Jeffrey H. Ryan Hiker Author Photographer Speaker Podcaster Director

“Have you ever gotten lost?”

This question (or some variation of it) comes up often in my presentations about hiking. The answer isn’t simple. While there have been plenty of times I’ve been “temporarily disoriented”, there have never been times when I was “hopelessly lost.” The difference lies in making general awareness a priority.

In this way, I (ironically) find this aspect of hiking analogous to driving a car. In the best case, as a driver you are aware of a variety of things around you — the road conditions, how much gas is in the tank, the person driving in your blind spot. But sometimes, we’re simply off our game. Suddenly the gas gauge is on “E” or embarrassingly, we realize we have driven past our own exit ramp. Most often these things happen because we stopped paying attention — we became preoccupied with other thoughts. It happens. We’re human. The question is how (and how quickly) we respond to our newly discovered predicaments.

Running on Empty

If we’re almost out of gas, do we get off at the next exit (the one that we know has a gas station at it) or do we look at the gauge again and convince ourselves that maybe we have enough gas to get to the exit 20 miles down the road (where we’re unsure whether there is a place to refuel)? 

If we take a chance on the latter, we risk getting ourselves into an even greater predicament. What if there is no gas station? What if there is one, but it’s an additional 15 miles away from the exit? 

The fuel gauge/gas station analogy I’ve just described is something I refer to as “the decision funnel.” Early on in a situation, we have more potential solutions. But as we eliminate options, our choices become limited. 

One dramatic example of the decision funnel in action plays out in the tragic story of Christopher McCandless, made famous in John Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild. While there is much debate about contributing factors to McCandless’s death (whether he was weakened from the effects of ingesting wild plants), there is no doubt that the man starved to death, something he could have avoided if he hadn’t made a number of earlier devastating decisions.

When Chris McCandless waded across a partially frozen river in April to live on the other side, his decision funnel narrowed to a life-threatening degree. In July, when he was still healthy enough to walk out of the wilderness, he discovered a raging, now uncrossable torrent blocking his route to potential rescue. Instead, he returned to his campsite and slowly starved to death.

I raise this story to emphasize that the sooner we discover we are off course and do something about it, the less likely we are to get into really serious trouble with diminishing options. It’s the difference between being temporarily disoriented and hopelessly lost.   

What to do when you lose your way

When we get “off trail”, it’s usually because we’ve lost our frame of reference. As soon as you realize that you haven’t seen a trail marker for a little while, stop. Take a deep breath, lift your head and look in front of you. Do you see a blaze (paint mark) on a tree or rock indicating that you are still on the trail? Great. Simply proceed.

Don’t see a blaze ahead of you? Turn around and look back from where you came. Are you still on a trail? Do you see a blaze in the direction you came from? If you do, go back to the blaze to verify your position relative to the trail. It’s possible you wandered a few yards off course. If you have reason to believe you’re still on the trail when you look back toward a blaze, you can also proceed down the path until you see another blaze, verifying that you are still on course.

Don’t see any trail marking at all? Hopefully, you are discovering this sooner than later. But even if it’s been a while since you saw a blaze, your best bet is usually trying to get back to where you came from. Before you start, take a deep breath. Take out your map and compass (hopefully you have both and know how to use them) and/or consult the GPS app you have on your phone or another device. Try to establish where you are vs. where the trail is. The more info you have, the better. (If you don’t have basic map and compass skills or need a refresher, I highly recommend the book Wilderness Navigation: Finding your way using map, compass, altimeter & GPS by Mike Burns.)

If you are hiking with a friend (or friends) and have cell coverage, try giving them a call or text message to say you’re off trail. Then start working your way back from the direction you came. Look for familiar landmarks you may have seen (large rocks, distinctive trees, etc.). They may help you find your way back.

If for whatever reason, you get so far off trail you think you are better off finding another way out, sit for a moment with that assessment and seriously weigh if you are making the right decision. Purposefully (or worse, absent-mindedly) venturing farther away from your original course often takes you farther away from potential rescue. That said, each situation is different. You may, in fact, be better off bushwacking out to a road or other place where you can find help. This is another time when it would be prudent to call your hiking buddies and/or family members to tell them what is happening and discuss options.  

Four lessons I’ve learned about getting off trail

  1. You may need to overcome the need to travel downhill.
    The proper route to get back to the trail may be uphill, but when we get off trail, the easiest way to travel is traversing or going down. Thus, we end up getting farther away from where we want to be. If you have to go up, make sure you’re actually going up, not taking the easy way into more trouble.
  2. Your reasoning may be off — way off.
    Rationalization is the enemy of staying found. It’s amazing what stories we can tell ourselves when we don’t know precisely where we are. “The compass must be wrong” is one I’ve actually fallen for. Another is being absolutely convinced (during a bushwack to a remote peak) that I was on one ridge when I was actually on one just to the west. Beware of the danger of letting “where you want to be” preventing a rational assessment of where you actually are.
  3. Other people may have come before you.
    If you got off trail, it is likely people made the same mistake before you. Sometimes this means that the wrong path is well worn. I was on a trail where this happened in the White Mountains. The real trail took a hard left, but so many people had mistakenly gone straight ahead that it looked like the correct route. Within 1/4 mile, the path turned into a mud pit where everyone had turned around and gone back.
  4. If you need rescue, ask for it.
    There is a fair amount of discussion in hiking and climbing communities about mountain rescue. Most of the discussion centers around who should pay for rescues and those who call for help when perhaps they didn’t need it. There are really two critical things you need to know about mountain rescue.

