A man walks alone in the forest, checking his phone for signal as he realizes he is lost.

What to Do If You Get Lost on a Hike With No Cell Signal

Getting lost on a hike is the greatest fear for most hikers, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar area with no cell signal. How you respond to the situation and handle yourself will play a significant role in whether you live to tell your loved ones about the adventure.

Knowing what to do if you get lost while hiking with no cell signal is an essential survival skill. Let’s look at some things you should do to ensure you finish your hike alive. Let’s get started!

What To Do If You Get Lost Backpacking

How Do I Get Cell Service While Hiking?

Cell phones will use significantly more battery in areas with inconsistent or weak cell service. This is because they’re constantly connecting and disconnecting from a signal. Whether lost or not, you’ve probably encountered this in everyday life.

If you’re hiking in an area with a weak cell signal, it’s a good idea to turn your phone into airplane mode to avoid draining your battery quickly. If you’re using your phone’s GPS for hiking navigation, turning it into airplane mode will not affect your GPS connectivity.

It’s a good idea to carry a few portable battery banks and a charging cable for your phone. They’re small and relatively lightweight, so they won’t take up space in your pack or weigh you down during your hike.

A man walks alone in the forest, checking his phone for signal as he realizes he is lost.

However, they’ll be a lifesaver if you need to charge your phone at some point. You can even purchase solar-powered battery banks to keep your battery bank charged.

Cell service in some areas will be next to impossible due to a lack of infrastructure or items obstructing the signal. Hiking in valleys or canyons almost always results in degraded service unless the cell tower is nearby. You’ll want to hike to the highest point possible and away from as many obstructions as you can to have a shot of getting cell service.

How Do Most Hikers Get Lost?

Most hikers get lost accidentally (or sometimes intentionally) wandering off a marked trail. One of the best ways to avoid getting lost is to avoid venturing off an established trail. However, accidents happen, and some trail markings are more evident than others.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you got lost. The goal is to get found before you find yourself in a dire or dangerous situation.

What to Do If You Get Lost While Hiking 

If you find that you’re lost while hiking, there are some things you can do to increase your chances of getting found. Here are some things you might do if you get lost on a hike.

Stay Calm

The most important thing you can do is to stay calm. Most people make terrible decisions and will exert more energy worrying and not remaining calm in these situations.

There’s a good chance you’ll not know how long you’ll need to conserve your energy. It could be a day or two before anyone comes looking for you, if not longer. You’ll exhaust yourself if you throw yourself into a panic.

We understand this is easier said than done for many people. However, panicking is typically only going to make the situation worse. You need to find a way to stay calm and avoid wasting energy unnecessarily.

Stop and Stay Put

Even if you can stay calm, one mistake many hikers make is not staying put. They’ll keep hiking and crossing their fingers that they’ll run into something that looks familiar.

However, hikers often put themselves in a more serious situation by not stopping and staying put. So if you’re lost, get comfortable and stop hiking.

Observe and Think

Once you’ve stopped hiking and made the decision you’re staying put, observe everything around you. Think through the various landmarks you passed while hiking and how they might be helpful to figure out your location. 

Luckily, the sun sets in the west, even when you’re lost while hiking. As long as you’re hiking between sun up and sun down, you can know approximately which direction is west. Use the sun as a reference point to keep hiking in the same direction so that you don’t end up walking in circles.

Come Up With a Plan

Once you’ve had time to think, you’ll need to devise a plan. Consider all of your possible options and evaluate their potential. Also, consider when it’s going to get dark, as you’ll want to use any remaining daylight wisely.

Decide whether you’ll need to ration any food or water available to improve your chances of survival. Be careful with rationing, as many hikers have died from dehydration with plenty of water still available.

How Do You Avoid Getting Lost While Hiking? 

If you’re anything like us, you want to minimize the chances of getting lost while hiking. Here are some things you should be doing when in remote locations. If you do end up lost, you’ll be glad you did!

Stay on the Trail

Like we said earlier, most people get lost because they wander off the trail. Do your best to stay on it and look for trail markers.

If you haven’t seen one in quite some time, there’s a good chance you made a wrong turn. Always keep an eye out for trail markings, especially in remote locations.

Some trails will use rock cairns to mark them and help hikers navigate them. Rangers and those who maintain the trails often put these in place. Look for these natural-looking trail markers to keep you on the path.

Study Your Route Before Hiking

You must plan ahead of time if you’re hiking in remote locations where getting lost is a serious risk. By studying your route ahead of time, you’ll have a better feel for the trail without even having visited it yet.

Look for any potential landmarks and the mileage where you might encounter them. If you aren’t reaching a landmark when you expect to, it might be because you’ve made a wrong turn. You’ll stand a better chance of catching your error if you have some sort of familiarity with the land.

Check In With a Local Ranger Prior to the Hike

Some hikes require you to register or check in at a ranger station. Communicating with rangers, especially in remote locations, is a good idea before heading out on a challenging hike. You may not plan on needing their help, but if you do, you’ll be glad you gave them some information about where you’re hiking.

Park rangers have many responsibilities, including helping with search and rescue missions. They want to keep you and anyone else using the park as safe as possible. So do yourself a favor and check in with the rangers before hitting a difficult trail.

HOT TIP
Where have all the park rangers gone?

Use a GPS

While there might not be a usable cell signal for your smartphone, GPS systems connect to a network of satellites that orbit the earth. These devices can get a signal just about anywhere on the planet. Some advanced hikers will use these units to broadcast their location to loved ones back home.

These units can also help you stay on the trail. The AllTrails app allows you to use your phone as a GPS unit while on a trail, even without a cell signal. If you subscribe to the service, you can download the map just in case you don’t have service. It will even help alert you if you’ve made a wrong turn along the way. 

Bring a Compass and Map

No matter how convenient and great technology may be, sometimes you must go old school. If you know how to navigate with a compass and a map, you can find your way just about anywhere.

However, if you don’t know how to use them, you don’t want to try to figure them out once you’ve gotten yourself lost.

Take the time to familiarize yourself with how to use these important resources. Navigating with a compass and map is an essential survival skill everyone who plans to spend time in the wilderness should know how to do. 

A solo hiker climbs to a peak to see her surroundings and study the map.

Use the Sun as a Guide

The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. While the sun changes its position based on the season, using it as a guide will help you walk in the same direction and not in circles.

Constantly be aware of the sun’s position while you’re hiking, and make sure that it doesn’t change all that much, especially if you have to wind your way through hills and valleys.

Stay Hydrated

Make sure you bring plenty of water with you on a hike. Once you discover you’re lost, ration it appropriately. However, don’t avoid drinking water until you reach the point of severe dehydration.

Too many hikers experience tragic and deadly situations because they are too strict with their water rationing. Some hikers have even suffered fatal consequences from dehydration, despite having a decent supply of water on them.

Once dehydration sets in, your body will do some crazy things. You’ll begin to not think clearly and make irrational decisions.

So pack plenty of water and make sure you keep your body hydrated. Have a way to purify water yourself so you can collect water without worrying about contamination issues.

Two hikers drink water, stopped in the woods.

How Many Hikers Get Lost Every Year?

It’s hard to estimate how many hikers get lost each year, but it’s well into the hundreds, if not thousands. Getting lost while hiking is easier than you might think.

All it takes is one wrong turn or taking a shortcut that hikers have created for you to get you and your loved ones lost. Again, how you respond is vital in deciding the outcome of you getting lost. 

Make a few wise choices before hitting the trail and take the proper precautions, and you’ll be one of the many hikers that return safely at the end of their hike. However, don’t take your safety seriously while hiking, and you can find yourself in a serious and dangerous situation.

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