Backpacking Navigation #1 – Staying Found
Most backpackers plan their trips on well-established trails. Navigating this type of backcountry trip often as straightforward as following one trail to the next. Still, complications can arise even on the simplest backcountry trips, so it always makes sense to be prepared.
Even well traveled trails can sometimes be tricky to follow. They can be eroded away or buried in snow. They can be overgrown or covered by fallen trees. And sometimes trail junctions can be unmarked or signs could be tough to understand.
Learning to make smart decisions and keep from getting lost is just about the most important skill any backpacker can master.
Know Your Limits
First and foremost, always know your limits. Don’t plan a trip involving difficult navigation without the proper skills and experience. Knowing how to read a topographical map and use compass is very important. If you don’t know how to use them, you really shouldn’t be on the trail.
If you’re unsure about your abilities, take a practice trip before you head out or take a navigation course to brush up on your skills. Never put yourself in a bad situation by being unprepared.
Always inform someone of your trip plans before you leave home. Give a friend a detailed itinerary and let them know when to contact authorities if they don’t hear from you.
The number one rule for on-trail navigation is to pay attention. If you want to stay found, you need to know where you are and where you should be. It’s very easy to get distracted and make simple mistakes that will put you off track.
Pay attention to your map and track your location as you hike. Use main landmarks to verify your location and to ensure that you’re heading in the right direction. Pay close attention to all trail junctions. Don’t assume you know the correct way to go. Read all trail junction signs thoroughly and consult your map to make sure you’re taking the correct route.
If you’re hiking behind other members in your group, don’t assume that they are making the right decisions. Be careful not to get lost in conversations and always stop the moment you feel something might be wrong.
Pay attention to time. Wear a watch and calculate when you should be hitting your next landmark. The average hiker covers 2-3 miles per hour and you’ll quickly learn your average pace by using your watch. You should always have an idea of how far away your next landmark is and when you’ll be encountering it.
Pay attention to your elevation. You’ll quickly learn if you’re going in the wrong direction if you’re hiking down in elevation, when you should be going up.
Pay attention to the trail. Are you still on a well-traveled trail or is it getting thinner and more overgrown? Always stop the as soon as the marks along the trail look incorrect. Blazes on trees will help to signify your trail and rock cairn piles will help you find your way when the trail is tough to follow.
You can also look for trekking pole marks on the side of the trail or your other hikers footprints. All of these are good clues about the trail you’re on so trust your instincts.
Pay attention to the sun and shadows. You’ll quickly feel it when the trail makes a significant change and you can easily know if you’re headed in the right direction.
Know When To Stop
The moment you feel confused or unsure about your location, stop immediately. If you catch a navigation mistakes early, it’s generally very easy to fix. Take a few minutes to look around and see if you can find the right way. The correct trail might just be a few feet ahead or behind you.
Sometimes you’ll have to backtrack a little bit to verify your path, but turning around can be a tough decision to make. Don’t be stubborn about walking backwards on the trail. It might be the quickest way to getting back on track.
If you do start to feel lost, stop, stay calm, and try to find your position on the map. More often that not, you’re just confused and you’ll be able to find your location with a little rational detective work.
Be real with yourself when you start to feel lost. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’re on the right track and press on, even though deep down you know better. You might force a landscape feature to fit your map or make irrational justifications about hiking times. So trust your gut and don’t make matters worse.
Ask yourself when was the last point that you knew you were on the right track. Can you retrace your movements back to that spot? That’s generally the best way to find your correct location again.
Choosing to bushwhack a new trail rather than hiking back to familiar trail is a common mistake made by lost hikers. If you don’t know the terrain, bushwhacking can get you into much more trouble when you’re lost. You might hit an impassable river, a steep cliff, or dense forest that you can’t safely pass through.
If you do realize that you are lost, it’s important to stay calm. Rational decision-making and smart choices are the keys to staying safe and getting found again.
When you feel lost, your adrenaline will spike. This can cause hikers to move quickly and franticly, often in the wrong direction. Avoid the impulse to run. This will waste your energy and can often make matters worse, like if you twist your ankle. Instead, sit down, take a deep breath, and try to rationally analyze your situation.
Have a drink of water and eat some food. Take note of how much daylight is left and what the weather conditions are. If the weather is getting bad or daylight is fading, it probably makes sense to setup your shelter, rather than wondering around and getting more lost in the dark.
When You're Totally Lost
If you find yourself in a situation where you’re completely lost, you really only have two options. Either stay put, or try to walk out.
Staying put is generally the best way to stay safe and get found quickly, but only when you know that someone will be looking for you. Most lost backpackers are found within a matter of hours so reducing exposure should be your main goal. Keep yourself hydrated, dry, and warm while you wait.
Find an open space and make your presence well known. Wear bright clothing and lay bright objects out in patterns to be seen. Use a whistle to blow three short blasts at a time, which is a signal for distress. Build smoky signal fires during the day and bright fires at night. You can also use a signal mirror to try to attract help.
If You Must, Walk Out
If you’re in a situation where you’re unsafe or you know that no one will be looking for you for a number of days, walking out might be your only option.
If you do have to walk out, try to head for a road. Roads lead to people and will increase your chances of finding a car, or a house, or a town.
Use your map and compass if you can to give yourself the best chance to find civilization. In general, heading away from mountains and following large rivers downstream will give you the best chance to hit roads and find civilization.
Leave signs or notes in highly visible places while you travel. If you don’t have pen and paper, be creative and use other items from your pack or from nature. That will let searchers know of your intentions.
You Got This
Remember, if you follow simple navigation rules and pay attention to your location, its doubtful that you’ll ever get seriously lost on the trail.
If you do get lost, stay calm, make smart decisions, and it’s likely that you’ll be found again very soon.