How to prepare properly for a walk in the woods — and what to do if you get lost

Expert tips on staying safe during your next forest adventure.

Expert tips on staying safe during your next forest adventure

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Canada has some of the most breathtaking forests and parks in the world. But before you start crossing some of its epic trails off your list this fall, it's important to know that even experienced adults can get lost, and to brush up on your safety knowledge. We consulted experts at Parks Canada and also spoke to wilderness skills instructor Zachary Gault to help you navigate the most common concerns.

Should you EVER go into the woods alone?

It's okay to go into the woods by yourself, as long as you're prepared with a plan that you share with others, along with the necessary training, experience and essentials for such a trip. 

What should you know before you head out on a forest hike?

Before going anywhere, make a trip plan. A good plan should involve checking the weather, asking about trail conditions and mapping your route. Before leaving, tell someone where you're going and when you plan to return. Make sure your equipment is in good condition and that you know how to use it. 

The Parks Canada website has general visitor safety information on mountain, coastal, wildlife and health considerations. It's also strongly encouraged that you visit the website of the specific park, historic site or marine conservation area you're visiting for specific information and tips. 

Gault also recommends having a handle on "Basic navigation/orienteering, basic signalling skills, understanding the importance of water, shelter, fire and food", along with seasonal/environmental threats and a means of communication with loved ones.

Should your preparation change based on the size of the woods?

The size of the forest is less important for preparation than the amount of time you plan on spending outdoors. 

What information should you share with people before you enter the woods?

If you're heading out for a short hike, tell someone what your planned route is and what time you plan on returning. 

If you plan on being out for many days, make a trip plan that includes the names of other people travelling with you, your route, what time you intend to return, and a lot of details that would facilitate a search in case you get lost, such as your tent colour, a description of your vehicle or boat, license plate numbers, activities you're planning on doing (eg. rock climbing or swimming) and the type and number of communication devices you're bringing with you. Additionally, Gault suggests you should inform people of potential worries, medical history, the gear you're bringing and your food and water rations, to help assess your situation in case of an emergency. Don't forget to check in with the person you left the trip plan with when you return. 

Parks Canada also encourages using The Trip Plan app, where you can fill out pertinent information and share it with others.

What should you always have with you?

Even for a short hike, always pack the essentials. These include a flashlight, a fire-starter (like a lighter or matches), a signaling device (like a whistle), food, water, a water purification device, extra clothing, cell phone/communication device, first aid kit, pocket knife, insect repellant, sun protection and a foil emergency blanket. Gault also suggests, dependant on skill level, a knife or saw, compass/GPS, sleep system, tarp, metal container to boil water, cordage (utility rope) and sturdy footwear. Lastly, don't always rely on technology, as batteries and electronics can fail.

How far is too far? How long is too long?

There's no set distance or time that's considered safe, as it ultimately depends on both your experience and preparedness, which will vary between individuals.

What's the best method of tracking where you are? (is that "moss on the tree" thing true?)

It's commonly, and incorrectly, thought that moss only grows on the north side of a tree and thus, is a good way to tell what direction you're headed. However, in some places, it's common to see moss growing all the way around a tree, so don't rely on that "moss on the tree" method to help you. Learn and train beforehand on how to use a compass or GPS and bring a map with you that you can track as you go.

You're lost, what's the first thing you should do?

Don't panic. Take a moment to collect your thoughts and stay calm, which will help both you and those looking for you. 

Can you see the sun? It rises in the east, is south at midday and sets in the west, so it might be able to give you a sense of direction.

Sound your whistle in a series of three, wait then repeat in threes every so often. Three consecutive sounds from a signaling device will alert anyone within hearing distance that someone needs help.

"Stay put and do not wander further off course or into more unknown terrain," says Gault. "Take an assessment of your current location and the resources on you, think of landmarks you passed to help you terrain-associate or give visual reference.... Drink some water or have a snack, go over maps, compass or GPS."

To help the searchers, the best thing to do is stay in one place. If there's a clearing nearby, that's the best place to wait, as it makes signaling to aircrafts that much easier. Make a shelter, start a fire to keep warm and wait (hug a tree!). "If signalling or contacting for rescue is out of the picture," cautions Gault, "self-rescue can be the only option, but make sure your decisions are calculated before moving."

Tips for finding water?

Naturally, this situation is best avoided by packing extra water with you. Not all streams have water that's safe to drink, so it's prudent to have a purification system on you (tablets or filters specifically designed for hiking are widely available). If you can't find a water source, Gault says, "Look for plants or trees like cattails, bullrushes, willow trees and reeds, as they grow near water, and follow animal trails with heavy use as they will likely lead toward a source. Light shimmers through tree-lines is a great indicator. Cracks in rock outcrops can provide small seeps and springs." Gault also notes sphagnum moss, abundant in North America, which acts similarly to a sponge, is able to hold rainwater for long periods. Water vapour can also be collected from non-poisonous plants by wrapping a plastic bag around leafy branch sections. In the winter you can melt snow using this method

How should you ration your water and food? What if you don't have any?

Again, it's best to pack well so this isn't an issue. "The survival rule of Three suggests that humans can survive for 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, 3 hours without shelter and 3 minutes without oxygen," says Gault. He believes it's crucial to not allow yourself to become fatigued or dehydrated in the first 48 hours and to use the scavenger mindset of eating what you can, when you can while drinking and storing water when you find it.

What should you do if you encounter dangerous animals?

Most animals are more afraid of you than you are of them. Talking, singing aloud or humming will let them know you're there and most times, they'll leave the area before you even see them. Building a fire can also discourage animals from approaching, while keeping you warm.

At what point should you decide to prep for a sleepover?

Once you realize you are lost and chose the spot where you are going to wait, that is the time to start preparing for the night. Make a warm shelter with three boughs on the ground and use the emergency blanket to keep you warm and dry. It's much easier to collect firewood and supplies before the sun goes down. 

How do these dynamics change if it's winter?

In winter, it is even more important to have a trip plan and bring the essentials with you. Dressing in layers and being aware of ice and snow conditions is very important. Know, before you head out, if you are in an area prone to avalanches and respect any "out of bounds" signs.

My friend has just alerted me that they're lost, who should I contact and how can I help?

If you're able to speak with them, get as much information that you can. Where and when did they start their hike? What are they wearing? Are they alone? Is anyone hurt, missing medications or requiring first aid? Write down their phone number and tell them you're calling for help, then call 911 (or your local emergency number) and pass along the information that you can.

What's the biggest worry in terms of getting lost?

Not being prepared. When you know a place well, it lures you into a false sense of security. You can get lost even in places that are familiar to you, so always bring the essentials, just in case.

What's the biggest mistake lost people make?

The biggest mistake is starting to panic. Usually, that means you walk farther off course and risk getting hurt. Stay calm, collect your thoughts and stay put. Gault reiterates that you should only consider moving if self-rescue is the only choice and "you have an accurate bearing for self-rescue" or if you need something vital like water or a cell/radio signal.

For more specific tips and information, Parks Canada supports AdventureSmart, a national program dedicated to encouraging Canadians and visitors to "Get informed and go outdoors", combining online and on-site awareness to try and reduce the number and severity of search and rescue incidents.

Do you have any tips or questions about heading into the woods? Set up camp in our comments and let us know.


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