There’s lots of advice you can find on ways to survive in the wild once you’ve gotten lost, but what if the advice you were given isn’t the best? If fact, some advice — although the person probably meant well — should never be followed, especially if you really are in the wild and struggling to survive. You can’t afford to follow bad advice in a life-and-death situation.
Unfortunately, all of the “advice” below has actually been promoted or even slight ingrained culturally as best practice. I have personally heard all of these at one time or another, whether that’s from friends wanting to go on hikes or extreme survival tv shows.
But here’s something simple to remember: don’t follow it. Don’t follow any of this popular or naïve advice if you’re stuck in the wilderness. Think again, and stay alive!
Here’s my list of some of the worst survival advice I’ve heard:
Follow a river…or birds…or anything, back to society. Try to find your way back!
Contrary to what a lot of people think, it’s actually best if you stay put so people can find you more easily. Cities aren’t always downstream, and birds don’t always fly toward water. The closer you are to the trail you accidentally left or the group you accidentally strayed from, the better the odds that a search and rescue team will find you. Finding your way back on your own may sound like a good idea and work once in a blue moon, but you’re more likely to just get even more lost. So just stay put! Read our previous article about staying alive by staying put for more information.
If it’s “safe” and/or small, you can swim across a river if you have to instead of finding a way around.
This is a big nope. One — unseen undertows. Even in small rivers, you can get sucked down. Maybe you won’t drown, but you could hit your head on a rock or be swept away, lose your supplies, and get even more lost. And two, you’d be wet. And wet you should not be. Hypothermia kills, and it is usually a slow way to go.
Running water is okay to drink.
No! You never know what has been in the water, whether it’s stagnant or flowing. While running water is loads better than stagnant water, what if something dead is laying upstream? Or there’s fecal matter in it? Or bacteria? No. Don’t drink running water unless you boil it first or have a filter. Read our article about common backcountry bacteria to learn more.
You can drink your own urine to stay hydrated in extreme cases.
Please don’t ever do this. Technically, you can do it…but you shouldn’t, because it won’t have the best outcome. Drinking your own urine will actually make you more dehydrated because of the high concentration of toxins and uric acid within it — which is why it’s exiting your body in the first place. Drinking it will end up making you thirstier and you’ll need even more water to flush out the toxins you just drank again.
You can use moss as a directional reference to find your way back since it grows on the north side of trees and rocks.
There’s one problem here, though — moss doesn’t always grow on the northern side. Moss is a plant that grows depending on dampness, shade, and sun — not a specific direction. While this is a popular saying or belief, don’t follow it unless you want to get even more turned around. It’s best to just carry a compass with you to figure out your directions. If you don’t have a compass, use the sun and stars!
If you do decide to try to find your way back, try to cover as much ground as possible.
This might sound like a good idea, but it’s actually not. You should always try to conserve your energy in a survival situation, no matter how good making progress sounds (which is sort of relative anyway because if you’re lost you have no idea if you’re making progress). If you accidentally pick the wrong way to go — or even if you pick the right way — being exhausted with limited resources isn’t a good indicator for successfully making it back. Exhaustion is deadly. Conserving it is just as much of a useful resource as food or shelter.
If you are with a group, split up your supplies so the weight is evenly distributed. You don’t need all of your own survival gear.
This is a tricky one because there is some truth to carrying the minimum amount of weight you can get away with. If you’re carrying too much, it will slow you down and wear you out. And like I mentioned earlier, exhaustion is not your friend. The problem here comes with a scenario where you accidentally get separated from your group. If you’re lost, what if you aren’t the one who has the extra water, or the water filters, or the Mylar blankets, or the food? Not a good scenario. You can’t carry everything of course, but you should always carry your own survival pack with various essentials just in case.
Carrying your phone is enough to keep you from getting lost.
Maybe this is obviously wrong to you and carrying backup forms of navigation/communication is just common sense. I hope so. But to all the people out there who think that a phone is a cure-all for almost any scenario — please have more than just your phone. Just like any electrical device, what if it breaks, gets lost, loses power, or has no signal? No matter what resource or piece of supplies we’re talking about, it’s always best to have a backup if you can.
The main thing to remember is that when you’re lost and trying to survive in the wilderness, taking risks is not what you want to do. You want to say alive, and you want to be found. That means staying level headed, using your resources, thinking ahead, and playing it safe.