Most people, while hiking or walking, don’t even think about the possibility of getting lost. Unfortunately this can lead to trouble. You are usually safe as long as you stick to established trails.
But too often, complacency can get you into trouble. You decide to take a shortcut across the trail switchbacks. You wander just a little ways off the trail to see a bird a little better.
All it takes is a momentary lapse of judgment and you can be lost. Don’t let this happen to you. A little preparation can avoid the problem.
The most important thing you can do to avoid getting lost is to use your head and be aware. Take a moment before you begin and then periodically while moving. Look where you are, where you are going and where you have come from. How does your position relate to your surroundings? Look around for landmarks. Note the position of the sun. Which way is north.
If you are planning to use an established trail make sure you know exactly where it will take you and how long the trip will take. Know what turnoffs you will encounter along the way.
As you travel the trail keep your head about you and note any side trails and turnoffs. It is easy to get confused if you are planning to return the same way you came. Pay attention!
The majority of trails, animal or man-made, will not take you anywhere you want to go. They were not made for the purpose of taking you to civilization. So just following an unknown trail hoping that it will lead you to safety can be the worst thing you can do.
During the process of getting lost there is always a point where you first hear that little voice in your head that says, No, I can’t be lost. That is the time to STOP because you are either lost already or about to be. Immediately take stock of your situation. Don’t wait until things get worse.
Mentally trace your steps up to that point and review your path in relationship to the sun or any distinguishing landmarks. If possible, retrace you path back to a point where you are sure of where you are. But only if you are sure. This is not the time to be wandering about and trying out shortcuts.
If you are not sure, you need to stay put and think. Make a mental map of your journey up to that point. Review the distances and how long each segment took you. Try to remember any landmarks that you can relate to a specific point or time along the way. Do this while it is still freshest in your mind.
Then make a decision as to the best path back to a point you remember. Clearly mark your present position with whatever you can find. Then move out, marking your path with stones or sticks. If you don’t reach a point where you are less lost, go back and try another direction.
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One of the most useful things to bring is a pencil and paper. It doesn’t take much to get disorientated and our memories are unreliable. Make notes of landmarks, hills, streams, trail forks, and the sun position. Note the time it takes to go from one point to the next.
A compass is usually considered mandatory but you have to be careful using it. A compass is only useful if you have a good idea where you are and which direction you need to go. Lots of things can render the compass useless. Electrical wires, ore deposits, large metal objects like cars or small metal objects like your belt buckle. Yes, bring a compass, but make it a good one and learn how to use it before you get lost.
Bring a map. The most useful map is the topographical map. It will show the actual layout of the land including heights. If you are hiking in a National Park, topographical maps are often available for sale at the visitor center book store.
A GPS is a great tool but it has its limitations. In order for it to be useful after you get lost you need to use it before you get lost. Enter waypoints as you travel, including your starting point. Then if you get lost you have marked an electronic trail back to your starting point. Don’t completely depend on the GPS. Batteries have been known to run down and signals can get blocked. You still need to use your own skills in keeping up with where you are.
The key to not getting lost is to always know where you are and where you are going. It’s not that difficult but it requires a little effort and preparation. It’s worth it.