serious running: trail running, races, shoe reviews

How to Find Your Way if Lost While Trail Running

posted by Chris Barber


These past two weekends I ran two trail races and during both of them at one point I found myself without any other runners around me.  Once this happened I began to second guess if I was on the right trail.  We all want reassurance from our peers that we are traveling down the right path.  Of course, there were arrows on the ground and tape cutting the trail splits on these trail runs, but when you are running, pushing yourself, and in the zone, you tend to just keep running on the path right in front of you.  The path of least resistance.  However, sometimes it’s best to run down the trail less traveled…

So let’s say you go for a trail run, by yourself, to get out of the city, to be in the forest, and maybe get some clarity.  While attaining your runner’s high, you zone out of your immediate surroundings and suddenly find yourself lost.  You are running by yourself, you don’t have a GPS, or a map but have a general idea of which Cardinal direction you need to travel to find your way back.

What should you do?  Try to survive and wait to be rescued?  Possibly, but if you are trail running, you probably aren’t that far off your intended location.

1.  Walk downhill until you reach water. There are two reasons why you want to find water.  First off, you want to make sure as you aren’t running around in circles which can very easily happen.  Following a water way ensures you go one direction and make progress.  Secondly, population centers are usually on or near waterways, so if you follow one long enough you will reach civilization.  If not, you’ll eventually reach the beach.  Once there, reward yourself with an umbrella drink and a rub down.  You deserve it.

2.  Look at the Moss on the sides of trees. Moss often grows on the North side of the trees.  Based off this you can determine which cardinal direction you want to travel.  Left of North is West.  Right of North is East.  South of North is…well, South.

3.  Find the North Star. If it is night time and you are in the Northern Hemisphere you can find the North Star as the brightest star on the handle of the Little Dipper.  Just think about the big tent in Elementary school with the stars displayed on the ceiling.  The North Star and Little find-your-way-by-sunset-resizeDipper are probably the easiest stars to recognize.  Unlike B-list celebrities, which are often difficult to recognize.

4.  Look up to the clouds. You can look to the sky to pray; while you are looking up there, notice which way the clouds are traveling.  Clouds usually travel East to West.  They don’t follow the exact Cardinal directions but it can point you in the right direction.

5.  Watch the sunset and sunrise. While you’re lost, take time to appreciate the simple things in life like the sunrise and sunset.  The sun rises in the East and sets in the West.  Only “ride off into the sunset” if you want to travel West.

Overall, make sure you don’t panic and think rationally.  If you have no idea which direction you should travel then your best option is to just stay put and make yourself visible for possible rescue teams.  Things like bright clothing, fires, and being on a high point are great ways to get yourself noticed.  Being obnoxious and loud is a horrible way to get noticed.  If you have confidence and a calm demeanor you’ll get noticed every time, on and off the trail.

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  1. Anne says:

    This is great advice. I just gave you a shout-out on my running blog to help spread the word now that it seems everyone is out there in the woods these days.

  2. Brian says:

    I’ve got to take exception to #2, #3 and #4.

    Problem with #2: In deep woods, moss grows all around a tree. It may be a little thicker on the north side but it’s not a good indicator of direction and is more of a desperation tactic. Just randomly picking a direction and blindly following it would be almost as good.

    Problem with #3: Polaris (the North Star) and the Little Dipper are both pretty dim as visible stars and constellations go. I wouldn’t call them the easiest to locate (that title would go to the constellation Orion and the star Sirius in my opinion). While Polaris can be found without much problem, it’s something you want to learn to do before you get lost so you’re not trying to learn when you are in trouble.

    Problem with #4: In your part of the world, the clouds might go east to west but in my part of the world, they almost always go west to east. Prevailing weather patterns is what determines which way they go. Learn what the prevailing weather pattern is before going out and you can then take an educated guess.

    I think the best advice is in the last paragraph. Don’t panic. Stay put and be visible. I’d add to carry a small (loud) whistle, a small compass and a lighter. With the small compass you can find direction without worrying about stars, clouds, moss, sun, etc. With the whistle, you can blow it three times (three is a distress signal in the woods) and the noise carries a lot better then shouting. The lighter can get you a fire so you can stay warm if you’re stuck overnight and a good smokey fire can be visible for some distance. Happy running!

    1. Chris Barber says:

      Great advice Brian. I agree, not all of these tactics always apply depending on what type of environment you are in or what part of the world you run on. I sometimes forget that readers could be from different countries or even different hemispheres than I am.

      I was aiming more for tips for a trail runner who didn’t have any survival gear with them and no idea where they were. Most of these tactics are to merely avoid walking around in circles while trying to find your way out, which often happens because of terrain.

      I agree, a compass, whistle, and lighter are some of the best tools to make sure you have with you while trail running. Or one of those cool Crocodile Dundee/Rambo survival knifes with the bottom that unscrews with all of your survival gear in it. :)

      Happy Trails!

  3. Brigitte says:

    I love to go trail running and when I go for a long run 10+ miles, I take my personal GPS locator with me. It gives me peace of mind while navigating trials, so I don’t have to worry about finding my way back. It is call HomeStar by DHTVentures. It is very small so I tie it to my shoe until I am ready to use it. Before the run I store my starting location and when I am ready to head back, I hit the position button again and it shows me the direction where my run started at! Safe and Happy Running!

  4. Boone, Daniel Boone says:

    There are so many things wrong with this advice it is near criminal.

    The lost runner who follows this advice is going to do us all a favor and stay lost and die. They’ll win the Darwin award for sure! Unless they are fortunate enough to have someone contact the local Search and Rescue where some overweight bubba will have a heart attack and die while out looking for the loser who was idiot enough to follow this advice.

    Way to go, OP! You’ve now succeeded in proving what a dope you are!

    (Really, this post should be deleted since it is wrong in so many ways…)