They say that you’re never really lost, only temporarily displaced. But when you’re circling the same city block for the fifth time, or cold and wet in the woods without cell service, “displaced” seems like a gross understatement.
All is not lost. Here’s how to keep your bearings whether you’re in the great outdoors or the middle of an urban jungle.
Getting lost is so 2007. Handheld technology has made getting around incredibly easy. You can download a GPS (Global Positioning System) application for your Smart Phone, usually for free.
SmartPhones not only help you navigate through the streets but also point you to the best shops and restaurants. If you pass an interesting looking café, within two minutes you can search for customer-reviews and menus online and determine if that’s where you want to eat.
For outdoor adventures, store the location of the trailhead onto your device before starting your hike, using the “track-back” feature to find your way back to your car.
However, phones often don’t get service out in the woods, batteries die and systems fail. Which is why you should …
Get a Map!
Hikers, hunters, snowshoers and skiers should carry and know how to use a map and compass.
As for urban areas, nowadays almost every major city produces a map designed to help travelers get around. They’re easy to find, easy to use and best of all, FREE. You can find them at a tourism office, but oftentimes many local shops and restaurants will have them out for grabs.
These maps are nice because they point out major landmarks, popular restaurants and other must-see sights. Sometimes they come with coupons. They’re usually colorful and unique, making them a cool souvenir for your trip.
Before You Go
Always have a game plan. By no means should you map out your entire trip, but know where you want to go and what you want to see. Check out maps online to get a feel for the cityscape. If you’re going to a foreign country, learn some basic phrases and street sign words.
Before you set off on an outdoor hiking adventure, let a local contact know where you plan to go and when you plan to return. Check weather conditions and pack accordingly.
Familiarize yourself with the area before heading off. If you can figure out your cardinal directions when you get lost, and you remember that located on the eastern most edge of the park is the trailhead you started from, it’ll be easier to …
First off, if you get lost - do not panic. This of course is easier said than done but keeping your composure will make a big difference in your situation.
If the sun is out insert a stick in the ground and mark the location at the end of the shadow. That end will move west to east. Climb a tree or get to the top of the highest point and try to see where you are.
At night you can use the North Star (Polaris), the brightest star in the Little Dipper, to head north.
It is possible to “find yourself” and get back on your own. However, make sure you are 100% certain you’ve figured out your location and the direction you need to go. This is especially important when you’re …
Lost in the Woods
If you’re not certain, don’t become more lost. Stay put. By moving through the woods you increase your risk of animal, insect or snake encounters.
It also makes it more difficult for search parties to locate you. Many times people wander from their original location to outside of the search party’s radius. Any search party will attempt to retrace your steps. If you do move, leave clues behind to make you easier to track, like spelling out words in rocks. Make these markers visible from a distance.
Your greatest and most immediate danger is weather. Find a compromise between staying visible and having protective shelter. Get out of the cold and rain but not hidden entirely from view. Under a large tree is good. Build a survival bed from plant material; laying on the bare ground will rob your body of precious heat.
Don’t ration your water or food. You can survive on 4-6 liters of water a day, and not eat for days on end without any long term damage. Don’t expend a lot of energy and eat minimally. Be careful what you forage - remember it’s safer to go hungry than to eat something poisonous.
Build a fire not only to keep warm but to attract attention (use green leaves which produce a thick, white smoke). The two things you should always have on you in the outdoors are matches and a plastic garbage bag (for insulation from rain and cold).
Lost in a City
Cities on the other hand can be fun to get lost in. Sometimes you discover things you wouldn’t have otherwise.
The best part about getting lost in a city is that you’re surrounded by people who live there. Your best bet is to ask a public official like a police officer for assistance.
You can also try to ask locals. If you feel unsafe, ask store or restaurant employees instead of random people off the street.
It’s generally pretty easy to orient yourself in a city environment, especially if the streets are on agrid system. However, it can get tricky when you don’t speak the language.
If that’s the case, one tip is take some stationary or matches from the hotel you’re staying at, along with postcards or picture books purchased from a gift shop of places you want to go. Using your map you can have locals point out the location of the images from the postcards.
If you get very lost, try to hail a cab and show them the hotel name and address posted on the stationary or matchbooks.
Before you resort to calling the cops for help, call your hotel (write that number down!). Almost every hotel has at least one employee who speaks some English. They deal with travelers all the time and know their way around the city.
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Nomadik Outdoor Life Guide: Outdoor Navigation Basics