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Common Sense Ideas for Staying Un-Lost

Copyright 2004 by Michael Brochstein

Once I climbed a tree to see where I was. It is not at all uncommon that at some point on a hike we realize that we can’t find the next trail marker. We may have inadvertently walked off a marked trail and onto an unmarked trail or we might be on an old fire road and somewhere the trail we were on has left it and we missed the turnoff. All hikers get temporarily lost at least once in a while. This column will explore ways to get and stay un-lost as well as hints for hike leaders to keep an entire group from getting lost and/or from “losing people”.

We all know the saying regarding an ounce of prevention. Having and knowing how to use a good trail map, a compass, and paying attention to trail markers as one walks is assumed (enough said).

Generally attentive hikers (myself included) can find themselves on a path with the next blaze or trail marker nowhere in sight. Even on an otherwise well marked trail a storm or snowfall can destroy or cover up a trail marker (did you ever try following a white blazed trail after a fresh snowfall?).

There are some generally accepted do's and don’ts to follow in such a situation. None is foolproof but they generally seem to work. The first thing to do is to turn around and look to see if you can find a trail marker posted for people going in the opposite direction on the same trail. From this you may be able to infer which direction the trail is going in the direction you are heading.

This next step in getting un-lost is the most important. If turning around to find a trail marker doesn’t work then you should immediately retrace your steps (if you can) to the last place where you recall seeing a trail marker or a known landmark.

It is not uncommon that when hikers “lose” a trail they may keep walking hoping to come to a place where they think the trail and/or another known landmark is located. Some people try to climb a ridge and/or a tree to figure out where they are. Still others bushwhack (go off trail) in the direction that they think the trail is located hoping to cross it.

Even if it looks more difficult, it is generally a much more successful practice to simply retrace your steps until you are un-lost. If most hikers who get very lost (and sometimes need professional rescue efforts to find) just retraced their steps once they realized they were lost, then most of them would find themselves un-lost faster than through any other strategy. Simply retracing your path is by far the most assured way to get un-lost (and most research backs this up!).

Lastly, one obvious strategy that even experienced male hike leaders have been known to do if the opportunity arises, is to ask other hikers for directions. If you are female and the males in your group are “shy” to do this then please be aware that there is no law that I know of that prevents you from doing this.

There are times when the best laid plans of hikers do not pan out as expected and it may be best to change one’s plans rather than to forge on. Hiking near or after dark (while theoretically doable with proper preparation and gear) is usually a good reason to cut the hike short unless you are sure of your navigation skills when there is little or no natural light available. Certain darker colored blazes are near impossible to see after dark and even light colored blazes can be very difficult or impossible to see (the paint used on most trail markers do not glow in the dark).

Snowy conditions may also be an impetus to change ones plans if snow or the heavy falling of snow makes following a trail difficult or impossible. There are some trails are very poorly or confusingly marked and it may be best on some of these to simply change one’s plans rather than to forge ahead into the unknown.

It can be quite embarrassing to lose someone on a hike that you are leading. The following rules can usually guarantee that you will come back with the same people you started with;

1. Do a pre-hike! Make sure that you yourself know the way and have done the exact same route hike successfully (without getting lost!) prior to taking a group on this same path. Also, make sure you have the latest trail map with you.

2. Make sure that whoever is in front of your group will stop at any intersection of the trail you are on and any other road or trail so that you can be sure that the correct option is selected and that everyone else in the group takes it. This may also be a good time to make sure everyone takes a drink of water and catches their breath. If you make the wrong navigation decision at this time then at least you will all be together and not inadvertently split up into two groups.

3. The last person (also known as the "sweep") must never be alone. The next-to-last person must always walk within visual sight of the last person so that the chance of someone being lost or injured alone is eliminated. The next-to-last person should indicate to those in the front if there is a need to slow down so that the person in the rear can keep up. No one should walk behind the sweep.

4. Always stop the group to re-group every half hour or so to make sure no one is missing. A formal count is not necessary in most circumstances but can’t hurt if there are any doubts regarding everyone’s presence.

5. For larger groups do a formal count-off at the trail head before the hike begins. This way you (and others paying attention) will know exactly how many people are present. It will make your job easier to know this number than to try and remember everyone who should be present by heart.

Lastly, pay attention to trail markers. The instinct if you are not in front of the group is to walk along conversing with your friends and not pay close attention to trail markers (I have been guilty of this).

While tales of unexpected adventure can be fun to tell, tales of making basic mistakes and getting lost can be embarrassing. I hope the above will diminish the likelihood that you will have any tales to tell of losing your way.

Comments: Michael_Brochstein@MABsystems.com

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Last revision: November 15, 2004

Copyright © 2008 Michael Brochstein. All rights reserved.