5 Ways to Prevent Getting Lost

handheld compass

Last Updated on September 8, 2021

Prevention is the best practice when it comes to staying safe during outdoor endeavors. It is important to plan not only for your outdoor goals, but also for emergencies to avoid getting lost while hiking or backpacking.

How to prevent getting lost?

1. Prepare Your Trusty Pack

Packing the appropriate amount of water, food, a first aid kit, and clothes for the trip is the first step for being safe outdoors.  (In fact, it is ok to pack a bit extra food and water just in case). In addition to the basic human needs, there are a few other items to pack that will come in handy in the case of an emergency.

A Whistle

A whistle can be heard from very far away, and if you are in a pinch, it can call others to you. A whistle can also ward off any animals that come along your path.

A Brightly Colored Item

Wearing a bright colored item such as a bandana, shirt, or rain jacket can draw attention to you. It will also make you more noticeable to potential hunters in the area.


Apart from the obvious use of a flashlight for after dark activities, this tool is also another way to send a distress signal to those in the distance. Learn the simple S.O.S. morse code message with a light (dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot) to be able to signal for help. 

Each item in your pack should have an important purpose. Hopefully you never need to use these items for their emergency uses, but if so, you will be prepared.

map photo

2. Get, and Use Maps

If you are anything like me, you take a photo of the trail map with your smartphone and carry on your merry way, paper free. As old school as it may sound, having a physical map of the area you are traveling through is a great way to prevent getting lost. There are several scenarios, namely a dead battery, that could cause your phone and the information it holds to be lost forever. Avoid the whole situation by bringing a paper map and compass along with you and knowing how to use them.


3. Be Observant

Before the world of maps, compasses, and trailheads, our ancestors used only what nature provided to guide their way. Nature can still be a guiding light if we only know what to look for and how to use it for direction.


Have you ever noticed a stack of stones along the trailhead? While they’re technically a violation of the “leave no trace” principles, they can help keep you and fellow hikers from becoming woefully lost. These formations are typically known as cairns and they are used for marking paths and trails.  They are typically made by travelers who have come before you, and denote the main trail, which are especially useful when there are forks or deviations.  Alternatively, hikers may place them on an “out and back” path, to help find their way back to where they came from.  If you choose to make your own cairns for navigation, do so with caution. Other hikers can knock down the cairns or create their own for fun. Make yours unique and where people would not typically look to ensure that there is no tampering with your guiding cairns. Then, be sure on the return trip that you dissemble and replace the stones, in order to “leave no trace.”

hiking m swigart

This beautiful hike on Mt. Humphreys, in Flagstaff, AZ quickly turned into an intense adventure when a hail storm hit as I neared the summit. The trail was seemingly washed away, and hail covered the ground. I was grateful for the landmarks that guided us back down to shelter.

Observe Landmarks

Landmarks are an easy way to identify where you are, just as long as you take note of them. Mental notes of major landmarks are great, but it is even better to write down any major markers, signs, or creeks. You can even take photos of those locations to better identify on the return trip. Be sure these are features of nature that will not change while you are on the trail.

Note the Time

When you feel lost, finding the next landmark may seem like eternity. To calm your nerves and stay accurate on your location, note the time you arrive at a prominent landmark and keep track of how long it takes you to reach a new one. If you think you are lost on your return trip, the time it takes to reach your next destination will help you know if you are on the right track.


4. Stay on the Trail

The simple rule of staying on the trail can be tempting to break. However, it is important that if you can see the trail, do not wander from it. Here’s why.

Shortcuts are Not Safe

First and foremost, if you leave the trail, there is a much larger chance you will not return to the same trail. There are numerous occasions where hikers take a shortcut which they believe will lead them back onto their original trail, only to be led to a different location. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Leave No Trace

The second reason to stay on the trails is because of the Leave No Trace principle. Wandering from the trails can cause damage to the areas you are exploring. It is best to respect the land you are adventuring through, and live to enjoy it another day.

nature trail sign


The U.S. Forest Service teaches S.T.O.P. as an acronym to use if one is lost. Below is the breakdown of each letter in STOP, which is taken directly from their website.


  • As soon as you realize you may be lost: stop, stay calm, stay put. Panic is your greatest enemy.


  • Go over in your mind how you got to where you are. What landmarks should you be able to see? Do not move at all until you have a specific reason to take a step.


  • Get our your compass and determine the directions based on where you are standing. Do not walk aimlessly.
  • If you are on a trail, stay on it. All trails are marked with signs (where intersections meet) and diamond blazers or maker. However, signs are sometimes vandalized or stolen.
  • As a very last resort, follow a drainage or stream downhill. This is often difficult path but could lead to a trail or road. Again, this could be very dangerous.


  • Based on your thinking and observations, come up with some possible plans, think them through then act on one of them.
  • If you are not very, very confident in the route, then it’s always better to stay put.
  • If it’s nightfall, you are injured or you are near exhaustion, stay in place.


Better Safe

From packing to S.T.O.P.ping , these five tips will help prevent you from getting lost and help you feel confident if it does happen. No matter the situation, remember to stay calm and use these tips to get back on track.  Though no one wants to be lost, it can happen at any time. It is paramount that you do everything you can to prevent it from happening, then prepared if it does.

About the author

Mariah Swigart

Mariah Swigart is often found camping, climbing, hiking, and kayaking in her home state of Arizona. She loves exploring new locations for her outdoor hobbies, and believes each trip is an opportunity to try a new piece of outdoor gear. Check out SwigartOutdoors.com to read about her most recent adventures.

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