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Get Unlost - With Just a Compass

It is a truism that all serious hikers bushwhack, for every one of us heads off-trail when nature calls!  Most of the time these forays are inconsequential.  But every so often, usually on level terrain in unremarkable woods on cloudy days, a hiker gets 'turned around' and just can't regain the trail.  They...are...lost.

And this scenario can lead to tragic consequences.  In 2013, Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine Largay of Tennessee perished after surviving weeks by herself in Maine's mountain country.  An initial text message to her husband included: "In somm trouble, Got off trail to go to br. Now lost...".  (The message was never sent due to her remote location).

Is there a solution here?  Yes, if you're packing a compass!  And no map required.

Some conditions: the below method is less likely to work if you wander for more than the time consumed to travel from trail to break site, typically a minute or so.  It should only take a few seconds to realize you have become disoriented.

As well, for a happy outcome you need two hardware skills and one 'software':

  • be able to set compass bearings (N, E, S, W) and their back tracks (180 degree opposites)
  • be able to walk straight lines through forest for about two minutes by maintaining alignment of the compass needle with the dial's orienting arrow (i.e. keeping 'red in the shed'; 'dog in the doghouse', 'needle boxed') as you proceed
  • keeping your cool to avoid mistakes!

Overview of the Get-Found method: from a marked location the 'home' tree below, at your  break site, conduct up to four hikes each starting and ending at your marked position, working your way through the four cardinal directions - from North through to West. 

daly lost 1

Each 'hike' is two minutes out then two minutes back, totaling four minutes.

Here's how!

  • mark your lost location by making a ‘home’ tree with a bright garment or pack preferably hanging at eye level so you can readily see it on your returns. To make more obvious lean a few big branches against the trunk teepee fashion
  • say you estimate your off-trail time was a minute, a very typical length; as safety margin, double to two minutes.  (Or, if no watch, if you think you took 50 paces, double to a hundred paces).
  • from the home tree set compass to N (0/360 degrees), note the time, and carefully walk a straight line for two minutes maximum
  • if no trail, observe your back track at compass dial's bottom index - S (180 degrees) - opposite of set bearing N. Then set your dial to back track bearing, S, at the usual index line.   Keeping the needle boxed return to your home tree safely in about two minutes, readily found thanks to the showy markings
  • if necessary do the same for remaining cardinal directions: E 90 degrees, S 180 degrees and W 270 degrees, until one of them leads you to your trail – you’re found!  Back track to home tree to fetch your gear and return to trail on your successful bearing.
Oh Oh!  You unfortunately depart for a bio break at a significant trail turn that does not cross one of the cardinal directions from your lost location home tree e.g. the trail’s turn is located entirely in one of the four compass quadrants bounded by two cardinal points, say, the NW quadrant

No worries! Repeat above but now search on the ordinal directions, again two minutes out, two minutes back: NE 45 degrees, SE 135 degrees, SW 225 degrees, NW 315 degrees. Odds are huge you will then intercept the trail.


This method will not work if you head for a break at a road's or trail's dead end.  Choose your break location where the trail/road extends reasonably straight in both directions.

Of course this process is moot if you take out your compass before your break! Just set  to a bearing perpendicular to the trail, proceed off-trail to your break location and when finished, read then set your back bearing and out you return to the trail.  Added bonus - doing this keeps compass skills up to snuff!