All outdoor users should carry and know how to use a map and compass before they go off into the backcountry.  The first step in staying found is locating your position, and marking that position on your map, before you leave your vehicle or camp.  Then identify the boundaries that surround the area in which you will be traveling.  These boundaries could be prominent roads, railways, power lines or large rivers.  Preferably you should identify boundaries on all four sides of the area you will be in.  Having located yourself on the map and knowing the boundaries, you can then leave camp with the knowledge that, if you get lost, all you have to do is determine which boundary is closest and walk a straight line to it.  Then relocate yourself and return to your vehicle or camp.  Sometimes this can be a very long walk out!

Lost - now what?


Many people experience great difficulty walking a straight line and have wandered in circles until exhausted.  The simplest way to walk a straight line is to use a compass, preferably an “orienteering compass.”  Having determined the direction to the nearest boundary, point the “direction of travel arrow” towards your destination then turn the dial of the compass until “N” coincides with the north end of the compass needle.  Follow the direction indicated by the direction-of-travel arrow always keeping the north end of the compass needle and the orienteering arrow aligned.  Look up, sight on a landmark, and walk to it.  Repeat these steps until you reach the boundary and can relocate yourself.  In some areas only one significant boundary may be present.  In this situation, determine, before you leave camp, the direction you will have to travel to get to the boundary in the event you become disoriented.

Often the road or trail leading to your camp will serve as a primary boundary.  If you walk in a westerly direction away from your camp you will have to directly opposite that, or easterly, to return to the road or trail that your camp is located on.

Any metal object that is nearby may radically affects the compass needle — do not let firearms, knives large metal belt buckles or other compasses near your compass when taking a reading or following a compass heading.

Determining the cardinal directions

The cardinal directions, north, east, south and west can be determined without a compass using the following procedures.   Cut a thin, straight stick about eighteen inches long and sharpen one end.  Locate an area that is level and not shaded then clear away all surface debris.  Drive the stick into the ground at an angle so that the blunt end of the stick is pointing at the sun and there is little or no shadow created by the stick.  Allow twenty minutes to pass and then observe the shadow that is now present.  The end of the shadow (the end opposite the base of the stick) points east!

Everybody should carry and know how to use a map.  Many kinds of maps are available and can be obtained from county, state or provincial agencies, the US Forest Service and other sources.  The most useful maps, called topographic maps, may be purchased at many sporting goods outlets; some book stores or ordered directly from the US Geological Service (800-USA-MAPS.)  Topographic maps show both man-made features (drawn in black or red) and natural features (drawn in green for vegetation and blue for water).  Contour lines, lines drawn on a map joining points of equal elevation above sea level, are drawn in brown and show the altitude and the terrain features of the land mass covered by the map.

You will find other useful information in the marginal information of the map. The scale enables the user to measure the distance between two points on the map. The declination diagram shows the difference between True and Magnetic North. The date the map was printed – remember changes take place over time that may not be reflected on the map.  Map symbols enable the user to interpret the information shown.  Remember, unless shown otherwise, north is always at the top of the map.

The basic information presented here is designed to enable outdoor users to relocate themselves after becoming disoriented and make their way back to safety.  Orienteering clubs, mountaineering equipment shops and other recreation programs offer additional wilderness navigation training that you can take to refine your navigation skills and increase your confidence to travel the back country without getting lost.

LOST…. now what?

Becoming lost is serious but it does not have to be dangerous if you react properly.  An acronym to help you remember what to do is STOPSit down – don’t panic.  Talk positively to yourself — out loud!   Have a drink of water or eat a candy bar.  Remember your brain is the best piece of survival equipment you have — use it.  Think about your situation.  How bad is it really?  Are there injuries that you need to tend to?  Are you loosing body heat?  What needs to be done first?  How much time do you have before it gets dark or before the storm breaks?  Observe the area.  What resources are available to help you survive?  What natural hazards exist?  Plan what to do next — but be flexible.  Remember you have no control over the weather or the onset of darkness but you do have control over your actions!

When you become lost the first thing you must do is admit to yourself that you don’t know where you are — you’re lost!  Or more accurately you don’t know how to get back to your starting point.  While you are sitting, go over in your mind what you did since leaving your car or camp earlier in the day and compare your recollections with the information provided by your map. What landmarks did you see along the way?  Can you see these landmarks on your map?  Have you been going uphill or down?  How many rivers did you cross?  How many ridges did you climb?  Did you leave tracks that you can follow back to your starting point?  It helps to draw a map in the ground.  By a process of deduction and using common sense you may be able to unscramble your thoughts and reorient yourself.  Often you’ll find that you’re not as lost as you first thought you were!

Unless you can positively locate yourself, the best advice to follow is to stay put and not travel.  Do not run around looking for something familiar.  Not only will this further confuse you — it will exhaust you, dehydrate you and increase the likelihood of injuring yourself.  It will also make the searcher’s job much more difficult — you may move into an area that has already been searched – and may not be search again until all other possibilities have been investigated!  Wait for the rescuers to find you.  They are trained and equipped to rescue the lost and injured.  Sit tight, protect yourself, signal and let them find you.  Remember that most rescues in the United States are accomplished within 72 hours – especially if you have told someone where you were going! Your job is to survive until they arrive


For additional map, compass and GPS training  Outdoor Quest


Peter Kummerfeldt has walked the talk in the wilderness survival field for decades.

Peter grew up in

Peter Kummerfeldt has taught wilderness and emergency survival for more than 40 years.

Kenya, East Africa and came to America in 1965 and joined the U.S. Air Force. He is a graduate of the Air Force Survival Instructor Training School and has served as an instructor at the Basic Survival School, Spokane, Washington; the Arctic Survival School, Fairbanks, Alaska, and the Jungle Survival School, Republic of the Philippines.

For twelve years, Peter was the Survival Training Director at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado. He retired from the Air Force in 1995 after 30 years of service.

In 1992, concerned with the number of accidents that were occurring in the outdoors annually and the number of tourists traveling overseas who were involved in unpleasant and sometimes life-threatening incidents Peter created

He is the author of “Surviving a Wilderness Emergency” and has addressed over 20,000 people as the featured speaker at numerous seminars, conferences and national conventions.

Check out Peter’s blog at:



This Post Has One Comment

Leave a Reply

Close Menu