Here’s the plain truth. Almost every hike you go on will end up just fine. You may not have perfect weather for the whole thing. You may have minor gear failures that remind you it’s time to replace or upgrade. But in most cases, those aren’t life threatening events.
What IS life threatening is getting lost.
Hardly any of us think we are going to get off trail to the point of not being able to find our way out. And that’s the biggest problem. The more we hike (or spend doing anything in the wilderness) the more it can build a sense of false security. “Getting lost is for those other people. It will never happen to me.”
But it can happen for a host of reasons including:
- Depending solely on technology. GPS is great, when it works. There are several reasons why it might not. These include running out of battery power, nonexistent reception (in valleys or behind mountains) and dropping or losing your phone.
- Not paying attention. Despite our best intentions, there are a number of things that can get us off trail in the first place. In addition to the frequently cited culprits that cause people to become disoriented (exhaustion, hunger, dehydration, hypothermia) there are a few more common reasons such as letting your mind wander. Thinking about work or just about anything that can pull your mind out of the present can get you off course in a real hurry.
Here’s the good news. Although there are a number of ways to get lost, there’s one proven way to get safely back to the trail or out of the woods. It’s using a map, guidebook and compass.
A map and trail description provide a beautiful combination of wide perspective and specific detail. Whether or not you use GPS, a map is still a handy addition because it helps place your location in a wider context. For example, while it’s great to know where you are on the Webster Trail in the White Mountain National Forest, it’s also good to know how far you are from other trails, roads and geological features within the park. Rather than zooming out on a tiny phone screen, it’s handier to pull out a paper map.
I also find guidebook trail descriptions invaluable. A GPS can show you the general rise and fall of the trail, but a written description goes so much further, filling you in on which side trails lead to water sources, how far it is to town on a dirt road you cross, descriptions of side trail hikes that allow you to informatively change your itinerary and many other pieces of information that can add joy and an extra level of safety to your hike.
It’s not just about you
The information you can get from maps and guidebooks isn’t just valuable to you, it can be a godsend if you encounter someone on the trail that needs help. A map and guidebook will help you figure out where and how to get help (or how to best describe how help can get to you). Even if your phone works in the location you are in, a guidebook often lists the phone numbers of first responders, so you can get help faster.
Need another reason to carry a map and guide? In most cases, your purchase helps support the clubs that work so hard to keep our trails maintained and protected. For the Appalachian Trail, that means your purchases support these organizations.
Of course, there are other things that should always be in your pack, including water, food and proper clothing for the conditions. I cover those pieces on my “What to pack for a day hike” video and free Day Hiker’s Checklist.