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The Wrong Way: Top 52 Hiker Mistakes

Your guide to 52 common mistakes hikers make--and how to avoid them.
wrong wayDon't get caught in the dark with these tips. (Supercorn)

NAVIGATION

20.NOT DOUBLE-CHECKING YOUR POSITION
Getting disoriented is easy. Just ask Civil War General Lew Wallace. At the Battle of Shiloh, he marched 25,000 Union troops the wrong way and ended up behind enemy lines. Hikers are no better: Lost or missing persons accounted for 42 percent of rescue missions over a recent three-year period in the White Mountains—even more than injuries. So use a map to verify your direction of travel after each turn. Do the topo lines indicate you should be climbing or descending? Should that peak be ahead of you or behind? What landmarks should you mentally (or digitally) photograph? Also check the sun’s position—it’s in the east in the morning, and the west by afternoon. Two routefinding Bermuda Triangles in particular are barren summits and open fields, where the intersection of multiple trails breeds onfusion. When you approach a summit or field, record your route’s compass bearing, or mark the path with a rock or stick so you can find your way back to it.

the wrong way
21. GETTING CAUGHT IN THE DARK (Above)
Nightfall means cold temps and difficult routefinding. To estimate how much daylight is left: Hold your palm at arm’s length and count how many fingers fit between the horizon and the sun. Each finger represents about 15 minutes. Example above shows one hour, 15 minutes until dark. If darkness descends, no worries—that’s what a headlamp is for. Just make sure you pack it (see #7, p. 40).

22 CUTTING SWITCHBACKS
It causes erosion and can lead you (and others) off route. Tip: Sticks crossed like an X mean there’s no trail that way.

23. TAKING A SHORTCUT
Alarm bells should sound when you hear any of these phrases: “Is this gun loaded?” “Jump it, you wuss!” and “Let’s take a shortcut.” Michael Hays should know. Last June, the Ohio hiker shattered his kneecap on an off-trail descent of Maine’s Katahdin. If not for vigilant rangers who noticed he was overdue, and a lucky helicopter flyover that spotted his orange poncho, Hays might have stayed there permanently. The problem: If you become lost or immobilized away from a known trail, rescuers won’t be looking in the right place. Is there ever a good time to take a shortcut? Maybe, if: You can see your destination and all the terrain in-between; have the skills to navigate to it or backtrack; and won’t be violating LNT ethics.

24. FORGING BLINDLY AHEAD
Few lost hikers try to retrace their path, deluding themselves that help is just around the corner. But backtracking to your last known point is the best way to get back on course.

25. USER ERROR
GPS is a fabulous tool—if you use it correctly. Two Mt. Hood hikers realized this in 2006 when they got lost in a whiteout using a GPS configured to conflicting datum settings and a compass declination set for New Hampshire, not Oregon. That’s why it’s vital to practice with compasses and read the GPS manual on how to import tracks, bombsite waypoints, and set preferences.

26. NOT USING A MAP ON FAMILIAR ROUTES
Even on trails you’ve hiked dozens of times, you can make a wrong turn. In fact, the more well-known a route, the more our brains tend to shut down. German researchers tested this using a driving simulation. As the subjects drove the same course multiple times, the parts of the brain involved with situational awareness became less active as the drivers memorized the route. The more you think you know a place, the less you actually think. So always bring a map or a color-copy of key sections. Print topos at backpacker.com, or buy local quads at outdoor stores or Map Express (mapexp.com). Go to backpacker.com/navigation101 for a tutorial on the basics.

27. SETTLING FOR BAD RECEPTION
Cloudy, rainy skies won’t block a GPS signal, but overhead foliage, canyon walls, and water on the antenna will. Find a clearing or highpoint, make sure the antenna is dry, then check what accuracy (in feet) you’ve obtained.

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