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What To Do When You're Lost in the Wilderness or Life

6 powerful lesson on how to find yourself again

I was fifteen when I got lost in the wilderness for the first time. It wasn’t a dramatic event. A feeling slowly creeps in where you start to question, how did I get here? Is this where I am supposed to be? Our sketchy trail in the rainforest came to a sudden drop of a hundred feet. It was time to reassess.

I’ve been lost dozens of times as an adventurer, teacher, and coach. And not surprisingly, the wilderness is not the only place we can get lost in life. People find themselves lost all the time in relationships, careers, health, spirituality, and their own sense of who they are in the world. Thankfully there are techniques and tricks to “unlosting” or finding yourself.

Navigation is less about knowing where you are going and more to do with where you are now.

Most people think that navigation is about finding your way to some destination. Clarity of your end goal is most certainly important, but it is also meaningless if you don’t know where you are starting.

Think about a GPS or map app — if you put in the destination but the app cannot find where you are, there is no way of mapping the right directions.

When you are lost, the trick isn’t to find your destination. The trick is to find out exactly where you are starting from. Knowing your current position opens up multiple pathways. Indeed, sometimes life needs to take a different direction from the one you were originally traveling.

1. Don’t panic and stay calm

Panic or stress is instinctive when lost. It’s important to sit down and collect your thoughts. In the wilderness, this includes assessing how much water or food you have, and perhaps even setting up some shelter. Depending on how lost you are, the first step is to set up camp.

Self-care is important in life too. In a very destination-driven world, it’s important to allow space and time for not knowing. You may even feel the pressure from others to get moving or set new goals. When lost, it is important to momentarily suspend the need for a destination.

Right now you might not know where you are, but that’s okay. You’re somewhere, grounded on the earth while it is moving around the sun. It’s okay to not know where you’re going right now.

It also seems counter-intuitive, but switch off your phone. In the wilderness you’ll want to save your battery for when you really need it. In life, one’s phone can be an unnecessary distraction from what really matters.

2. Retrace your steps

Think back to a time and place you confidently knew where you were. Going back to that point may help you join the path to your original destination. If you start down the path of retracing your steps and find yourself feeling more lost, then it is best to abandon this step. Move on to finding higher ground.

3. Find higher ground

I met a coaching client when he found himself continuously stuck. We’d initially been coaching over the phone from each of our living rooms. I was aware that his environment was feeding his stuckness so I invited him to climb a mountain with me.

From the high vantage point of the summit, he was able to see more clearly and committed to making some changes when he descended the mountain.

The technique of finding higher ground works in the wilderness as well. Moving to a summit or a ridgeline provides perspective and broadens one’s horizons. From a higher vantage point, we can see more options.

Whenever I’m feeling stuck in life, I take myself to a place with the longest and widest vista. It’s there I find peace and perspective.

4. Triangulate your position

Triangulation is a technique hikers use to figure out where they are. From a higher vantage point, you can use three known points of reference in your field of vision. It might be three different mountain summits in the horizon. Using a compass and map, you can figure out where you are.

To triangulate your position in life, find a few reference points for things you do know for sure. For example, if you feel lost in your relationship, look for three elements of your life where you do feel secure.

Maybe your career is on track or you can look to the security of family or friends. You may even see some elements of the relationship that are working. It’s amazing how quickly this can bring a sense of confidence and security.

Coaching can be another helpful way to triangulate your position. Through powerful questioning and reflective exercises, coaching can help reflect back to you where you are now and where you want to go.

5. Consider your options and make a plan

In many cases there are multiple options or directions one can take:

  1. Rejoining the path to your original destination

  2. Forging a new path to a new destination

  3. Finding an exit plan to get to further safety and assistance

The landscape of one’s life can take us through seasons of flying high, climbing mountains, getting stuck in the valley, or battling through a thick jungle. Each territory can bring its own joys and lessons, and the easiest path is not always the most direct one.

6. Get on your way

It is good to share your plan with others when going out into the wilderness or life. Share your desired destination with people you trust. Let them know where you are headed and how you are going to get there. This can help in receiving the right kinds of support, encouragement, and accountability.

On long multi-day or multi-week expeditions, hikers will often set up checkpoints to pick up supplies. They will also report on where they are up to. Friends can be great supports but aren’t always great at the accountability part. Working with a coach or someone neutral can help you gain that outside perspective on where you are.


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