What to do if you’re lost in the woods without a compass

The gift of light

1.  Don’t panic.  You have a deep inner wisdom which already knows how to get out of the woods.  Which can never be lost.  (On the other hand, sometimes panic can give us some energy to reach that inner knowing.  So go ahead–panic!  Listen to yourself chant mantras like, “I’m lost, I’m gonna die, I’ll never find my way out!”  Give yourself five minutes, max.  When you feel your heart racing and brow sweating and palpitations rocking your petrified body, command your mind to go silent.  Don’t let the nonsense-mind direct you.  It is always lost anyway.  Use the energy to propel you into center.  Now we’re ready to find due north.)

2.  The sun will always guide you.  Locate the sun.  See it up there, shining through the tree tops?  If the tree tops are too thick, locate the shine.  Keep the shine aligned with your right shoulder.  Or your left shoulder.  Walk in alignment with the sun.  You will soon find your way.

Angle of shadows

3.  On cloudy or dark days, it may appear a little more troublesome.  (These are the days when panic may threaten to throw you on the forest floor, sobbing.)  Never you fear!  The earth offers some tricks to keep the mind occupied while the feet find their way effortlessly out of the forest.  Come into full presence.  Use your senses.  Listen.  Do you hear the roar of a vehicle in the distance?  Gauge the location of a possible road.  Keep listening.  Look at the lay of the land.  Ravines flow downhill toward water.  Moss does survive best on the north side of trees, although (sigh) it sometimes grows all around the base of the tree as well.   Remember everything you know about the land you’re traipsing. 

4.  Be willing to accept help.  This may sound mystic or oo-la-la to the uninitiated, but here’s a suggestion.  Ask for help.  Then look for signs.  A bird may come to guide you.  It may suggest “This way! This way!” with its very chirping over there in that tree.  A shiny patch of sunlight may suggest the way home.  Even a lost Coke bottle may point the direction of your desire.  Do not judge which form help may take.


5. Do not head deep into the thickets without looking to see if a path exists around the tangle.  On the other hand, sometimes we need to walk through the thickets–it is the Only Way.  If you must walk through the thickets, walk slowly.  Walk with the most presence possible.  Keep your attention focused on the body.  Watch for a rhythm of allowing, moving, allowing, moving.  If you don’t…you shall emerge scratched, sweating and terribly upset.  If you discover the Inner Rhythm of the Thickets, you may even delight in its bramble.  (Well, delight may be too strong of word.  But you may even–almost–enjoy it.)

The deepest reflection

6.  Do not panic the wood creatures.  Do not panic the wood ticks, the mosquitoes, the deer and the black bear.  Walk steadfastly, slowly, purposefully.  Do not run.  You may brush away gently or veer off temporarily in a different direction, but do not fuss.  (OK, allow yourself five minutes of fussing.  Or quick walking in another direction If You Must.  But then return to Equanimity.  Equanimity leads us out of the forest without a compass.  Trust me on this one.)

7.  If you must spend the night in the forest, cover yourself with lots and lots of dried leaves and sticks.  This is called a debris hut.  These are the sheets and blankets of the forest.  If you can find shelter beneath some logs or in a crevice, all the better.  Let the night noises sing you to sleep.  For heaven sakes…don’t panic!  That hoot owl isn’t gonna hurt you!  Those crackling footsteps will not eat you for a midnight snack!  People have slept out in the forest since the beginning of time.  Think of your distant ancestors.  Breathe into your heart.  It will be all right.

Inky blackness--and shining light

8)  Be aware, aware, aware.  It all comes back to awareness, doesn’t it?  Put your foot down carefully and lift it up carefully.  You don’t want to twist your ankle.  Know that your senses are tools which can be utilized–but they are only tools.  It is awareness that Knows.  It is awareness that Knows where home is.  Awareness guides.  Surrender to it.

9)  When you arrive back at home, don’t make a fuss.  Don’t let your mind tell everyone who will listen about how you were lost in the woods and how you thought you were gonna die and how you were almost eaten by raccoons and bears and other innocent creatures just mindin’ their own business.  (OK, make a fuss, if you must.  For a while.  But only for a little while.  Then reflect on what it means to be lost and ask yourself, “Was I really lost?  Is it possible to ever be lost?”  Let your mind think about that for as long as it takes.)

So simple

10.  Psssttt….did any of you catch it?  Sure, it’s wise to bring a compass until we fully realize it (I carry a compass almost every time!).  A compass can be whatever helps us feel safe, feel found, feel in control, feel home.  But eventually we realize we carry the compass within us.  It already points to True North.  We just need to stand very very still and wait until it quits jiggling.  Then we realize we’re always at home.  We can never be lost.


About Kathy

I live in the middle of the woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Next to Lake Superior's cold shores. I love to blog.
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38 Responses to What to do if you’re lost in the woods without a compass

  1. Kathy – This post is the precisely the “prescription” I need to start my work day. We just got home from a 16 mile bicycle ride, and we’ll be out the door shortly to a very full client day. I don’t want to get lost in the woods of varying emotions that will ebb and flow around me as the day passes. I’ll rely on my inner compass to guide the way. Great post – thank you!

    • Kathy says:

      Laurie, I’ll bet it is easy to get lost in the varying emotions that pass through HolEssence. Sometimes…just sometimes…it’s easier not to get lost in the woods because there is less human energy passing through. (Can’t believe you’re biking 16 milies! How wonderful!)

  2. Dawn says:

    As much about life as the woods… nice post. Thanks.

  3. Karma says:

    We can all feel a bit lost at times. Sometimes it seems my compass is spinning wildly pointing in 5 different directions at once, while at others it calmly reveals my true north.

    When not speaking metaphorically, do compasses really help when you are lost? I think you have to have a good sense of direction to use them in the first place; even if I had a compass telling me which way was north while lost in the woods, I wouldn’t know which direction I needed to go to be “unlost!” 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Oh yes, Karma, those compasses do spin at times! Sometimes more than once during the course of a day. You are so astute to suggest that compasses may not even be of much use when we’re lost in the first place. I have had a compass spin wildly over heavy deposits of ore, confused about where north might be. At other times, compasses have assisted in walking a straight line out. Perhaps this means that tools are of use sometimes. Other times–not at all.

  4. OM says:

    Ah, Kathy, this was worth coming out of lurking for!!! Very special very delightful “guidelines” indeed!!!!
    Awareness appreciating Awareness!

    • Kathy says:

      OM, it was a delight to even discover you have been lurking! I might have suspected you would enjoy this more “spiritual” post. Love how you put it: awareness appreciating awareness. 🙂

  5. Colleen Lloyd says:

    Kathy, yes…knowing that we are always home. That we can never be lost. And never have been. Such a beautiful truth. Thank you, wise woman of the forest 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Colleen, I have been a wise woman of the forest and a fool of the forest and everything in between. But you do know how to make me feel good, you wise woman, you.

  6. P.j. grath says:

    One time I got lost in Paris, France, far from the northern woods. I was in the neighborhood around Sacre-Coeur, so my inner guide told me just to walk downhill. Well, that was interesting! Nothing was familiar! Inner guide had not used inner compass, and I’d walked down the north side rather than the south side, not figuring it out until I’d trudged through many quiet, strange neighborhoods and come out at last on a major thoroughfare with bus stops. Bus stop was good. Bus was good. Exploring an unknown neighborhood was an adventure I hadn’t planned, but in retrospect that was good, too.

    • Dawn says:

      PJ – I did the same thing in the same neighborhood, but I was trying to FIND Sacre-Coeur, and I figured, when I came up out of the subway, that at each corner I’d go UP..and it worked!

      Going down, not so much as EVERYTHING went down! I did end up finding a subway though, and you are right, it was an interesting adventure!

    • Kathy says:

      Ah ha, Pamela! I would say your inner compass did lead you to a bus stop, albeit with many stops. Inner guide may have even provided an adventure upon which you would reminisce for years.

      I have found it interesting that quite often when I’m feeling cranky & lost in the woods (OK, in life too) that the spirit within simply wanted to explore new places. To let go and let that inner spirit explore seems to be part of the challenge.

  7. Dawn says:

    Kathy – this is a beautiful post…lovely photos, even more lovely thoughts. I think I’ll go out and get lost in the woods now. Just cause I can.

    • Kathy says:

      Oh no, Dawn! Yikes! Laughing….begging!….please don’t go get lost on account of this innocent lil blog. I don’t know if the inner compass will work if we willfully decide to get lost. Laughing some more…never thought of this angle! thank you very much!

  8. Thanks Kathy!

    I will rely on my inner compass to help me on the golf course..Take each moment and savor it, don’t panic, carry on….


    • Kathy says:

      Kim, I’m sure inner compasses will work, even on golf courses! I should ask my mom…she’s an avid golfer. Savor each moment Life offers us. That, for sure, is the key. When we’re lost OR found.

  9. barb says:

    I really like the glowing vegetation photos – they are a good metaphor for your post today. I can only add – when in the thickets, you might want to sing out “Hey Bear, hey Bear.” It will allow you a false sense of security (even if you’re not in the thickets, it’s sometimes helpful to sing to Bear…) Next time I’m lost, I’ll think about your hints and hope to Heaven that you are right.

    • Kathy says:

      Barb, your song “hey Bear, hey Bear” reminded me of the mantra they chant at baseball games, “hey, batta, hey, batta, hey…” I have never THOUGHT to sing to bear in the thickets. That’s because I’ve only seen one bear in the woods up close in 30 years of walking.

      DISCLAIMER: Please throw out every single of these hints if they’re not working and rely on your inner compass instead! (These hints are mostly aimed to calm until the inner compass can take over…)

  10. Amy says:

    Kathy, this is some of your best writing! Wow, excellent! Great work! Amy (:

    • Kathy says:

      Thank you, Amy. This is more similar to the spiritual blogging I used to do three to four years ago. It felt good to combine the spiritual and practical in one post. Appreciate your kindness!

  11. Susan D. says:

    Ohhhh, nice. Messages received. Brilliant!

    • Kathy says:

      Susan, the inner compass dictated. It said, “I will show you out of the woods if you write down everything I say.” So, of course, what’s a compass-less girl to do? tee hee 🙂

  12. Cindy Lou says:

    Wondermous…..words and photos! “If you must walk through the thickets, walk slowly.” How often my impulse is to just get throught the ‘thickets’ of life and forget about the lessons that can be learned there. Love the photo of the green against the inky black!

    • Kathy says:

      Cindy Lou, my first impulse is to walk fast too. Get outa here, get outa here! But when I remember to slow down, really slow down, it all sometimes turns into an exquisite dance. (Kiah liked that green/inky black one too and requested it for her computer background. And did you know she’s coming home this week? Hurray!! Our “babes” back home this summer for a while. Aren’t we lucky?)

  13. Gerry says:

    It reminds me of the story Charles told about hiking with his friend Ben near Lake Michigan. They had managed to get themselves turned around, and Ben was looking a bit green about the gills. “Don’t worry,” Charles told him. “It’s a big lake. If we keep heading west we’re bound to run into it sooner or later.” And so they did. It’s easy to lose track of the big picture when you’re slogging around in the trees swatting pesky mosquitoes.

    • Kathy says:

      That’s right, Gerry. It’s easy to lose sight of the Big Picture when those mosquitoes are biting. Oh how right you are! (Swat, swat, swat again!!)

  14. Tammy McLeod says:

    What a nice post and concept that I’m certain you meant much larger than the woods. Thank you for sharing your own compass with us.

