Staying Found and Getting Unlost
Hike long enough and it's bound to happen: that sick, sinking feeling when you realize that you aren't exactly, or even remotely, where you thought you were supposed to be. Usually, however, you're not completely lost, just a tad, shall we say, confused. Here's how to prevent the problemand how to solve it.
First and most important, pay attentioneven if you're at the back of the line. Don't assume your hiking partners know where they're going as they confidently stride forth. Watch for trail markers and junctions. Pay attention to the time you've been walkingit can help you keep track of your mileage. Be suspicious of radical changes in the trail. If a good trail suddenly turns bad, or a well-marked trail turns unmarked, it could be that you've wandered off-trail entirely. Finally, note which way the shadows are falling; they can tell you at a glance if you're going in the right direction.
Trails can be eroded, covered with deadfall, clocked by mud slides, or concealed by snowfields. Take a step or two to the right or left and look againthe path or a blaze might be hidden from view by foliage or deadfall. Same goes for looking for cairns above treeline. They blend in with the environment, so look for them from a couple of different angles.
If you do get that niggling little voice in the back of your head telling you that something seems off-kilter, listen to it, even if your hiking partners groan at having to stop while you figure out where you are. Think of it this way: If you're right, you're saving them from walking extra miles, too. A final warning about staying found: Don't kid yourself. We humans have a trouble-making tendency to try to force reality to fit our expectations. When we're hiking, we often convince ourselves that something in the field (say a small little bump) matches something on our maps (say a ferocious, contour-line-filled monster mountain). It's easier in the short term to believe the pleasant fiction that we know where we are than it is to deal with the fact that the molehill is not a mountainwhich means we're not where we think we are.
If you do find yourself lost, stop and try to reconstruct your route. If you've been paying even a modicum of attention, you won't be very far from where you're supposed to be. Think of it as being "fuzzy," not lost! Try to figure out where you last knew your precise location (someplace obvious, perhaps when you forded a stream, climbed to a mountain pass, or crossed a big open flat space). Knowing how long you've walked since then will help you calculate how many miles you may have gone. If you've only been walking for 20 minutes since you forded the Wild River, you can't be more than a mile from that ford, no matter which direction you've gone in. Next consider what prominent landmarks you've seen. If you add all that information together, you should be able to find yourself on your map.
As a last resortif you think you know approximately where you must be, but the map and terrain still don't seem to match up, look for a prominent landmark to walk toward. It can be a landmark you see, or a landmark shown on your map. Rivers and roads are good choices, if any are about, because once you intersect them, you know approximately where you are, and if you need to, you can follow them until you intersect yet another identifiable feature such as intersection with another road or trail, a tributary stream, or a waterfall.
Bottom line: Don't panic. With a little bit of patience and detective work, you'll find yourself.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication