Survival Tips for When You Get Lost in the Wilderness

The Survival Rule of 3’s

People get lost in the woods all the time.  Most times they survive by pure dumb luck, but sometimes they don’t.  In 2013 a woman name Geraldine Largay stepped off the Appalachian Trail here in Maine to use the bathroom and got lost.  Her body was found two years later in a small camp she’d set up; a cautionary tale for people looking to hike alone in the woods.  I’ve hiked in the same area where she got lost and it’s easy to understand how she could get turned around, but what really struck me about this is that she had a compass with her but instead chose to walk uphill away from the trail looking for a signal for her cell phone.  She never found it.


Surviving a situation doesn’t mean it’s going to be fun or adventurous.  It just means you’ll be alive at the end of it and able to move on with your life.  You’ll need to adopt a survival mindset in that you’ll have to endure almost anything in order to live through the ordeal.  Be mentally tough!

So what can  you do if lost in the wilderness?  There are several things to remember and I’m going to spend some time going over each one.


The first thing is to STOP!  This is a mnemonic for Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan.

Stop – just that.  Stop moving and sit down.  The first instinct is to panic when you first find out that you’re lost.  You’ll want to run to find your way back to the trail, but the chances are good that you’ll only get more lost or even hurt yourself running around in the woods.

Think – Get your head going.  Once you’ve got the panic under control start thinking about the situation as calmly as you can.

Observe – Look around you.  What can you see or hear?  Can you see a stream or river?  Can you hear a road?  Is there something to start a fire or make a shelter with?  Start taking in as much information as you can.

Plan – Come up with a plan on how you’re going to survive and/or signal for help.  In your mind come up with a methodical list of things you need to do in order to survive, then start solving problems until you reach your goal.

Now that we know how to handle the original surge of panic let’s move on to the next step.

Survival Rule of Three’s

That’s where the Survival Rule of Three’s comes in.  This is a high-level view of what you need to do and they aren’t actual rules.  These “rules” are guidelines on how to prioritize your activities if you ever find yourself in a survival situation.

The Rules:

  • You can survive three minutes without air
  • You can survive three hours without shelter (in inclement weather)
  • You can survive three days without water
  • You can survive three weeks without food

In order to apply these guidelines let’s use an example.  If you were on a canoe trip 50 miles upriver of civilization and your canoe tipped over the first thing you’d want to do is get out of the water because you’re not going to be able to survive long without air.  Again, these are simply guidelines and not real “rules”.  So if you’re underwater for four minutes and you’re still alive don’t give up because you’ve gone past the three minute mark!

So let’s assume you surface ok and manage to get to shore.  You don’t have any gear with you other than what you had on your body, but at least you’re alive.  You’ve gotten past the first hurdle!


In this scenario it’s mid-day in April here in Maine, the water is freezing, and the temperature is going below 32 degrees tonight.  The next thing you need is shelter.  You either need to find a way to make a fire or build a warm enough shelter to last you the night.  If you have a fire steel or lighter in your pocket or you know how to make a bow drill then you’re good to go, but if not you’ll probably have to build some kind of debris hut.

I’ll be talking about all these ways to start fire or build shelter in later posts, so stay tuned!


Field Knife - BK 2
Field Knife – BK 2

The good news is that in this scenario you’re right next to water, so you can stop worrying about this for the moment and turn your full attention to shelter.  You won’t die of dehydration!


After you have shelter and water lined up now you can think about food.  For some reason people want to put food at the top of their priority list when they get lost in the wilderness, but if you look at the Survival Rules of Threes you can see that it’s way down the list of things you should be worrying about.


The necessary gear should provide a means for the Rule of 3’s for Survival.  With the following items you can make a small, but effective, survival kit that will serve you well in case you get stuck or lost in the wilderness.

  1. Knife – A good survival knife can save your ass.
  2. Lighter (or any means of making fire like a firesteel as long as you’re comfortable with it.)
  3. Poncho – a good military grade poncho or a small tarp can be used to keep the rain off or set up and used as a shelter.
  4. A small metal pot and a small stove.
  5. Cordage can be useful in your personal kit as well. I like paracord, but there are many types out there.
  6. Flashlight – there are many small flashlights available on the market today that you can buy relatively cheap.
  7. First aid kit – since this is in your vehicle you can carry a pretty decent kit. I wouldn’t skimp here.
  8. Map and Compass – don’t rely on your GPS to do everything. It’s making you weak and setting you up for failure.  Ultimately it could cost you your life.
  9. Multi-tool – a good multi-tool is a worthy investment. I personally like the Leatherman brand, but I also have a Gerber that works well.
  10. Gorilla tape or duct tape can be used to repair gear, help stop leaks in a tent, or a thousand other uses. You should always have some in your kit just in case.  I like to wrap a few feet around some around something smaller so I don’t have to carry the big roll with me.

This list gives you a lot of leeway when it comes to what to put in your pack.  It could be as small as a day pack containing minimal gear that will allow you to store it in your vehicle easily in case you have a space issue, or it might look like you’re getting ready to hike the Appalachian Trail if you have plenty of space in the back of a minivan you don’t mind giving up.


 If there’s only one thing you take away from this it’s don’t place your life in the hands of your GPS.  I was bushwhacking in the woods a few years ago with my GPS and when I checked it I was stunned to see that it was showing me at least ten miles from my actual location.  How did I know?  Because I’d been using a map and compass to track my location as well and I was 100% certain that I knew exactly where I was.  The GPS was showing me in a completely different county!

Even without the map and compass it would have been readily apparent to me that the GPS was wrong because I knew what town I was in, but this was a bit of a shock because it told me the GPS wasn’t functioning properly.

Have a backup to your GPS!  If you’re driving somewhere and suddenly it’s taking you off the road or down a road that looks suspicious don’t be afraid to stop and double check it on your map.  Many times the roads used are seasonal, which is what happened to a couple named Al and Rita Chretien, who got lost in Colorado when their GPS unit took them down the wrong road.

In this post we’ve talked about the STOP! mnemonic when you get lost, the Survival Rules of 3’s, and what gear you should have in your pack or survival kit every time you go out in the woods.

Questions?  Comments?

Sound off below!

-Jarhead Survivor


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: