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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: The First Five Minutes

When you're lost, your initial decisions will make the difference.

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

Don't count on signs and blazes to guide you - always bring a map. (Jason Stevenson)
Don't count on signs and blazes to guide you - always bring a map. (Jason Stevenson)

Is this still the trail?
Why are we going down when we should be climbing?
This direction doesn’t seem right.


Chances are you’ve asked similar questions during a hike. These are the pesky worries that crowd your brain as confusion grows about your location.
Sometimes these questions are answered swiftly to confirm you’re on the right path. For instance, when you spot a blaze painted on a tree ahead, arrive to a promised trail junction, or notice the outline of a lean-to shelter in the distance.

Other times, however, these doubts grow to become an overwhelming chorus of “Where the heck am I?” When the evidence of being lost can’t be ignored, your next steps are crucial. Decisions made during these first five minutes often separate those hikers who self-rescue themselves vs. those who spend a sleepless night huddled under a pine tree.

How can you ensure you always make the correct decisions at the right time? It’s not easy, especially when overconfidence and/or panic sway your thoughts. One way you can prepare is by evaluating the decisions other hikers made before and after they got lost. Think of their experiences as case studies filled with hard-won lessons to educate the rest of us.

One approach to find these case studies is to Google a phrase like “lost hiker safe” and scroll through the links. Another method is to review your own close-calls. Since I often criticize the decisions of other hikers in this column, it’s only fair that I turn the magnifying glass on myself. I can think of three times when I got lost on a trail (Note: Prof. Hike’s wife claims to remember many more occasions). None of these misadventures forced me to spend an unplanned night in the woods, but the last one came close. In this post I’ll describe the mistakes that led to each situation, the decisions I made in the first five minutes of being lost, and what I should have done instead.

[Lost Episode #1]
Continental Divide Trail (CDT)
Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest - Montana


While hiking a section of the CDT for Backpacker, my hiking partner and I decided to shave off a few miles by going around a mountain instead of climbing over it. We ventured down the shortcut trail, but within half a mile we dropped into a valley recently burnt to a crisp by a forest fire. The ground was covered in four-inches of black ash and strewn with downed trees. There was no shade—and after a few hundred yards, the trail disappeared, too. Although we carried a GPS and a detailed topographical map, we felt disoriented by the harsh, moon-like terrain and we couldn’t get our bearings. When we arrived at a trail junction marked on our map—nothing was there. After a few hours of hiking we ran out of water because the fire had destroyed a source we were counting on.

Our only escape route, we decided, was to hike cross-country to reach a known trail that ran along a ridge. Ironically, this was the high-elevation trail we sought to avoid. After a mile of exhausting up-hill climbing, we reached the main trail, and then stumbled another two miles to our campsite and its very welcome water source.

[Post-Mortem #1]
Our first and most crucial mistake was not turning around once we encountered the forest fire zone. Having never hiked through burnt terrain, we didn’t know how hot, tiring, and dusty it would be. Turning around during those first few minutes would have added an extra mile to our day, but that was a much better prospect than the waterless, death-trudge that our hike became. Our second mistake was letting our map and GPS make us feel invincible. Even though both the topo and LCD screen showed a virtual trail junction, the conditions on the ground—where no trail junction could be found—were the reality we had to deal with.



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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Spooky
Sep 08, 2013

Recently my husband and I plus a friend decided to do a "quick" kayak. Two of us thought it was going to be 4 miles, the third thought 6 miles. We had to leave the first car in an area that allows no access (gated shut) after 10 PM. We left the shoreline at 6:30 PM. After about 1 mile, the river turned into the most placid lake I have ever seen. We started to paddle hard as the sun was going down. I got out my GPS to see for the first time that it was more like 9 miles total, and at the rate of speed we were going, we would not get off the river until 10 PM (when the gate gets locked). We had no real lights, and no real idea what the shoreline at the end was going to be like. In pitch blackness with not even a moon, we paddled madly through cramping arms and seriously bad tempers. We could not see the shore at the end, and could barely get out. Then we had to bushwack WITH KAYAKS, in the dark, through manzanita and poison oak up a hillside by the light of cellphones. We were thoroughly pissed, exhausted, scraped up, and starving. The first car was now locked in for the night, very far from access. We then realized that the house keys were in that car. After hitting Walmart for clean clothes and stuff to wash off the possible poison oak, we slept on the floor of a friend's house. Lessons learned? Everyone should know exactly what the route will be, length and how strenuous it will be. Give yourself ample enough time to finish it before dark. Carry a light, even on a day trip. PLAN AHEAD!

Star Star Star Star Star
Teej
Mar 29, 2013

Excellent article.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
I've done quite a few things on the trail once, and paid for it at the time, only to never to repeat them again.
You used an important word a few times in this. "Lucky."
Hopefully, this piece will hit someone who doesn't need to find out if they're lucky or not.

kevin
Oct 31, 2012

"Being lost" is a state of mind. I would not actually consider any of the three incidents described by the author as being genuinely lost. If you have some algorithm or strategy to get to a known point you are not lost, even if you don't know precisely where you are. Recapturing precise orientation after a period of uncertainty is just another thing one does outdoors, as far as I'm concerned. To have a resilient sense of orientation you need to know how to do it. Spoken as someone who does a fair amount of of-trail travel, where such skills are routinely used.

