What to Do If You Are Lost on a Trail Run

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Trail running offers runners the chance to escape the hustle, bustle, and chaos of running through city streets and the monotony of running the same neighborhood road routes every morning. They can also be a welcomed relief if your joints and bones are aching from repeatedly pounding paved road. But what makes trail running beautiful and rewarding may also become the biggest problem. Getting on the trails may be exactly what you need, but what happens if you suddenly realize you have no idea where you are? What do you do if you get lost?

Breathe

The first step to take if you get lost on the trails is to not panic. You definitely want to avoid panic (and a subsequent panic attack, if you are prone to them) because it may cause you to lose focus and become overly emotional – which, at that point, becomes harder to make rational and logical decisions.

If you have any experience with meditation or yoga and feel yourself starting to panic, take a few minutes to center yourself and breathe deeply. Use any yoga or meditation techniques that you know to help calm you down and clear your thoughts.

Retrace Your Steps

The easiest way to get back on the trail or path that you were originally on and more familiar with is to start retracing your steps. The main problem with this is that you might have been so absorbed in thinking through your day, your to do list, or your meal planning that you really just can’t remember your path. You weren’t focusing on where you were going as much as you were just running. But if you were paying attention, then retracing your steps should not be too difficult.

Call for Help

Hopefully you decided to carry your phone or some other means of communication with you out onto the trails. If you’ve tried retracing your steps, or tried figuring out your location via trail maps, trail markings, or a GPS and still don’t know where you are, call for help. If the trail you set out on is not a long one, phone a friend who might know the trail better to come get you.

If it’s a longer, more difficult trail in a heavily wooded area, seek professional rescue assistance. Attempt to contact local authorities or park ranger and tell them all the information you know – where you started, the last place you knew you were or recognized, if you have proper fuel, water, and clothes, and what the area around you looks like. 

Stay Put

After you’ve tried to contact someone for help, be it successful or not, stay where you are. The last thing you want to do is attempt to get back to where you started and end up getting even more lost and farther away from the place you initially sent out the call for help.

The waiting period at this time may become difficult to endure, and extremely stressful if you start thinking through worst-case-scenarios. Don’t! Focus on the first tip above and breathe. Or keep yourself busy by stretching or doing something else that you can concentrate on, and keep hydrating. Also stay alert of your surroundings – especially other runners who might come across you and who could help you.

Tips on Avoiding Getting Lost in the First Place

Always Wear a GPS Watch

Technology can be a beautiful thing – especially when it comes to us in the form of GPS watches that track distance, mileage, and location. It’s the modern day compass and atlas, except combined and on steroids. A good GPS watch will not only help you keep track of how far you have run and how fast your pace, but will help you identify exactly where you are (so long as you can catch a satellite signal to the watch).

If you end up lost, let your GPS pinpoint your location, then zoom out to see your coordinates and nearby landmarks to help you get your bearings. GPS watches used to be expensive when they first came out, but you can now find a great GPS watch that will track all the metrics you need without breaking the bank. (If you need some help finding the best watch for you, check out our list of the best GPS watches, found here.)

Dress Appropriately

First off, if you’re running on the trails, no matter the season, opt for brightly colored or patterned clothes. If you do get lost, this will help others spot you.  

Also, air on the side of caution if you are running in cooler weather. Yes, we know that overdressing for a run can be the worst.  If the temps are projected to drop at all over the course of the few hours after you begin your run, wear layers. That way, if you do get lost, you can at least keep warm. The same is true for especially hot and humid days. Always bring a belt with plenty of hydration bottles and fuel.

Always Run With Someone

Bonus points if your running partner is already familiar with the trail. This one remains true anytime you are running in a new place, but especially on the trails. Ideally, take someone along with you who already knows the trail well enough to be able to redirect your route if you do get lost. Having someone else with you if you’re lost and waiting for help can really help calm your nerves and keep you centered.

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