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Backpacker Magazine – Backpacker.com Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: Don't Get Lost, Have a Backup Plan

Bad things happen to good hikers. Everyone should have a smart back-up plan--or two.

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

Don't get discouraged. (Jason Stevenson)
Don't get discouraged. (Jason Stevenson)

Getting lost is a piece of cake.

Overlooked trail junctions. Misread maps. False game trails. It’s easy to let your brain relax during the one minute you should have been paying attention. In a previous post I described why decisions made during the first five minutes after becoming lost are crucial to regaining your bearings. In today’s post let’s assume your initial attempts at self-rescue failed. Now your ordeal is slipping towards a multi-day, chew-your-boot-leather survival epic. Like Aron Ralston, this is when you wish you told someone where you were hiking. 

Too many people follow Aron’s infamous example and head outdoors without alerting anyone about their destination, route, or expected return time. Either these hikers think they’re too experienced to get lost, or don’t want to admit that misfortune could occur to them. Designating an emergency contact, however, isn’t admitting that you’re a bad navigator. Instead, it’s another tool to keep you safer on the trail—just like the ten essentials, map reading, and warm clothing. Plus, telling a co-worker that “I’m going backpacking this weekend in Maine…” isn’t the correct way to make a back-up plan. Just in case the worst happens to you, here are two precautions to take before every major hike.

Sign a Trail Register or Leave a Dashboard Note
Before search and rescue (SAR) teams look for a lost hiker, they try to find the victim’s car. Locating it (and the trailhead where it’s parked) can narrow their search box. Even better is when lost hikers leave details about their upcoming trip in a trail register. Many trailheads feature registers—usually a wooden box or kiosk containing a scratchy pen and a soggy notebook. Hikers are asked to record basic information like start date, the number of hikers in a party, campsites, and their expected return date. If a permit is required to hike or camp, park rangers will probably collect this information during the registration process. But without a permit, your registry entry might be the only breadcrumbs SAR teams have to follow. That’s why you should always sign a trail register or leave your trip details with local officials.

If no trail registry is available, a second option is to leave a note on the dashboard of your parked car. A dashboard note lets you record details like the ages of the hikers, cell phone numbers, experience levels, a list of trails and campsites you plan to use, and emergency contacts. In fact, it’s easy to provide too much information in such a note. Note: If the trailhead is isolated or known for break-ins, you should skip the dashboard note, or make is less visible to the casual observer. Announcing that you won’t return to your car until 3pm on Sunday gives thieves an incentive to ransack it. Call the local ranger office or check online trip reports to find out if vandalism is a problem at certain trailheads. Plus, never leave anything of value visible in your parked car.

Designate an Emergency Phone Contact
Driving home after a weekend hike—footsore but elated—is when you should call your emergency phone contact and let them know you’re off the trail. Why take this precaution? Because if this person doesn’t receive your call on time, they would be the first to realize that you might be in trouble. Without this contact, it could take several more days for your boss, relatives, or neighbors to notice that you’re missing.

Choose a trusted friend or family member for this important role. By “trusted” I mean someone who you’d ask to watch your dog if you went away for the weekend. Not the co-worker who routinely misplaces important documents. Picking a reliable person, however, is only half the job. You also need to tell them what to do. First, give them a time window when you expect to call them, like between 12pm and 3pm. Second, tell them how many hours after that window they should start to get worried. I usually give myself a 3 to 4 hour buffer zone in case I get slowed down. For instance, a late start and multiple tricky river crossings delayed my return by six hours during one weekend hike so that I called my contact (my mom) minutes before she would have called the state police to report me missing. Plus, in some parts of the country you might drive for an hour or more before you find cellular service. Third, tell them what to do if you don’t call. Their first step should be to try to reach you in case you forgot to phone them. If that fails, they should call the local park headquarters or state police to initiate a search.

If that worst-case scenario occurs, your phone contact should also have a copy of your itinerary including your start trailhead, route, campsites, and expected finish date and time. Plus, give them extra details like your cell phone number and service provider (if you plan to carry a phone, which you should), a description of your car, your hiking experience level, and the food and gear you’re carrying. Why all those specifics? Because local law enforcement can contact your cellular provider to discover if your phone has pinged any local towers—giving them a potential triangulation on your position. And search teams often adjust their tactics based on the experience level and equipment of the lost person. So when in doubt, give your emergency contact as much information about your trip as you can.

Has your emergency contact ever called 911 about you? What additional pre-hike precautions do you take? Post a comment to describe them, or send an email to profhike@backpacker.com.

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READERS COMMENTS

BigHodag
Nov 12, 2011

As in the article, I leave my full 2-week hike plan with a reliable friend who monitors my trip. I check in daily by sundown. As recommended I also provide leave information on what I'm wearing, my outdoors skills and my SAR experience.

On my person, I carry a simple flip notebook with my emergency contact info inside the cover. This includes funeral home & telephone and my burial plot info. I also provide basic medical info such as blood type, allergies & meds I may be taking while hiking.

I'm a big fan of TrailPhone, a free service for long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail. When I make my regular check ins, I key in the nearest mileage and an icon appears on a Google Map showing my relative position. Highly recommend this emergency tool for AT backpackers.

http://TrailPhone.net

BTW, TrailNote is a good service to automate the emergency contact process.

On the boot print mention in the comments. Place the foil on a soft towel at home and you'll get a much better foil print of your boot pattern. Parents should do this before taking small children into the backcountry. Also, teach children to "hug a tree."

Good hiking...

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AZ Hiker
Oct 07, 2011

We have many "how-to-not-get-lost" back-up plans thanks to Backpacker Magazine and this book: Felix the Sugarglider Be Safe. Hike Smart. available on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Felix-Sugarglider-Safe-Hike-Smart/dp/1456528874/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1318024547&sr=8-1
This book is all about how to not get lost. It's a book for adults and children, hikers, boy scouts, and anyone who wants to know some easy to remember useful tips about paying attention to your surroundings especially the view behind you! This book teaches how to find your way using a map and compass, a compass, a map, no map and no compass, using the sun to find direction, using the stars etc. For us, this book provides a quick refresher course before every hike, especially the short dayhikes which can easily become dangerous if one is not prepared to spend the night outdoors. Check it out and hike safely!

Yamarashi Ken
Aug 27, 2011

I suggest taking a large piece of foil with a large label in the corner for the information. Take the foil and put it on the ground and step on it with both feet. Put back in car on floor board with your boot prints on it. SAR can track you better that way.

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