From that perspective I think the worst habit of trail hikers is to rely on the trail as the sole means of orientation, rather than trying to retain some notion of where they are on a map (either a physical or a mental one)


AZ Hiker
Oct 07, 2011

To avoid spending the night in the wilderness, unprepared and crouched under a tree, read and learn from other hikers about how to stay found on the trail. Also check out this book available on Amazon: Felix the Sugarglider Be Safe. Hike Smart. We read this book before every hike for a quick refresher course on the many ways to find your way on the trail, especially the dayhikes which can easily become dangerous since most dayhikers aren't prepared to spend the night outdoors. It sounds like a kids book but this book is for anyone who hikes or simply wants to know where they are when they venture outside.

Tom
Sep 12, 2011

I went hiking with a buddy in the Granite Chief Wilderness near Lake Tahoe recently with the intent to hike to a cluster of lakes only 2.5 up the trail. Knowing the trail was short and easy we didn't bring a map. Instead of swimming in the lakes, we opted to venture much further into the wilderness, passing many trail junctions. On our way back we hit an unmarked trail junction just a couple hours from sunset. We went with our gut and nothing seemed to look familiar. We were about 3 miles from the trailhead and knew the general direction we needed to travel, but without the proper trail we would have had a difficult and dangerous scramble down the hill to the car. With little light left this didn't seem like a good option. We eventually found a lake, and then another one and knew we were close to the main trail, but without a map, we couldn't tell which of the five lakes we were seeing. Unprepared for a night in the woods, panic began to set in as we wandered a series of social trails between the lakes. Eventually we found the correct trail and made the 2.5 mile descent to the trailhead with time to spare before before dark. Were we in great danger? Not really. But without good logic, we could have been. I do not take this lightly at all as too many people make bad decisions in the wilderness. The lesson learned: Bring a freaking map! Always! It's the uncertainty that can lead to panic which can lead to real bad situations.

James
Aug 05, 2011

Once in the grocery store with my Mom, I wanted to get some cookies, so I started out about 1:15 pm for the snack section. I noticed later that I was not in the snack section when I thought I should be, I was in produce! I was terrified! Broccoli everywhere!

After about 30 seconds (but it seemed foever!) I saw the blue and white packaging of Oreos down a long isle, I went in that direction and there was my Mom, waiting for me.

Next time, I took a map and compass with me.

Barbara
Jul 22, 2011

I too got lost on the JMT which ended up causing us to make a very dangerous river crossing followed by an all afternoon, 1,000' class 3 boulder scramble. It was not pleasant and even once we got to the top we were unsure of where we were. Thankfully we found a few footprints (amongst the many animal ones) and finally found our way to a lake which I could identify on our map.
We had simply walked right off the trail...and before we knew it we were in the midst of much downfall...then hordes or mosquito's found us further pushing us off trail (we didn't care which direction we were going we just had to get out of that area).
Thankfully we made it to our next stop about 830pm. I want to go back to that spot to see where we went wrong...this time without the boulder challenge.

balzaccom
Jul 22, 2011

We were in the recently created Hoover wilderness, and among the first people into the area after the spring thaw of 2010. Around each lake were a maze of use trails, and at one point we found ourselves at a junction next to a long series of pools.

We (I) incorrectly assumed that this was the spot on our maps marked where there was a junction along a chain of lakes. But there was no sign at the junction. So we turned right and hiked for a mile--each step taking us further from our destination. I checked the map two more times during that mile...and finally concluded that we were either on the right trail, and would soon come to a lake, or on the wrong trail headed for a meadow.

Five minutes later we hit the meadow.

So we turned a two mile trail into a four mile trail, and continued on our way.

Spring conditions often create water where there isn't any later in the year---and those pools we passed were not the chain of lakes, they were just vernal pools.

(But later in the same trip we successfully cross-countried a complicated section of terrain with no problems...!)

John Ladd
Jul 12, 2011

My most embarrassing episode of getting lost was on the JMT with my daughter (then about 20) just SOBO from Thousand Island Lakes. Patchy snow made the trail hard to follow and I veered right at one point when I should have veered left. Once my daughter started pointing out that it didn't look like the trail and that we should turn back, I got all my male pride thing engaged and was convinced I could read my topo map and that the topography looked right.

30 minutes later I had to admit she was right, I was wrong. We backtracked much further than if I had listened to her in the first place.

Lessons:

1) If you are the most experienced navigator on the trip, don't get all defensive when someone else raises a question.

2) "Confirmation bias" applies in spades to topo map reading. If you assume you are right, you are likely to see a feature on the ground that looks like something you see on the map. You are more likely to interpret the map to confirm your assumptions than to contradict them. This is a hard one to avoid, but remind yourself to really build the opposite case. In other words, if I was trying to confirm that I'm on the wrong route are there any terrain features that don't look like where I think I am on the map.

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