The American Backpacker in The Gila Wilderness, (New Mexico)

Lost in the Wilderness (How to Find your way Back) ?


Wilderness Backpackers are modern day adventurers who seek adventures in remote and rugged Wilderness areas. These adventures are exciting but they do have their inherent risks. One of these risks is getting lost. Every year many Wilderness Backpackers get lost when they get off the trail to do their explorations. Even experienced Wilderness Backpackers can get lost. It has happened to me and it is an unsettling feeling that can lead to panic.

When I am on my adventures I enjoy getting off the trail and doing some bushwhacking. Bushwhacking is the best way to immerse yourself and truly experience a Wilderness area.  Being prepared before you head into a Wilderness area is essential for a successful and safe adventure.

Before you head into a Wilderness area you should thoroughly research the it online. You should get a topographical map and familirize yourself with the terrain you will be navigating. I always plan my routes, set my waypoints, and look for areas where I can set up my basecamp.

Knowing that you are lost can lead to panic. Panic can cause you to drift farther from the trail you left. Panic can also cause you to get injured or even worse it could lead to your death. Most individuals that are lost are less than 100 meters from the trail they left.

So what do you do when you come to the realization that you are lost? Below is a technique that will get you back to the trail.

The American Backpacker in The Linville Gorge Wilderness
Linville Gorge (North Carolina)


1.  When you realize that you are lost stop where you are at and drop your backpack. This becomes your Home Point.

2.  Find a landmark within your Home Point. This can be a tree, a large rock, or other landmark. This landmark will become your Navigating Point.

3. Mark your navigating point with something that you can see from a distance so it can be distinguished from other landmarks in your Home Point. This can be your air mat, tent, sleeping bag, or maybe your backpack.

4. You will take your compass and shoot an azmiuth/bearing to your (4) cardinal directions (North, South, East West).

5.  Take your first point, lets say you choose North, and you walk out 50 meters from your navigating point staying on your azimuth/bearing. You may want to find an object down range that lines up with your azimuth/bearing.

6.  Walk out 50 meters looking for the trail you left. If you do not see anything at 50 meters turn around and come back to your navigating point.

7.  Shoot your next azimuth/bearing to your next cardinal direction and do the same thing. Walk out 50 meters looking for the trail. If you do not find the trail come back to your navigating point and go to your next cardinal direction.

8.  If you have done your 4 cardinal directions at 50 meters and no trail has been found start the above process all over again but this time go out 100 meters doing the same thing for all cardinal directions.

9. If you do not find the trail at 100 meters then start the process again but now head out 150 meters for each of your cardinal directions. You will increase your distance each time you cycle through your cardinal directions at 50 meter intervals.

Eventually you will come across the trail you left.

The main point in this technique is to establish both your Home Point and a Navigating Point from which you will navigate. If you continue traveling and panic you will become more disoriented and it will push you farther away from the trail.

Hells Canyon Wilderness
Basecamp in the Hells Canyon Wilderness

Tips To Follow For Not Getting Lost

Be prepared before you begin your Wilderness adventure. Make sure that you study the terrain using a topographical map. Research the wildlife, plant life, and history of the area. Knowing these things may assist you if you need to go into survival mode. Plan your routes, waypoints, and possible location of your basecamp using the map and syncing them with your GPS Receiver before heading out.


  1. The location of trailhead you are leaving from, (Address and/or your Latitude/Longitude).
  2. Your direction of travel from the trailhead (North, South, East, or West).
  3. How many days you will be out.
  4. Your return date.
  5. The name, address, and phone number of the local Ranger Station near you.
  6. Have a satellite communicator with you so family and friends can track you. Your safety is worth the cost of a satellite communicator and many of these units are affordable with different plans.

Have the necessary gear with you. The Wilderness area will dictate much of this but have the following navigating gear with you in order to assist you to while traveling from point to point.

  1. GPS
  2. Satellite Communicating Device.
  3. Compass
  4. Topographical Map

Being prepared is your first line of defense so you do not get lost on your adventure. If you do find yourself lost follow the above technique and you will find your way back to the trail.

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