More than 1,000 hikers go missing every year in our national parks alone. Most are found within hours, but basic skills can help you get home without making a serious—or even fatal—mistake. Follow this advice for staying on course.
Use these tricks to place yourself on a map.
>> Calculate distance. As you travel and cross-reference your map, esti- mate miles traveled. A typical hiker covers up to three miles per hour, not including breaks. Add 30 minutes for every 1,000 feet of climbing, and subtract 10 minutes for every 1,000 feet of descending. Or iden- tify landmarks on your map like peaks and river crossings, and time your progress between them to gauge pace. >> Aim off. Hiking a beeline is almost impossible in wilderness terrain. If your intended target, like a bridge or town, is near a road or river use this tactic: Aim 3 to 5 degrees to the left or right of your ultimate destination. When you hit the road or river, you’ll know which direc- tion to turn to hit your goal.
Look for Landmarks
Notice trail markers and be prepared to backtrack.
“Staying aware is the most important thing you can do to avoid becoming lost,” says Robert Koester, who researched more than 50,000 search-and-rescue incidents for his book, Lost Person Behavior. His best advice? Bring your eyes up—don’t focus on your feet—and scan your surroundings: up close, far away, and behind. Good navigators notice landmarks and continuously reference their map and compass. Haven’t seen a trail marker in a while? That could be the first clue that you’re lost. Backtrack to the last landmark you recognize, and stay alert for these reassurance markers beside trails.
Some trails, like the AT, are marked by a stan- dard paint blaze (left). But in wilderness areas, a blaze could also look like two rectangular cuts (a smaller one on top of a larger one) in the bark on both sides of a tree; blazes are common at junc- tions and trails in designated wilderness areas.
BLAZER (MARKER FLAG)
Colored markers (usually made of aluminum or plastic) nailed into trees at eye level or at least 30 inches high. Be alert for color changes where trails separate—color-blind hikers can get disoriented when marked trails cross.
CAIRN (ROCK DUCK)
Pyramid-shape stacks of rocks ranging from one to six feet tall. Expect larger piles in alpine or snowy terrain, or in areas with typically low- visibility conditions, like coastlines.
Poles, fence posts, or any straight markers made of wood, concrete, metal, or plastic. Posts are often combined with number, color, or symbol codes (shown) to differentiate paths.