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.
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.