Prof. Hike: Don't Get Lost, Have a Backup Plan

Bad things happen to good hikers. Everyone should have a smart back-up plan--or two.

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Getting lost is a piece of cake.

Overlooked trail junctions. Misread maps. False game trails. It’s easy to let your brain relax during the one minute you should have been paying attention. In a previous post I described why decisions made during the first five minutes after becoming lost are crucial to regaining your bearings. In today’s post let’s assume your initial attempts at self-rescue failed. Now your ordeal is slipping towards a multi-day, chew-your-boot-leather survival epic. Like Aron Ralston, this is when you wish you told someone where you were hiking.

Too many people follow Aron’s infamous example and head outdoors without alerting anyone about their destination, route, or expected return time. Either these hikers think they’re too experienced to get lost, or don’t want to admit that misfortune could occur to them. Designating an emergency contact, however, isn’t admitting that you’re a bad navigator. Instead, it’s another tool to keep you safer on the trail—just like the ten essentials, map reading, and warm clothing. Plus, telling a co-worker that “I’m going backpacking this weekend in Maine…” isn’t the correct way to make a back-up plan. Just in case the worst happens to you, here are two precautions to take before every major hike.

Sign a Trail Register or Leave a Dashboard Note

Before search and rescue (SAR) teams look for a lost hiker, they try to find the victim’s car. Locating it (and the trailhead where it’s parked) can narrow their search box. Even better is when lost hikers leave details about their upcoming trip in a trail register. Many trailheads feature registers—usually a wooden box or kiosk containing a scratchy pen and a soggy notebook. Hikers are asked to record basic information like start date, the number of hikers in a party, campsites, and their expected return date. If a permit is required to hike or camp, park rangers will probably collect this information during the registration process. But without a permit, your registry entry might be the only breadcrumbs SAR teams have to follow. That’s why you should always sign a trail register or leave your trip details with local officials.

If no trail registry is available, a second option is to leave a note on the dashboard of your parked car. A dashboard note lets you record details like the ages of the hikers, cell phone numbers, experience levels, a list of trails and campsites you plan to use, and emergency contacts. In fact, it’s easy to provide too much information in such a note. Note: If the trailhead is isolated or known for break-ins, you should skip the dashboard note, or make is less visible to the casual observer. Announcing that you won’t return to your car until 3pm on Sunday gives thieves an incentive to ransack it. Call the local ranger office or check online trip reports to find out if vandalism is a problem at certain trailheads. Plus, never leave anything of value visible in your parked car.

Designate an Emergency Phone Contact

Driving home after a weekend hike—footsore but elated—is when you should call your emergency phone contact and let them know you’re off the trail. Why take this precaution? Because if this person doesn’t receive your call on time, they would be the first to realize that you might be in trouble. Without this contact, it could take several more days for your boss, relatives, or neighbors to notice that you’re missing.

Choose a trusted friend or family member for this important role. By “trusted” I mean someone who you’d ask to watch your dog if you went away for the weekend. Not the co-worker who routinely misplaces important documents. Picking a reliable person, however, is only half the job. You also need to tell them what to do. First, give them a time window when you expect to call them, like between 12pm and 3pm. Second, tell them how many hours after that window they should start to get worried. I usually give myself a 3 to 4 hour buffer zone in case I get slowed down. For instance, a late start and multiple tricky river crossings delayed my return by six hours during one weekend hike so that I called my contact (my mom) minutes before she would have called the state police to report me missing. Plus, in some parts of the country you might drive for an hour or more before you find cellular service. Third, tell them what to do if you don’t call. Their first step should be to try to reach you in case you forgot to phone them. If that fails, they should call the local park headquarters or state police to initiate a search.

If that worst-case scenario occurs, your phone contact should also have a copy of your itinerary including your start trailhead, route, campsites, and expected finish date and time. Plus, give them extra details like your cell phone number and service provider (if you plan to carry a phone, which you should), a description of your car, your hiking experience level, and the food and gear you’re carrying. Why all those specifics? Because local law enforcement can contact your cellular provider to discover if your phone has pinged any local towers—giving them a potential triangulation on your position. And search teams often adjust their tactics based on the experience level and equipment of the lost person. So when in doubt, give your emergency contact as much information about your trip as you can.

Has your emergency contact ever called 911 about you? What additional pre-hike precautions do you take? Post a comment to describe them, or send an email to