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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)

[Lost Episode #3]
Lincoln Brook Trail around Owls Head
Pemigewasset Wilderness - New Hampshire

When I lived in Boston years ago my wife and I went for a mid-autumn overnight hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Because this was my wife’s first backpacking trip, I chose a simple out-and-back hike along the Franconia Brook Trail to reach the Thirteen Falls Tentsite. The approach hike went smoothly. It went so well, in fact, we decided to increase the challenge on the way back by circumnavigating Owls Head peak on the Lincoln Brook Trail. Looking at my crumpled black & white photocopied map, I figured it would add a few more miles to our day. The next morning, however, was so pleasant that we didn’t start hiking until noontime. Our late start wouldn’t have been too bad, except that the Lincoln Brook Trail was closer to seven miles long. Plus, it was laced by numerous tricky river crossings (a fact noted in the guidebook) that slowed us down even more. We were still on the Lincoln Brook trail as dusk approached at 7pm, and we considered camping and waiting until morning. But since we both carried headlamps, we decided to continue in the darkness. We finally arrived to the car just after 10pm, exhausted by the ordeal but glad to be out of the woods. 

Were we technically lost on this trip? No. Did we think we were lost? Definitely, especially after the junction with the Franconia Brook Trail never appeared after hours of steady hiking. Sometimes just thinking you are lost can encourage poor decisions that actually place you on the wrong track. That almost happened with us. Besides the late start for the return hike, my biggest mistake was increasing the mileage without considering its impact on our day. Had I done the math—adding 7 extra miles at an average hiking speed of 1 mph—I could have predicted our headlamp crawl to the car.

Should we have hunkered down for the night instead of continuing to move in the dark? That’s debatable, and often determined by a hiker’s gear, energy level, and motivation. But I’m just glad we didn’t cross any more of those streams after sunset.

What were your close calls? And what lessons did you learn from them? Comment below, or send an email to

—Jason Stevenson

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Star Star Star Star Star
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
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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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