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Prof. Hike: The First Five Minutes

When you're lost, your initial decisions will make the difference.
Prof Hike First Five 445x260Don'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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