How Not to Get Lost on the Trail

Our most recent posts on two local trails – the Devil’s Bathtub and Jenny Falls – have received a ton of attention (thanks to those of you who have shared them!). It appears that lots of folks in our region are discovering local trails for the first time, which is outstanding. Along with this interest, we’ve received a couple of comments from novice hikers wondering about the possibility of getting lost in the woods. After all, this is a real possibility: just two days ago, the latest in an ongoing string of reports of lost hikers came in from the Devil’s Bathtub itself.

In response to this, we thought we’d do a quick post highlighting some key tips for making sure that you minimize as much as you can the risk of getting lost on the trail. Notice that we didn’t say “prevent” there. That’s because getting lost is something that is always a risk in the woods, even for the most experienced hiker. Disorientation can always happen, as can wrong turns on a complex trail network. What matters, though, is how you plan to lessen this risk. You’ll never eliminate it completely, but the pointers below can help reduce your chances of a mishap on the trail.

Is there an official trail here? Is it just a game path? What about an old roadbed? Not every route in the woods is clear and well-marked.

Before You Go

The single biggest thing you can do to avoid getting lost involves preparation: what you do before a leaving for a hike. That’s because the single biggest cause of lost hikers is arguably hitting the trail ill-prepared. Here are some things you can do before leaving the house that can go miles for keeping you safe in the woods:

1.) Allow yourself enough time to hike. The average hiker takes about one hour to hike two miles, assuming a moderately rough trail and no major stops along the way. If the trail involves abnormally steep climbs, tough terrain, or multiple stream crossings (paging the Devil’s Bathtub!), then that pace can become exponentially slower. The same goes if you’re hiking with older individuals or small children. Add in rest or food stops at a swimming hole or scenic vista, and the length of your hike will get much longer. Know how far your hike is before you leave the house, and make sure you hit the trail with enough time to leisurely complete your hike. One of the most surefire ways to end up having the rescue squad searching for you is to start a lengthy or difficult hike in the mid- to late-afternoon. If you can’t get started early enough, don’t attempt your hike.

2.) Let someone know the details of your hike. If the unspeakable were to happen and you did get lost, would anybody know? Being the only person that’s aware you haven’t come back on time means that it’s going to take much longer for emergency personnel to realize that you need help. Before you leave for your trip, let someone responsible know where you’re going. And make sure they have the full details. This means the length of your hike, where the hike is located (county, town, national forest, etc.), when you plan to return, and how many people are in your group. If you don’t make it out of the woods in time, that person will know – and will know to call for help.

3.) Be humble. Let’s face it: no matter how much you hunt, fish, or spend time in the woods, you are not Bear Grylls. If you want to avoid getting lost in the woods, you need to be adequately prepared. Have a topo map and compass of the area you’ll be hiking in – and learn to use them. (If you don’t know how to use a topo map, stay tuned for an upcoming Backcountry Science post on that very topic.) Always have food, water, and some form of firestarter with you – even for a short hike – and wear clothing and shoes appropriate for the weather and terrain. And don’t hike alone. Bring someone with you as a hiking partner if absolutely possible. In short, prepare for the worst, even if the best ends up happening.

Here’s a screenshot of a topo map for the Devil’s Bathtub. If you’ve hiked that trail, did you look at one of these before you hit the woods? Better yet, did you have one with you on your hike?

If You Do Get Lost

OK, it’s happened. You stepped off of the trail to use the bathroom and lost the footpath. Maybe you took a wrong turn and found yourself on an unmarked game trail that just petered out. What do you do? This website by the USDA Forest Service has some of the best information around (so please do read it). We’ll just hit the high points here:

1.) Stop. Don’t Freak Out. We’ve been told by several folks that have experienced getting lost at the Devil’s Bathtub that their predicament was a product of their own panic. The group decided to “shortcut” off-trail back to the car (always a bad idea) and then, once they were lost, panicked and kept pushing deeper into the woods, hoping for a way out. Of all the things that can go wrong when you get turned around on the trail, that plan of action is perhaps the worst. The moment you find yourself lost, stay put and try to figure out where you got off-track. As the USFS website puts it, “Do not move at all until you have a specific reason to take a step.”

2.) Don’t make your situation worse. Do you have compass and map? A GPS unit or app on your phone? Get them out and try to determine where you are. If you’re on a trail, stay on it – don’t go off-trail into the woods trying to find your way. That trail will eventually come out somewhere. And, as a last resort, follow the path of water downhill. In our part of the country, this will eventually lead to civilization. Make this only your last resort, though, since moving will place you farther from where rescue crews will be looking and also since the terrain between you and civilization may be hazardous.

All in all, you can’t ever prevent getting lost with 100% certainty. But planning the right way will eliminate much of that risk. In addition to the info we’ve placed above, we’ll give one more piece of advice here. If you’re not an experienced hiker, don’t jump in over your head. Do some easier hikes first on well-marked, short trails. Follow the steps above, and get used to following them on easier hikes. Then, slowly graduate up to longer, more difficult trails that go deeper in the backcountry. That, perhaps more than anything, will make sure you feel comfortable in the woods.


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