Hiking in the back country has provided me with some of the greatest pleasures of my life. I have sometimes entered a pure-enjoyment zone, where the spectacular scenery and wildlife have literally made me want to quit my job, leave home and just keep hiking, completely giving in to the temptations of the wilderness. Many hikers have felt this euphoria, and in so doing have missed the warning signs of impending disorientation.
Becoming lost is probably the biggest risk a hiker can face, and at one time or another almost all of us have done it. Here are some tips that may help you.
First, do your homework. Research a new area thoroughly before setting out. Topographic maps are a valuable source of information, as many trail maps do not show topography.
Second, be prepared. Even if you think that you’re only going out for a couple of hours, be prepared for being out a much longer time. If you become lost you are on your own, and must be able to fend for yourself until finding your way back. Your day-pack should contain: sufficient food and water, matches in a water-proof container, compass and map, GPS with extra charged batteries, extra clothing, emergency blanket, pencil and paper, whistle, and flagging tape. I also carry a folding saw and a small axe.
Third, have a plan, and stick to it. Make sure someone knows where you intend to go and how long you plan to be out. Bring your cell phone, but be aware that you may not always be in cell range.
Fourth, stay on the trail; trails can be surprisingly hard to re-locate once you venture off them. Short-cutting switchbacks, or even detouring around fallen trees, can be enough to disorient you. If you must leave the trail, tie a piece of flagging tape onto a tree branch as a reference marker, or set a waypoint that you can ‘home in’ on.
Fifth, pay attention to your surroundings. Remember or write down landmarks you see, such as rock outcrops, streams or oddly-shaped trees. Look behind you periodically – the trail will look much different when going the other way. Note unmarked trails or animal trails that cross or merge with yours. And old or infrequently-used trails can still be obvious when in the forest, yet disappear completely in open areas or on rocky ground.
Sixth, know where active railways, highways, or rivers are with respect to your trail and listen for them to give you a bearing on what direction to take to find your way out.
The rewards of back-country hiking can be great, but you must always keep your wits about you. Prepare for your trip, pay attention to your surroundings and to where you are, and don’t get lost.