A. If you are in trouble, you should request help.

B. When you request help it will often take many hours for a rescue team to get to you.

Only you can determine what “trouble” means. To me, it means more than being scared. It means that for whatever reason, I’m incapable of getting out of the situation I’m in. What it doesn’t mean to me is that “I have food, shelter and water, it’s getting dark and have simply wandered away from the trail or my hiking buddy.” No matter what, it’s a judgment call that may have to be made when your judgment is compromised. That’s why I advocate including the “deep breath and assessment phase” of your situation before you place that 911 call.

Nine Tips for Staying on the Trail

Of course, “staying found” and hiking the hike we set out to do is always our objective. It sure beats the alternative! Here are some things I suggest doing to ensure you are staying on your intended route.

  1. Study maps and trail descriptions before you go.
    Before I leave the trailhead (or my tent) on any hiking day, I go over where the trail goes and what to expect. Getting on the trail without this information is setting yourself up for second-guessing or worse. Familiarizing yourself with the route also gives you added info such as where to bail out in case of a weather or medical emergency.
  2. Be aware as you hike.
    Memorize the route as you walk along. The trail is always yielding clues. Are you climbing a ridge? Are there distinctive trees or rock formations around you? What about mountains or ridges in the distance? All these things help orient you and may come in handy if you need to recalibrate where you are. Watch the weather. Conditions can change quickly (particularly in the mountains). Battling cold, wind, rain or snow can take our attention away from staying on the trail and even obscure the path (e.g., falling leaves or snow).
  3. Don’t forget to look back.
    Every once in a while, I stop and look back at the trail behind me. (It’s amazing how differently the trail can feel when hiking from the other direction.) As I pass large trees, boulders, rock slides, and other features, I stop long enough to see what they look like from the perspective of traveling the other way. If I need to recall these features as familiar frames of reference, they’ll be ready to help.
  4. Take photos.
    One good thing about taking cell phones and tablets into the wilderness is how handy they can be for route finding. In addition to GPS and trail apps that can help you see exactly where you are, I’ve found them useful for grabbing images of maps and trail descriptions at trailheads and shelters. The info in trail kiosks is often more up to date than guidebooks and you can pull up the info on route from your device if you want to reference it again.
  5. Be careful around “blowdowns”.
    Blowdowns are trees that lie across the trail. Many times they have simply fallen there. Sometimes they are felled or placed there on purpose to create a visual and practical barrier — for example, to indicate that the trail now departs from the old woods road you’ve been walking on for a while. As you approach a blowdown, take a moment to see whether the trail continues ahead or whether it has been routed elsewhere.
  6. Pay attention to blazes and other trail markers.
    When you first start hiking, it seems like you are simply walking from one trail marker to the next. As you gain experience, finding and staying on the trail will seem like second nature — because it is. Nonetheless, keeping an eye out for blazes harkens back to my gas gauge analogy. Make sure you are frequently spotting blazes to ensure you are still on trail. It is common for me to yell back to my hiking buddy, Wayne, “Do you see a blaze?”
  7. Know the meaning of single and double blazes.
    A standard trail marking blaze is 2 inches wide by 6 inches high. One blaze means you are “on trail.” Two blazes (one above another) mean one of two things: an imminent change in trail direction or an intersection with another trail. (Above tree line, piles of rocks known as “cairns” are often used to mark the trail. Sometimes a smaller pile of rocks or a single larger one is placed to the right or left of the cairn to indicate a change in trail direction.)
  8. Be mindful of trail relocations.
    Sometimes sections of the trail get rerouted. Often these relocations (“re-los”) are relatively short and don’t deviate too much from the old route. Sometimes, however, a re-lo can be significant. I have encountered some as much as one mile long. If your guide info isn’t up to date, the added mileage and change of route can throw you off. Trail organizations responsible for blazing and maintaining trails do their best to update information about re-los, both on trail websites and out on the trail itself (you may see signs posted at trailheads or where relocated sections of trail begin and end). One easy way to see if you are entering a relocated section is by looking at the condition of the trail and the blazes. A relocated section typically shows less wear than the older section of trail you just left. Similarly, the blazes on a new stretch of trail will be bright and fresh. It’s important to beware of the ramifications that re-los can have on the length of your planned hike and also your direction of travel. If you’re using an old map and unaware that you are on a relocated section of trail, you may begin wondering if you are still on the right trail. It’s one more reason to do your research before you set off on your hike. 
  9. Be aware of your physical and mental condition.
    If you’re dehydrated, hungry or tired, you’re apt to make poor decisions. Make sure you and your hiking companions are equipped to take on the hike you have planned and assess their condition — and yours — frequently during your time on the trail.

I hope these suggestions contribute to many, many safe miles ahead (and back again).

Looking for more hiking tips?

My 50-page book, A Hike in the Woods: Your comprehensive guide to day hiking gear, clothing, safety, and other essentials, includes the above blog post, plus chapters on first aid, gear, places to hike, and more.

Available on Amazon as an eBook for Kindle reader ($2.99) and as a paperback ($5.29)

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