  15. Cheyenne Steele says:

    Kathy, I LOVE THIS! I feel it is my favorite of all times! the inner guide, the hidden one I could feel screaming, YES!

    Thank YOU!

    in love,

    • Kathy says:

      Cheyenne, I am glad you loved this so much! Let’s find our way home, shall we? We’re almost there. Can’t you see the light through the trees?

  16. Jeannie says:

    Wonderful reminder that Earth is my home, and I am held, loved and protected. Such an awesome feeling to go to sleep with. Thanks Kathy. Love, Jeannie

    • Kathy says:

      Jeannie, I hope you slept well, knowing that the Earth is your beloved Self, holding you fast. Such a good feeling to know this deep inside. Love to you!

  17. Hi Kathy, great post and outstanding photographs.

    I spend a lot of times in the woods on my own and have since I was very young… four or five years old. It was deep woods country in north central B.C.. We traveled long distances through the trees where there were no marked trails. Along with all your excellent advice above we were taught:

    1.leave a note or a plan with someone so they know where you are going and what time to expect you back. In our family we waited one hour after the person said they would be back and then we started looking for them.

    2.look around and orient yourself before going into the woods. Where is the sun? Where is the river? Where are the hills? and so on

    3.look behind you as you walk to get your bearings and mentally remember what it is going to look like when you walk out back out or if you are doing a circle walk, look back just in case you need to walk out the way you went in.

    4. if you don’t know where you are sit down and wait… usually in a few minutes of sitting and observing with nothing to do but swat mosquitoes you will know where you are and how to get out. (this has work for me many, many times)

    5. always be prepared to stay overnight with pocket knife and matches in dry container (both of which I packed with me and knew how to use from the time I was six years old). Bring your jacket and water so you don’t get beaver fever and a small first aid kit if you have one.

    6. If you truly are lost make yourself comfortable and wait. If you have done step one correctly, someone will be coming to look for you very soon.

    We used to follow my grandfather’s trapline trails. They were blazed by line of site though there was never much of a trail. Once you found the first blaze, then you stood still and looked out in every direction as far as you could see until you found the next blaze. He only blazed on one side of the tree. If he was asked why, he said “once you get to where you are going you know where you are so why to do you need a blaze to get back out?” He had grown up in the area and was known for going 50 or more miles across country with no roads or trails and being able to get to where he was going. I loved traveling on horseback with him or by snowmobile in the winter time. He is 94 years old this year and is no longer on the farm, or checking the trapline or taking hunters out hunting. He now often doesn’t remember where he is in the seniors home. I wonder if anyone tells him to just sit for a minute and he will be able to find his way?

  18. Kathy says:

    Terrill, how I love that you offered us some truly valuable advice about finding our way out of the woods when we’re lost. These are some really good suggestions! You can tell you are no newcomer to the forest-world.

    That is an amazing story about your grandpa. 94 years old! That is an accomplishment in itself…sounds like he found his way through the woods of life very well, even though he currently may not remember exactly how.

    Prior preparation before heading into the woods is often the wisest course of all! And sometimes just sitting and waiting for help proves to be the best course of action…

    Thank you, indeed!

  19. Dan says:

    This was the WORST advice for being lost in the woods that I have ever seen. I was really expecting something helpful and all I encountered was: discover the inner rhythm of thickets. Seriously?! I have actually been lost in the woods and I wanted to find concrete tips for the next time I find myself in the woods and all you have done is waste my time with useless platitudes and adages.

    • Kathy says:

      Dan, you’ve stumbled upon a blog post which didn’t seem appropriate to you. You wanted practical facts. You wanted something concrete to help you while you were lost. You’re angry because you can’t find your way Home. I promise you, Dan, that Home is very near indeed, if you but drop below expectations and mental confusion. It’s just around the corner. You’re really only five minutes from being found if you let go of preconceived ideas and just let your footsteps lead you toward yourself. I have 100% faith that the next time you’re lost in the woods you’ll find your way Home. It’s that close. It’s simply that close.

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