Getting lost is inevitable on a hike — the wilderness offers too many temptations to take a wrong turn. While getting lost tops the list of hiking risks, the worse threat is staying lost long enough for something bad to happen: falling down a ravine or succumbing to hypothermia.
Getting lost happens to the best of us. The book “Deep Survival” recounts how one veteran backpacker got seriously lost in the Rocky Mountains, compounding one error with another for days on end. It’s not just newbies wandering out there unprepared.
Three keys to staying found on a hike:
1) Bring navigation tools you know how to use
My favorite tactics:
- Always hike with a map. You can cheat this rule a bit if the trailhead has a map of the general area where you’re hiking and you’re carrying a digital camera: just take a picture of the map, then use your camera’s playback function and zoom into the area where you’re hiking.
- Learn to use a GPS unit. Owning a GPS and taking it along is one thing; using it to navigate when you’re in the middle of nowhere is something else. Bear in mind that batteries die and GPS receivers interpret reflected signals that can throw you off course. I’ve come to reject the common “never trust GPS” advice, because a GPS unit has gotten me found plenty of times.
- Plan on your electronics failing. Say you’re navigating off-trail and you drop your GPS unit down into a crevasse and you can’t get it back. What then? That’s when you’ll be glad you’ve got a paper map and a compass for backup. Paper maps and compasses are are cheap, lightweight insurance against becoming hopelessly lost. I’ve almost never been so lost that I needed to map-and-compass my way back, but it can’t hurt to learn proper compass technique. (There’s way more to it than knowing which way is north.)
2) As you hike, weigh the risks of getting lost
Always be watching for the stuff that heightens your likelihood of getting lost:
- Taking “Y” turns: You’re usually fine as long you can tell yourself “this is the only trail out here.” As soon as you see an unmarked “Y,” however, your risk of getting lost rises to 50-50. With odds like that, you need to be formulating a turn-back plan after every Y-turn.
- Going on side trips: Taking detours to waterfalls, venturing off-trail to see wildlife and other adventurous explorations are why we hike. They are also what get us lost. Always be watching for landmarks — oddly bent trees, notably interesting rocks, unique patterns in the forest canopy — that’ll help you navigate your way back. (Also: answering nature’s call gets a lot of people lost; always be on extra alert on bodily-function missions).
- Having too much fun: Sometimes you’ll get into a pure-enjoyment zone on a hike — especially when the scenery or wildlife are especially spectacular — that blots out the warning signs of impending disorientation. If you’re gazing out over that stupendous vista that makes you want to quit your job and hike till they drag you kicking and screaming back to civilization: that’s when you’re more likely to get lost.
- Hiking with a group: Safety in numbers becomes an illusion the second you’re separated from your group. This is perhaps the most dangerous hiking scenario because a) you’ve been ignoring all the warning signs; b) you’re on an unfamiliar trail (which is what attracted you to this group outing); and c) you’re probably not carrying a map because navigating was somebody else’s job.
3) Heed nature’s signals
- Pay attention to the wind: It usually blows from the West in North America but wind directions can change dramatically if a storm is approaching.
- Mind the sun’s place in the sky: In summer the sun’s where you expect it — rising in the east and setting in the west. But in the winter, the sun’s position is more southerly (in the Northern Hemisphere), so you can’t really trust it to tell you where east and west are.
- Don’t count on moss: While moss tends to grow on the northern side of trees (in the Northern Hemisphere; and south in the Southern Hemisphere), it grows on both sides of trees in dense forests — the kind of place you’re most likely to be hiking.
I’ve learned all these tips over the course of six years of regular hiking. I’m sure there are more. Chime in with a comment if you’ve got more advice.