Lost in the wilderness: Should I stay or should I go?

You’re lost. Rather than navigate your way to safety, in many situations, staying in one place is the best thing you can do. After all, there’s no guarantee you’ll find someplace better just around the bend.

As a rule, if you don’t have any idea where to go or how to provide for yourself, then staying put makes sense.

If you’re in a large vehicle, it also makes sense to stay in it: Not only does it offer shelter, but it’s also a lot easier for rescuers to spot than a lone person walking through the brush. If you informed people of your route, chances are they’ll begin searching for you shortly after you don’t show up at your destination. If you head down a different path, you might miss them (and rescue) completely.

Yet as good of an idea as it is to stay put, sometimes moving proves to be the better option — especially if you find yourself in a dangerous spot.

Before you go

Some questions to ask before moving on:

  • Do you have a good idea as to which way safety is and how to get there? How far is it?
  • Do you have enough supplies?
  • Are you on a well-used trail that might have people heading your way?
  • Which is more dangerous: where you are now or where you have to travel?
  • Does your current location offer necessity-of-life benefits, such as water, shelter, food, and fire or fuel?

There’s an old survival saying: “It’s not the desert that will stop you, but the grain of sand in your shoe.” So be fastidious and make sure you leave only when you’re absolutely ready.

Also consider how short-term weather conditions and climate will affect you. This is vital. If a violent storm is brewing in the distance, stay put. Most big storms come and go fairly quickly. Traveling in the rain with poor rain gear is an almost-certain recipe for hypothermia.

Before you head out, set up signs to tell anyone who’s looking for you or comes upon your camp that you were there and which direction you headed. You can leave a note or a marker. The more details you can leave behind, the better, such as what supplies you have and your state of health.

Stock up on food and water, and prepare any protective clothing you think you’ll need. Bring signaling and fire-starting gear. Take particularly good care of your feet. If you have extra socks, change them regularly, and try to avoid traveling in wet footgear.

Take your time

Survival travel is a completely different animal than recreational travel. The stakes are much higher, so you can’t afford to make mistakes. Know that your rate of travel will be considerably slower than normal. Move deliberately, carefully and at a steady pace; it is not a race.

The faster you go, the greater the chance you can get hurt. Plus, you’re more likely to bypass a potential shelter or trail that might lead you to safety. If you go at a reasonable pace, you begin to see different possibilities that might make all the difference to your chances of survival.

While you’re traveling, it always makes sense to look backward often to see where you’ve been, so you can recognize that view if you have to go back. Few people do this, but it’s well worth the few seconds it takes.

Most important, know where you are headed and set realistic travel goals. Pick a destination you’re sure you can reach without exhausting yourself. It can be demoralizing to set a goal and not attain it.

Traveling at night

Traveling at night is a risky undertaking and one I don’t generally recommend. The greatest — and most obvious — risk here is that you simply can’t see where you are putting your feet. You might step on a venomous animal or trip and fall.

Unless you know the area like the back of your hand, your ability to see anything — such as a fork in the trail or a possible shelter — is almost nil at night. Also, most predators are more active at night, and you might be exposing yourself to the possibility of attack.

Additionally, traveling at night likely means you’ll have to sleep during the day, which is when rescuers will be looking for you.

The biggest exception to the “don’t travel at night” rule is if you’re in the desert, where daytime temperatures might be too high to allow safe travel. 

LES STROUD, aka Survivorman, is an award-winning TV producer, director, host and author of Survive!, a best-selling manual on survival. Learn more about Survivorman by visiting survivormantv.com, a subscription-based web portal for all things survival and adventure.


  1. Would be a good time to have a ham radio or satellite communicator in your car or in your gear.

  2. Les, Bring back Survivorman. Keep the episodes to North America. I don’t think I will get lost in the Amazon Jungle or even ever visit it. You started it all (the survival shows). You are still the best of them all. I did like your Big Foot episodes.

  3. As an Ast Scoutmaster and a volunteer Search and Resuce professional, if you can answer Yes to those questions you might not be that lost. But if you are lost its much easier to find you if you’re not moving around.

  4. As a former scoutmaster I would tape Les’s shows and show them to my boys taking wilderness survival. It really helped get the guys mentally prepared to survive. I’m certain even today they could regurgitate how to respond in critical situations.

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