Prof. Hike: The First Five Minutes

When you're lost, your initial decisions will make the difference.
When you're lost, your initial decisions will make the difference.

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.

[Post-Mortem #1]

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.

[Lost Episode #2]

Trail to McCauley Hot Springs

Santa Fe National Forest - New Mexico

Several years ago my wife and I got lost while trying to find McCauley Warm Springs in the high forests of New Mexico. This was supposed to be a simple out-and-back day-hike totaling four miles round-trip. It was so simple, I thought, that I decided to leave the guidebook and map in the backseat of our car. At first the hike went well. But then we both noticed that the trail was growing fainter. There were fewer footprints marked in the dirt. Then we had to push branches and vines blocking our way. Finally the footing became rocky and dangerous, especially compared to the original trail. Even after these ominous signs, we continued hiking. We believed we were on the right path right up until the moment my wife was inching across a narrow dirt ledge perched 20 feet above a rushing creek. ‘Face it, we’re lost,’ she told me. And I had to agree. We thought about turning back, but decided to press on. I had a hunch we could T-bone into another trail that would lead to the hot springs. Luckily, that strategy worked and we ended a stressful day with a relaxing soak.

[Post-Mortem]

Duh. Leaving the map in the car ensured that my Subaru knew where it was, but that we had no clue. I made that contributing mistake, however, long before we actually got lost. My major failing was not noticing the crescendo of signs—no footprints, no blazes, thicker vegetation—that we were no longer on the correct trail. With 20/20 hindsight, I remember registering some doubts about our route, but I didn’t say or do anything. Like the adage about the frog placed in a pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil, I didn’t notice the rising danger until it was too late. The most dangerous mistake I made, however, was to keep moving forward instead of backtracking. In this case we got lucky and crossed another trail. But it could have turned our much worse, as it does for many less-fortunate hikers.

[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.

[Post-Mortem]

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 profhike@backpacker.com.

—Jason Stevenson