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What To Do When You Get Lost

Knowing how to get yourself out of a sticky situation when you get hopelessly lost will make you more confident and capable outdoors

It’s the wilderness areas of the great outdoors that seem to have the biggest pull on our imaginations – the feeling of cresting a hill and looking down into a valley seemingly untouched by human hands is hard to beat – you know you really have succeeded in getting away from it all. Of course, navigation is essential when you’re this far out, and as any hill walker will tell you, we all get lost sometimes.

So, what do you do when you’ve lost your bearings or your smartphone GPS has died? Fortunately there are some simple steps you can take to get back on the right track...

I like the old Navy Seals mantra of “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” – if you’re trying to rush something then you will mess it up

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Whatever You Do, Don’t Panic
There are many ways to get lost, from a sudden downpour, to your smartphone dying. It can be a stressful experience, so much so that your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response can kick in, flooding your body with adrenaline, raising your heart rate, restricting your peripheral vision and causing you to take short, sharp breaths – none of this is conducive to making logical, thought-through decisions.

‘Calm yourself down because it is easy to panic,’ says Sean Lerwill, the former head of physical training for Britain’s Royal Marines Commandos. ‘I like the old Navy Seals mantra of “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”’ If you’re trying to rush something then you will mess it up.’

If you have a thermos with you, then put the map away for five or ten minutes, sit down and have a brew. Afterwards, once you’ve calmed down a bit, look at it logically and ask yourself: ‘Where was the last time I knew where I was?’

Get Your Bearings
You should always travel with a paper map and a compass, as well as any electronic devices. Remember that smartphones and GPS units can run out of batteries so carry spare batteries and back up devices, and lanyard your device to you so you can’t drop it. Once you get your map out, it’s crucial to keep an open mind. ‘One of the most important things to remember is don’t make the ground fit the map – don’t force features that you see onto it – because it’s’ very easy to do that,’ says Lerwill.

Unless you like stressing yourself out then you should carry a GPS watch, device or app on your smartphone so that you can get a grid reference and then find that on your map. You can then continue along your planned route with confidence – unless the reason you got lost is because bad weather has come...

Follow The Breadcrumbs
If you’re walking into the teeth of a storm, then the safest option may be to beat a retreat and retrace your steps. This is easier with a GPS but you can still do it without one if you use another of Lerwill’s tips: ‘As you walk turn around and look at where you’ve come from, every 100-200m. If you need to retrace your steps then you have already seen it and the brain is quite good at recognising things.’ You should soon get back to a place where you knew where you were.

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Water Can Find A Way
The natural instinct if you get lost is to head to higher ground, so you can see more of the landscape and orientate yourself. But if low cloud or fog has rolled in then this isn’t always the case, and you may end up on risky terrain in the mountains.

Instead, Lerwill recommends heading downwards until you hit water, and then get your map out. ‘There are probably only a few water points on that map and you can usually tell which way they are flowing, and then you can follow that flow. One of the things that annoyed me about the Blair Witch Project was, why didn’t they just follow the damn river so they didn’t walk in circles?’ Following a river or stream allows you to see what possible feature it could be on a map and water usually leads to a bridge or a road – then you can work out where you are.

When All Else Fails
If you’re well equipped and prepared and at least have a map, then you can find your way – but what if everything goes wrong, you lose your kit and get totally disorientated? It’s no surprise that the Royal Marine Commandos train for this and Lerwill has a fix: ‘When you look at the map and where you are going, if the major road is running from north to south on the east of the map (as a diagonal) then if I get lost, all I need to do is set east on my compass and walk, and I will hit that road.’

Think of it as your ‘escape and evasion’ plan. A bit of preparation before your hike means that you know what to do if you lose everything and need to do an emergency evacuation, even if it means walking five or ten miles. ‘I’ve got one of those tiny compasses you can put on a watch strap, which is quite a good thing to have if you lost everything else.’

Take this knowledge with you into the great outdoors and you’ll enjoy the challenge even more, knowing that you can always find your way home, no matter what.

Words: Matt Ray
Photos: Matt Ray @The_Adventure_Fella, Andrea Hills

Find out more about Sean Lerwill at seanlerwill.com and @seanlerwill

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