top of page
  • Kristen Rogers

You get lost in the wilderness. Do you know how to survive?

After camping in Oregon in May, Harry Burleigh spontaneously decided to venture off on a trail before returning home. What he expected would be a quick, out-and-back hike took a dramatic turn for the worse when he lost his way – the start of the 17 days he had to survive in the Oregon wilderness while his wife, county authorities and volunteers looked for him.

After Tyson Steele lost his Alaska cabin, dog and belongings to a fire in December 2019, he was stranded alone in the bitter cold.

Sajean Geer spread her late husband’s ashes in Olympic National Park in Washington state in July 2017, then, disoriented by emotion, couldn’t find her car or any roads.

These people’s stories exemplify how unexpected events can turn being outdoors into a fight for survival.

For those who didn’t intend to go into the wilderness, accidents – such as taking a wrong turn or a car breakdown – or severe weather changes can be the culprit, said Dr. David Townes, a professor of emergency medicine and adjunct professor of global health at the University of Washington.

For adventurers who seek outdoor challenges, “the common theme is that they’ve underestimated what they plan to do and, tied in with that, nearly overestimated their own abilities,” Townes said.

“If you can avoid getting into trouble, then that’s obviously the most successful strategy,” he said. But if you ever do become stranded in the wild like these people did, being prepared can be the deciding factor in whether you return to safety or suffer serious injury, illness or death.

Here’s what experts want you to know about how you should plan ahead for a safe trip and address worst-case scenarios:

Planning ahead

Before you go, research your chosen destination by looking online and/or talking to locals familiar with the site, Townes said. Both can tell you about any need-to-knows regarding trail quality, animal presence, water accessibility, maps and more. Also, regardless of the time of year, always look at the weather forecast – from several days beforehand up until the day of.

Once you have planned your trip, give someone all the important details. That includes exactly where you’re going, whether and how many other people are going, the vehicle you’re taking, the trail you plan to follow and when you’ll return, the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service advises.

Depending on where you’re going, you should pack these essentials that could help prevent or alleviate emergencies:

– Water and water-purifying tablets or drops

– Nonperishable, nutritionally valuable foods such as dried fruits or nuts, energy bars or beef jerky

– First aid kit including disinfectants, tourniquets, bandages and aluminum splints

– Comfortable shoes with ankle support

– Insulation (an emergency blanket, jacket, hat, gloves, waterproof rain shell, thermal underwear)

– Sunscreen and hat

– Lightweight shelter, if possible, such as a bivy sack, tarp or one-person tent

– Flashlight or headlamp

– Waterproof matches, lighters and fire starters

– Duct tape, knife, screwdriver and scissors

– Map, compass and locator beacon

– Charged portable battery

In addition to the clothing listed above for warmth, you’ll also want to make sure you’re dressed for the elements. If the weather’s cold, cotton clothing wouldn’t be ideal because wet cotton won’t dry well and therefore won’t keep you warm, Townes said.

Opt for materials that are water resistant or maintain insulating properties once wet, such as wool or synthetic materials.

“A down jacket is a great insulating layer, but down is not very insulating when it gets wet,” he explained.

“If you then cover your down jacket with some sort of thin waterproof jacket, you’ve now got a waterproof, insulated layer … Layering is important because then you have choices.”

Even if you’re going to the desert, you should still bring a warm jacket since temperatures can dip at night. And in many mountain areas, weather conditions can change dramatically throughout the day.

Handling worst-case scenarios

If you get lost, know that “panic is your greatest enemy,” the Forest Service says.

“Your best chance of survival is to think rationally and calmly,” Townes said. “Think, ‘What are my options? What are the things I need to worry about in terms of threats? Like the weather, is it getting dark? Is it late? Am I going to try to get out tonight or am I here for the night and I need to work on this in the morning? And therefore, I need to figure out where I’m going to spend the night.’”

