Juan de Fuca Community Trails Society JdF Trails

How to Find a Lost Hiker

Where are they?

This is a scenario we all dread: you're on a group hike and one of the hikers in your group disappears.
  • How can you prevent something like this from happening?
  • What can you do to find them?


Keep your group together during a hike. If you're the trip leader or you're in an unruly mob of hikers, talk and agree to a set of policies at the trail head before your hike that will keep the group together . For example,
  1. Stop and wait for the rest of the group at all trail junctions and stream crossings.
  2. If you stop for a pee, leave your backpack on the trail perpendicular to where you stepped off. This will alert people to the fact that you've taken a powder, and will provide a last known point if you fail to return.
  3. Appoint a hiker to be a designated sweep (last person) in the group. This is a good place to put fast hikers who insist on leaving the group behind. Give them the job of looking out for slower hikers.
  4. Bring extra whistles to the hike. Make sure that all hikers have a whistle - they are much louder than yelling if you need to find someone or get their attention.
  5. Keep in sight of the hiker in front of you.
  6. Avoid slinky stops - where the group sets off just as the last hiker catches up on a stop break.
  7. Review the route on a map at the trail head before the hike starts, and call out significant landmarks or tricky turns along the route. (How many times have you been on a hike where only the leader knows the route?)
    • Bring extra copies of the map and make sure all hikers have one, as well as a compass.
    • Stop at designated landmarks for a head count and review your location, so hikers know where they are. Turn these stops into a compass lesson, where hikers identify surrounding landmarks, like peaks, using their compass and map.
  8. Define a Time Control Plan before the hike or at the trail head (and pass out copies). This should include a turn around time where everyone agrees to hike out, even if the objective is not reached. Make sure that all hikers have a watch (incredible as it seems, many hikers don't carry one.)
Keeping your group together is the most effective way to prevent a lost hiker scenario, but people still wander off or get lost. Here's what to do when that happens.

Searching for a Lost Hiker

When you realize that someone is lost, the leader needs to take control of the group, explain to them what needs to be done and begin delegating responsibilities. If you are on a hike without a designated leader, don't let people run off shouting for the lost hiker. You need to stay calm and define a plan of action before you waste time on ineffective searching.
  1. The first thing you need to do is to figure out where the hiker was last seen. This should be a place where they were definitively seen, not where someone thinks they saw them. Mark this place on your map.
  2. Ask the group when they last spoke to the individual and whether the lost hiker said anything about their physical condition (thirsty, dizzy, hot, had to go to the bathroom) or indicated a desire to do something not on the hike itinerary, like taking a quick detour to bag an adjacent peak or taking photos at a nearby viewpoint. These clues might give you an idea of where to start searching - mark them on your map for reference.
  3. Gather any information about the lost individual, particularly heath-related issues, that you don't know but others in the group do. Are they diabetic, allergic to bee stings, asthmatic, etc? It's best to know these things before a hike, but many people often don't share these details if they don't feel they are relevant. Knowing this information up front, may influence your decision to call in external SAR assistance sooner, if your immediate search efforts do not yield results. Given that it takes most SAR teams can take several hours to mobilize and arrive at a backcountry scene, your group's search efforts are probably the best chance that a lost hiker has if they have a major health issue.
  4. Next, assess the state of your group and their condition, skills, fitness, supplies, the weather, amount of daylight left, and so forth. The last thing you want to do is to jeopardize the safety of the rest of the group and compound the situation with another potential accident or health issue. If the group is safe, determine who your strongest searchers are based on fitness, compass skills, backcountry skills, wilderness first aid experience, etc
  5. Quickly examine your map and see if there is any easy way to cordon off the immediate area to keep the lost hiker from wandering farther. Lost hikers have a tendency to keep walking once they realize they are lost, rather than staying put. For example, send out hikers along adjacent trails with whistles and attach notes to trail head signs instructing the lost hiker to stop at them, rather than continuing to wander.
  6. Next, draw two circles around the lost hiker's last known location, one 3 miles in diameter and the other 6 miles in diameter: 50% of lost hikers are found within the inner circle and 90% are found without the outer circle (NOLS's Wilderness Guide.)
  7. Look at your map and identify potential off-trail accident scenes such as steep river banks, stream crossings, cliffs, and steep slopes. If you have a small group of strong searchers, you need to prioritize potential accident locations first.
  8. If you have still not located the lost hiker and it is starting to get dark, it's probably time to call for external assistance from a SAR team. You should do this earlier than later if the lost hiker has a life-threatening, pre-existing medical condition. Stop searching when it gets dark because off-trail searches will endanger your group and can further complicate the SAR scenario.
Sobering stuff, but these incidents do occur and it's best to think through what you'd do if you need to find a hiker who's wandered away from a group hike.

This article first appeared on Section Hiker and was written by Philip Werner.