Establish Location when Lost

finding location when lost outdoors
How to find your location when you’re lost

Nobody likes to get lost, so when this happens what do you do? Much of how you determine your location depends on where you are lost. Perhaps you are in a strange city, on a highway in a snow storm, or out in the middle of the woods. Each situation has it’s own unique challenges to establishing your location. Staying alive and arriving at your destination in one piece are all part of the Outdoor Survival Basics series.

No matter where you are lost, the first thing to do is remain calm, stop moving or pull over, and begin to figure out where you are. This can be accomplished in many different ways. If you are in a city find someone friendly and ask where you are, and how you can get to your intended destination. Don’t be shy, we have all had to do this at one point in our lives. Just try to do it before the squabbling with your travel partner begins.

Lost in the City

A pencil and paper are very useful for writing down directions that a helpful person may give to you. Having an old fashioned paper map of the city or region you are travelling in on you, or at least in your car, is a must. If necessary make notes on the map about landmarks you have visited or passed on your journey to help indentify your last known location. As they say “it’s hard to know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been”.

Stuck on the Highway

If you are travelling on a highway, try to remember or have a passenger mark down exit ramp numbers or mile markers on a map or notepad. This game of “I spy” will help you keep track as closely as possible where you are and which direction you are travelling in, should you need to call for help. Once again, make note of any landmarks that are visible to you. Even if you are unsure of your exact location, it is a good reference point to be able to say we just passed the statue of so and so, or about five minutes ago we went past a fast food restaurant. Major highways often have mile markers on the side of the road that will state a distance in Kilometers or Miles. This is also a useful landmark to give to someone if you are lost or in need of assistance in strange territory.

Lost In the Woods

When you are out in the woods, the situation changes quite a bit. There are no mile markers or fast food restaurants to use as landmarks. The best thing to do is look for anything that could be on a topographical map. Always carry a paper topographical map of the woodlands you are travelling in along with a compass. Look for electrical transmission lines, cell phone transmission towers or other tall man-made objects. These stand out in people’s minds and are easy to detect compared to the many trees and bushes that may surround you. Look for cliff faces, mountain tops, or rivers and valleys as well. They are all likely to be on a topographical map and are easily spotted by rescuers. Tree lines and fields are often visible on maps and their position when verified against North can be very useful to help determine where you are.

Keep track of the time using your watch or how many steps or miles/kilometers you have travelled using either a pedometer, GPS, or compass. This is useful when hiking trails in a park. It can be very helpful if you are able to tell rescuers that you walked about 2 hours or that you walked for 2 miles on the trail before realizing you were lost. Again keep track of landmarks and other unique places such as boardwalks or sign posts. Even swampy areas or ponds can be a good indicator if they will stand out on a map or be visible to search planes.

Knowing how to find the North Star using the Big Dipper constellation is another very useful technique to find your direction of travel. By finding the North Star you can then figure out very easily if you are travelling East, South or West. Constellations have been used historically to determine direction and remain very effective directional indicators to this day. The North Star is visible in all parts of the Northern Hemisphere in the woods, along highways, or out in the middle of the ocean providing the sky has no clouds in it.

Outdoor Navigational Tools

The main tools to travel with for finding your direction include: a wristwatch (ideally the analog kind as the hands can be used to determine north and keep track of time), a magnetic compass, and a paper map suited to the location of travel. This can be a road map, topographical map, or nautical map. A pencil, pen, and notepad are invaluable for making notes rather than trying to remember things.

finding your location when lost in the woods
A compass and map are the most reliable ways to find your location when lost

An electronic Global Positioning System (GPS) device is a very useful tool. Whether mounted in your vehicle or the handheld kind, this device is the best way to figure out where you are, providing the batteries don’t run out or tree cover doesn’t obscure signal to the unit. The versatility of a good quality GPS with detailed maps loaded onto it make this the best way to stay on track and switching from city to topographical to nautical maps is as simple as changing memory cards in the unit or pressing a button.

Always bring a magnetic compass as well, and become familiar with how to use it. Practice following a course in a park before your voyage based on different degrees of travel and finding which way is north. Also practice with the GPS so when you need it you know how it all works. Of course always carry a cell phone with a fully charged battery to call for help. If you are in a region without cell phone signal, two-way or CB walkie-talkies, or marine radios are very effective for getting people’s attention.

Should you be unable to re-orient yourself, try phoning someone at your intended or previous destination. Someone there should be familiar with the region and be able to direct you. If not, call someone back at home who has a copy of your itinerary. Contact someone who has access to Google Earth, with this software they can view satellite images of terrain all over the world. This is incredibly useful to find landmarks that the lost person may be able to see on the ground and where you are in relation to them. If all else fails, contact the local police and have them launch a search for you.

Getting Lost

Getting lost can be a frightening experience. By staying calm and keeping track of where you have been it is possible to find your way out and get home in one piece. For more information please read the outdoor survival basics.

Copyright 2019 Mike Wilson