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You catch sight of a rare bird and stop to take photos, telling your group that you’ll catch up soon. Several minutes later, you stow your camera and set off briskly, only to realize after a mile that you see no signs of your group ahead or the trail you’re following isn’t even a trail at all. Don’t worry; there are many ways to get back to your group.
Slow things down
You might think that moving quickly will help you get back to your group faster, but when you’re already disoriented, this only means you’re quickly getting more lost. John Race, owner and guide at Washington’s Northwest Mountain School says “lost hikers can make their situation much worse by moving in haste.” Panicking isn’t helpful — you need a clear mind and navigation skills, not necessarily a strong flight instinct.
Signal for help
Instead of shouting, blow your whistle. The universal distress code is three short blasts, about 3 seconds each. Take a breath between each whistle blast to catch your breath and allow the sound to travel in the air. Repeat this 3-blast sequence however long you can.
By this point, your hiking group will likely be looking (and listening) for you. This whistle pattern will signal that you aren’t just spending a long time sightseeing; you’re lost. If you don’t think your group can hear you, mark your present location with sticks and attempt to backtrack to the original trail. If you can’t find it—or if you get more disoriented—return to your original lost location, find a visible spot to wait, and whistle again for help.
Step off trail (only with expertise)
Bushwhack back to the trail only if you can see your destination, won’t encounter impassable terrain, and have good navigation skills and a compass or GPS. But, only do this if you’re able to navigate back to your starting point. If you’re not comfortable going off-trail, stay put. According to research by SmokyMountains.com, 41 percent of lost dayhikers got in their situation because they wandered off trail.
Emergencies are emergencies, but if at all possible, be sure to bushwhack in a way that still follows Leave No Trace guidelines:
- Stay away from animal habitats, such as beaver ponds.
- Don’t walk on moss, ferns, lichen, and alpine plants. They recover from footsteps slower than woodier plants do.
- Don’t carve into trees to mark your progress in the area.
- If there’s an existing trail that leads to where you are bushwhacking, take it. Avoid making a larger impact on the trail than needed.
- Don’t break or cut branches to create a new trail path.
- If hiking with multiple people on fragile plants, don’t hike in a single file line. Spreading out distributes the impact from footsteps, so the plants you stepped on have a better chance of recovering.
Once you regain the trail, attempt to follow your group. If you don’t know which direction to take at trail junctions, stop and signal with your whistle.
Prepare before hitting the trail
Everybody in the hiking group should be familiar with the trail, have a map on hand, and be compass-literate. If there is someone in your group who doesn’t meet these requirements, use the buddy system. There is safety and brainpower in numbers always, so splintering off from the group could be safer in pairs or groups of three.
Remember to pack the 10 essential pieces of gear, just in case you end up on the trail overnight, get injured, or encounter unexpected weather conditions. If you are still lost past sunset, you will thank yourself for packing a headlamp, extra food, and an emergency shelter.