lost in the woods

How to Make it Through the Night if You’re Lost in the Woods

Sometimes, a camping or backpacking trip turns sour. Maybe you went left instead of right at the last trail marker. Maybe you had to take a detour and got lost in the woods on your way back to the trail. No matter how it happened, you’ve managed to get lost.

Now, most of the times someone gets lost, they quickly find their way back, and everyone shares a laugh. But what if you’re unlucky enough to find yourself stranded when it’s close to dusk?

Here’s a quick primer on what you’ll need to do to survive an unexpected night lost in the woods.

The Rule of 3

There’s a rule that’s commonly used among survival experts, and it’s called the Rule of 3. It says:

  • You can survive for 3 minutes without air.
  • You can survive for 3 hours without shelter (in bad weather).
  • You can survive for 3 days without water (shorter in the desert).
  • You can survive for 3 weeks without food.

So what does this tell us about survival?

It tells us that we need to address our needs in this order. To use an extreme example, it doesn’t make sense to go hunting for food while you’re in the process of choking to death. If you can’t breathe, food is suddenly not a priority!

For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to assume that you can breathe. You’re lost in the woods, not buried in an avalanche.

We’re also going to assume that you weren’t fully prepared to spend the night in the woods. If you were, you wouldn’t need a guide!

You Can Breathe, So Now What?

The next most important thing is a shelter, and it’s what will occupy most of this guide. In general, if you can build a shelter, you’ll still be alive in the morning, which means you’ll be able to worry about water and food the next day if you still haven’t been found.

But you don’t just want to be alive. You also want to be warm, dry, and ready to face the hard task of getting back to civilization.

Finding a Location For Your Shelter

The most important thing when choosing a location shelter is ensuring that it’s going to stay dry throughout the night. Steer clear of creek beds, bottoms, and other low-lying areas. Ideally, you’ll want to build your shelter on a shallow slope, with a tree at the top side.

Why is this?

The tree trunk and roots will help divert any rainwater from your shelter, keeping the ground underneath relatively dry. You’ll also be using the tree trunk as a wall for your shelter.

shelter for being lost in the woods

photo credit: Jim Champion / Temporary wooden shelter on Lyndhurst Hill, New Forest

Build a Shelter Frame

The hardest part of building a shelter is finding a good roof beam. You’ll need a branch that’s sturdy, capable of supporting some weight, and longer than your body. It helps if it’s forked on one end, to make it easy to brace against your chosen tree.

To test a potential candidate, lean it against a tree, and see if you can lay comfortably with your head near the tree trunk and your feet near the bottom of the branch. Make sure there’s at least a full foot of clearance on all sides of your body; you’re going to need it.

Once you’ve found your roof beam, brace it against your tree, and find more, smaller branches to lean against it from all sides. Leave a door opening that’s large enough for you to crawl through, and continually check the sizing to ensure that you’ve got a foot of clearance on all sides.

Adding Insulation

To keep out the cold, you’re going to need more than just branches. You’re going to need insulation. If you’ve got a sleeping bag with you, you’ve got a head start, but even then you’re going to need some sort of water-resistant barrier between you and the elements, even better if it keeps out the wind.

Thank goodness you’re lost in the woods, which is full of leaves.

Gather them up by the armful, and pile them on top of your shelter on all sides. Pack some inside, too, especially if you haven’t got a sleeping bag with you. They’ll add much-needed thickness. Then pile even more leaves on the outside.

By the time you’re done, you should have something that looks less like a shelter and more like a giant mound of leaves. You’ll also have a windproof, water-resistant shelter that’s good enough to keep you warm and dry for the night.

The Next Morning

Once you’ve survived the night, you’ll need to figure out your options. Following the Rule of 3, your next concern should be water. And, of course, getting rescued. But that’s another article for another day.