For these situations, the Forest Service recommends following its “STOP” protocol: Stop, Think, Observe and Plan. Initially, stay put while you mentally retrace your steps to recall how you arrived there. Ask yourself what landmarks you should be able to see, and don’t move until you have a specific reason to. Use your compass to determine the directions.

Based on your observations, devise potential plans, compare them, then follow the one you’re most confident in.

If it’s dark outside or you’re injured or exhausted, stay put for the night, the Forest Service instructs. If you’re on a trail, stay on it, especially if it has signs or markers.

Following a drainage or stream downhill could lead to civilization – but it could also be dangerous if you have to travel through thick brush or steep terrain, Townes said.

If there’s something you can climb on to see above the tree line, that can also help you locate civilization and choose which direction you should go in.

Staying alive

At this point, you’re focused on staying alive until rescue. Maintaining hydration is more important than keeping yourself fed, Townes said, since dehydration can be much more dangerous.

Every time you see water, top off your bottle even if you think it’s unnecessary. You can’t be sure when you’ll see another water source.

Running water, such as a stream or river, is usually cleaner than stagnant bodies of water, Townes said. “If you do have to use stagnant water like the lake, people theorize that getting it from close to the middle is better than the edge.”

If you run out of food, any berries or proteins you find – such as fish or insects – are usually edible, Townes said. He didn’t recommend eating wild mushrooms since their toxicity can be a gamble.

There are optimal times to rest and eat or expend energy, according to the Forest Service. If you’re starting to feel tired, stop and rest for at least 30 minutes before you reach exhaustion. You’ll need to rest for at least half an hour after eating, too, since trying to get your body to simultaneously digest food and hike would be taxing.

Also, address small problems as soon as you notice them. “If you ignore your body and keep pushing, the pain or illness will only get worse and make recovery more difficult,” the Forest Service says.

If you’re stranded during a warm season, avoid hiking between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Instead, sit in a shady spot until the weather cools. When you hike, your pace should be comfortable.

When you need shelter, look for structures such as cabins, lean-tos or rock formations. Only choose a cave if remaining unsheltered would be life-threatening, Townes said.

Don’t go into a cave far enough to get trapped, and watch for bats or large animals, since those can pose risk for disease or other harm.

Facing the elements and creatures

If you’re fighting shivers or wanting to cook food, a fire should only be made in certain circumstances and with extreme caution, Townes said.

“Always know the (local) rules about campfires and try to never violate those rules, because we’ve seen in the last several years these horrible fires on both coasts,” Townes said.

Build your fire so it’s blocked from wind that would transport embers, maybe surrounding it with rocks or other objects that aren’t flammable, he recommended.

Injuries are where your first aid kit comes in handy. If you don’t have a disinfectant, any drinkable water is probably fine for flushing your wound, Townes said. Sprains or breaks can be treated with the aluminum splint you hopefully packed, or an improvised aid made from branches.

If you researched the site ahead of time, that could help you to fend off any agitated animals. For most large animals, staying calm and refraining from intimidating them is usually your best bet.

Returning to safety

What some of the aforementioned people lacked in luck or preparation, they made up for with some survival skills.

After searchers found makeshift shelters twice while looking for Burleigh – the man who got lost in the Oregon wild – rescuers finally found him. He was in minor pain, but stable, according to a news release.

He reunited with his family that evening. He later told the The News-Review in Oregon how he fashioned a head cover out of his underwear and fishing gear, and used a plastic magnifying glass to start a fire.

Steele, the man who was stranded after his Alaska cabin burned, was found after three weeks when helicopter troopers saw his waves and large “SOS” sign carved out of the snow. While awaiting rescue, he ate canned rations and peanut butter, and slept in a snow cave and shelter he built around his wood stove.

Geer, the woman who got lost after spreading her husband’s ashes in Washington state, survived for six days before searchers found her. She had made a shelter of logs and moss, drank stream water and ate currant fruits, pine needles and ants to survive.

With some practical know-how and clear thinking, surviving a nightmarish situation is possible.


6000x 2_edited.png
readywise 60 serving food kit.png
survival knives from viper
bottom of page