The Science of Getting Lost and Getting Found

Photo by Malte Schmidt on Unsplash

Getting lost, is terrifying.

If it’s ever happened to you, you will know what I mean. It was likely one of the most stressful days of your life. The terror is real, you can die if you get lost.


We humans, have evolved to find getting lost stressful. Once we realise we are lost, adrenaline sets in and we lose all ability to reason. This makes getting found difficult.


Rescued people have been asked to explain their actions when they were lost and they often can’t remember. The panic caused them not to make reasonable decisions.

Below are some tips on:

  • How to get found if you are lost
  • Understanding how to find someone else who is lost
  • How certain people react when they are lost (we don’t all act the same)

How to Get Found

Stop moving!

Wait 30 minutes.

Half and hour is enough time to calm down, then the rational part of your brain will work again.

Retrace Your Steps

30 minutes have passed, no one has found you…

Now, that you’re calm, retrace your steps. Your instincts might tell you this will get you more lost. But it helps, you may spot something you recognise and be able to find your way back to safety.

The Hub-and-Spoke Method

Retracing your steps hasn’t got you found.

Pick a landmark that stands out to you (a tree, a cliff or church) and treat that as a centre point. Something tall works best, so you can see it even as you walk away from it.

Now walk in a straight line away from it to see if you spot something you recognise or find civilisation. Each time, walk out only as far as you can still see the centre point. Then walk back and head out in a different direction. Your footsteps will follow spokes on a wheel, where the middle of the wheel is your centre point.

The hub-and-spoke method

Head to High Ground

Climb high (if it’s safe to do so). Look for a known landmark, like a particular building or rock formation. If you have a map, even better, this can help you figure out which direction you’re facing and where you need to go.

It’s Not Safe to Go Alone, Take One of These

Preventative measure, bring someone with you. Pairs are less likely to panic and so more likely to make good decisions.

Finding a Lost Person

You may be the person who is safe, but you have lost a loved one. A little understanding of the mindset of a lost person will help you find them and get them back to safety.

Go to the Edges

Humans love boundaries, so even if we don’t know we are doing it, we will head to the edges of things. Depending on the general area the person got lost, check the nearest:

  • Roads
  • Hedges
  • Edges of fields
  • Buildings
  • Shorelines

Who did you Lose?

A Child

Children are generally easier to find as they are more likely to stay put. Head to the last place you saw them and call out to them.

An Autistic Child

Autistic children tend to take shelter in structures.

The structure could be as complex as a building or shed or as simple a bush.

A Person with Dementia

People with dementia tend to head in one straight line and keep going. Even pushing through obstacles.

If you know where their destination, keep going in that direction. If you are in the woods, look for broken up bushes or trees where they may have barged through.

A Solo Male

These are the worst! I don’t know why, but us men move the most. We tend to keep moving non-stop until we are found. If you are looking for a man on his own, you’re in for some trouble, he could be anywhere.

These tips come from a NewScientist article on the psychology of people who get lost: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24532710-800-people-who-get-lost-in-the-wild-follow-strangely-predictable-paths/#

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