4. Hiking the trail
WRONG: Daydream as you hike, paying little attention to your map or the terrain. Todd Brown, North Carolina’s SAR coordinator, reports that he’s seen an increasing number of lost hikers who zone out on the trail, assuming their GPS units or cell phones will guide them back.
RIGHT: Orient yourself with prominent landmarks as you go. Verify your location on the map. Take a mental note of bridges, boulders, and trail junctions, and turn around often to study the trail from another angle, so you’ll recognize it if you have to backtrack.
5. When you suspect you’re lost
WRONG: Continue to hike, even though you believe you might be off track. Maybe you’ll find the trail if you keep going.
RIGHT: Stop as soon as you think you might be off course. Be alert for clues, such as the trail suddenly becoming faint or not reaching landmarks you expect to pass. Stay calm and try to match the surrounding features to your topo, triangulate your position with a compass, or use your GPS to locate yourself on a map.
How to Read a Topo Map
Match what you see in the field to what you see on the map by knowing how to recognize these key features.
>> A. Peak
>> B. Pass/saddle
>> C. Cliff
>> D. Ridge
>> E. Cirque
>> F. Valley
How to find yourself with GPS
(1) Match your GPS to your map’s datum.
(2) Mark a waypoint and view its coordinates.
(3) Match the coordinates to the grid lines on your map. If using UTM, the first coordinate refers to how far right you are from the left side of the map. The second matches how far up you are from the bottom. You are where the lines intersect.
6. When you know you’re lost
WRONG: Freak out. “When you’re lost, fear and panic set in,” notes Denali National Park Superintendent Paul Anderson. “If people don’t have a plan, they’re liable to react very irrationally. Some people run. Some huddle and cry.”
RIGHT: Sit down, take a deep breath, and assess the situation calmly. Find a sheltered spot and have something to eat and drink, then take an inventory of the gear you have, the weather, and how far off track you think you are. Mentally retrace your steps to the last place you knew your location–can you pinpoint where you made a wrong turn?
7. Making the call
WRONG: Bushwhack across unfamiliar terrain in a panicked attempt to regain the trail. “The mistake we see over and over is, instead of making a decision to stay put or find the trail, lost hikers try to find a new route home,” says Van Tilburg.
RIGHT: Stay where you are if you’re unsure of your location, night is falling, or bad weather is approaching. “You don’t want to make the situation worse,” says Anderson. Moving without purpose wastes energy and exposes you to other risks, such as slipping down a slope or twisting an ankle. Backtrack only if you’re confident you can find the spot where you were last on a trail, and strike out cross-country only if you can see your destination and you won’t run into impassable terrain on the way.