Getting Lost and Getting Out of It

Getting lost is among the top potential problems for beginning hikers.

It’s easy to step into the forest a few yards and lose your bearings. You may step a few more yards in the direction you think you came and get still farther away from your trail. Or, you may misread a map and wind up on a trail very different from the one you had planned.

Either way, you’re lost because you don’t know where you are, or how to get where you want to go. Here are a few bits of advice about how to avoid that fate, and what to do in the event you find yourself in it anyway.

To avoid getting lost in the first place, exercise some simple guidelines. Travel with an experienced partner. Stay on well-marked trails until you yourself become experienced enough to venture off into the wilderness. Don’t exceed your climbing or water-fording abilities, and err on the side of caution. Use maps and a compass or GPS unit or both, GPS units don’t always work in the wild.

If you get lost anyway, stay calm. That will help you think clearly and also decreases the amount of spent fluid from heavy breathing.

If you can, do the obvious and re-trace your steps to the point you last knew your location. Look around for landmarks passed on your way. You should try to be aware of your surroundings. After all, one of the reasons for hiking is to enjoy the scenery.

While you take in the scenery, make a mental note of hills, large rock outcroppings, forest stands, streams, etc. These will give you a mental map of your area.

In any sloping area with water, a river or a stream, water will run downhill. Many trailheads start at the bottom. ‘Bottom’, here, is a relative term. Trailheads don’t typically start at the beginning of a river, but many start at the point the river bends and a large, open flat area of ground is found.

If you’re hiking up high enough, you may well be in an area with few trees. But you may also have a high view from certain spots. Use that vantage point to look down the mountain for trails, campsites, etc. Find the sun and note which way it’s moving. Keep yourself, even along a winding path, in the general direction you want to go.

Don’t be shy about shouting or using a whistle to alert others to your condition. Better to look foolish than to stay overnight unprepared and without food or (worse, enough) water. If it’s nearing dark and you have a flashlight (as you should) wave it above and then in front of you. Learn the Morse code for S-O-S and signal repeatedly.

Make sure that before you leave home, someone knows when to expect you. That way, if you’re gone too long, they know to alert search-and-rescue to begin looking for you. You would be far from the first hiker to get lost. It happens even to experienced people.

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