Using Common Sense
You hear about this fairly often, too often in fact. People going out for a day hike and someone dies. A family driving in the winter relying on GPS gets on an unimproved road. They get stuck in the snow and die. Why does this happen? It's because some people don't think ahead. They don't plan for the what if's. Poor decision making right from the beginning. They don't have extra water or food with them. They don't have extra clothing, no way to signal, start a fire or even have a simple pocket knife with them.
I know it's hard to always get yourself into the mindset of planning for the what if's, but it's something you need to do. Especially if you are going to break your daily routine and go out for a hike or travel during the winter. If you are looking at this article chances are you already are thinking or at least starting to think about being prepared, so I'm not going to give you a list of things you should have. Why? Because it's different for different people and situations. What I will do is give you some common sense things to consider.
A few years ago while we were in Oregon, a family of 4 was traveling and using their GPS. There are a lot of forest roads that show up on GPS and maps. Sometimes the GPS gives you a forest road as the quickest or shortest route and if you're not familiar with the area you can find that you're all of a sudden in a very dangerous situation. This family took a road that had a sign that said Road not Maintained in Winter. As they drove the snow kept getting deeper and deeper until finally they were stuck. First you must ask yourself, why didn't they take another route when they saw the sign? There was obviously snow at the lower elevation and the road ahead was climbing. The reason was that it was an Asian Family who didn't read English. They were a few miles down the road when they couldn't go any further. They couldn't turn around, they were in fact stuck. As the story goes they stayed put for 2 or 3 days. Things started getting desperate for them so the Husband decided he was going to hike out to get help. The problem was that he didn't follow the road they came in on, he decided to cut through the woods because he thought he knew the direction the main road was in. Long story short, his wife and kids were found alive and he was found dead in the woods lost.
This is an example of very poor decision making and not being properly prepared. It can kill you. I sometimes wonder how people can be so unaware of their surroundings. I don't know how I got in the habit but I am always aware of East - West directions by looking at the travel of the sun. This to me is an absolute bare minimum you should be aware of when out hiking especially. If you don't know that and something gets you off track you are truly lost. When I hike my mind automatically says, "when you started the sun was off your left shoulder in the morning so you are traveling south, the main road travels generally East/West so to get back to the main road you need to travel North". Like I said, I don't know how I got in this habit, but it now just happens without me even having to think about it. This is a habit you definitely should develop. If you were truly prepared you wouldn't be lost in the first place because you would have a compass and map that you were using, but you could have fallen and broken your leg so you are in fact lost. If you are lost without any hope of someone finding you because no one knows you're lost, getting back to a main road may be your only hope of survival. If you have prepared for your excursion, you will be able to build a fire to hopefully signal someone. You will have food and water with you to sustain you for a few days with rationing.
When you first realize you're lost panic starts to set in quickly. Your mind races as you try and think where you last were when you weren't lost. The first thing you need to do is stop and calm down. Take a few minutes to look around and see if you recognize anything. If you recognize it then you either passed it or saw it while you were walking, but the important thing is you recognize it. Try and recreate in your mind when you saw it. If you passed it, walk back to it and then see if you recognize something else. If you do then walk back to that spot. Soon you will be back to familiar territory. If you don't recognize anything you can start walking in ever widening circles from your current position. By doing this you may spot something you recognize and find your way out. In the Desert you generally have mountain ranges to help you with direction and you can see for long distances so unless you're just completely oblivious you should be able to find your way back to where you started. One of the most important things to do while you are out hiking is to make sure you look around while walking. I know this sounds stupid but you would be surprised that as you get tired your head starts looking down at the ground. If that starts happening, stop and take a break. Most of the time you're out for enjoyment of some kind, either enjoying the outdoors, or out for exercise so enjoy it. Just make sure you think about the what if's.