Even if you’re a dedicated couch surfer, that springlike weather we had last week, when the temperature reached 80 in some spots, got you thinking, didn’t it? Maybe the outdoors isn’t such a bad place. Maybe I should plan to spend more time outside.
It was back in the 1990s, I’d been backpacking with friends for about 5 years, and convinced myself I should take a solo backpack trip. I felt good about my basic backpacking skills, I loved hiking alone … still, there was this worrisome doubt.
I’d selected a spot for that first trip that I was only vaguely familiar with at the time, Panthertown Valley. I’d hiked there, but never done an overnight. It was also a long drive: even ducking out of work early around 2, I still wouldn’t arrive until 7:30, leaving precious little daylight to hike in (on a trail I didn’t know), find a spot (assuming there was one) and set up camp. It was a plan that left no room for the unexpected. Like a visit from a wayward turkey.
Heading into Asheville on I-40 in late afternoon, my road reverie was broken by something dark rising from off the shoulder. Suddenly, the head of a turkey appeared out the front windshield, its vacant look suggesting that it, too, was lost in some far-off world. Just as suddenly, the rear back window exploded, the Trooper bucked, and in the rear-view mirror I could see the lifeless bird butter-balling down the shoulder. When I pulled into an auto glass repair shop 20 minutes later and presented my dilemma to the five workers waiting for the 5 o’clock whistle, no one said a word. Rather, they walked single file out to the car, where one of them plucked a feather from the backseat and declared, “He’s right.”
I wound up getting to the trailhead in the dark. I could see the trailhead kiosk, and I could see a yellow sign just beyond that proclaimed, “Bear Sanctuary.” What exactly does that mean? Long story short, I checked into a motel. It would be another couple of years before I took my first solo backpack trip.
Good thing, too, because as I later discovered, I was woefully unprepared for my first solo venture. Among my mistakes:
There’s was one of the happy — if scary — endings. Too often lost hiker stories wind up like the case of the 66-year-old AT hiker who wandered off the trail to take a bathroom break and was never seen alive again. As friends and family of the hiker said later, she was an avid hiker with a poor sense of direction.
Not everyone is born with a well-honed internal compass. You don’t need to be, if you follow a few simple rules.
- Always take a map. Even the simplest handout map at the trailhead will give you a general sense of where the trail goes. (And if there isn’t a handout map, but there is map posted, take a picture with your smart phone.) Even better is a typo map, which gives you a sense of the terrain you’ll be covering. Even on a hike you’ve done a hundred times, take a map: you never know when you may need to abandon the trail — landslide, blowdown, bear with arms akimbo who refuses to move — and you need to take an alternate course.
- Always take a compass. If you’re on an open peak in the West on a sunny day, you can likely figure out north, south, east and west. Not so much the case in the heavily forested Southeast. If you get lost, a map is key to helping you get righted.
- Know your blazes. Likely, you’ll start out on an established trail. Familiarize yourself with the blaze for your trail and for adjoining trails. If you know you take the blue-blazed trail the whole way, and the trail is well blazed, you shouldn’t get distracted.
- Feel the trail. You’re hiking along and suddenly realize you don’t see any blazes. One of your first clues that you’ve lost the trail should come from your feet: is the ground not as compacted as it was? Are you sinking into the leaf litter? Retrace your steps until you feel firm ground, or see leafs that appear a bit more trampled.
- No blazes? Blaze frequency can vary from land agency to land agency. State parks, for the most part, spare no paint. National Forests, on the other hand, aren’t as generous. If you don’t see a blaze, stop and take a close look ahead. No blazes? Turn and take a careful look back at the direction you came from. If it feels like you may be off trail, retrace your steps until you spot a blaze.
- Avoid wandering off trail. If you aren’t equipped with a map and compass and the knowledge of how to use them (more about that below), resist the urge to chase after shiny things in the woods. (Squirrel!) The AT hiker mentioned above may have gotten lost in the tangled Maine woods, but it is so easy to wander just a few yards off some trails and have no clue how to regain it. Many trails have an indistinct profile when viewed from the side, blazes aren’t always readily visible, and it’s easy to miss the two-foot-wide hardtrack of a trail while crossing it.
- Take note of key landmarks. Take note of key landmarks as you hike: an unusual tree, a creek, a rock outcrop, whatever. This can be especially helpful if you lose the trail and are wandering around trying to find it: you may not immediately spot the trail itself, but you might a tree straight out of Halloween central casting.
Need more direction?
GetOriented! Finding Your Way in the Woods
Three years ago, we started our GetOriented! Finding Your Way in the Woods class. We spend about 30 minutes going over map and compass basics — nothing technical, just the essence of how a compass works, how a topographic map works, and how the two work together. Then we venture down the trail — and off trail — to put those skills to the test and learn more about reading the terrain and finding your way in the woods.
Here are our classes scheduled through May:
It was cold and dark, and we were occasionally plunked with raindrops. But not a one of us moved from our spot by the fire.
“What is it about a campfire?” someone asks.
We’re drawn to fire for its light and heat, of course. But for us, on a three-day backpack trip on the Neusiok Trail in the Croatan National Forest, it was less about survival and more about pondering, as Guy Noir might say, life’s persistent questions. Like whether one would survive a freeze-dried meal with an expiration date of 1997. (Answer: yes, surprisingly.)
“That’s the thing about backpacking,” I said. “Every trip, you learn new things.”
And that’s one of the things about backpacking that I love: It’s one of the least static activities you can do. You’re constantly evolving.
On this trip this past weekend, education was the overt goal: specifically, learning how to backpack solo. There was a classroom session where we went over everything from redundancy to the fact a raccoon outside your tent can sound bigger than Sasquatch, there were handouts. Then, this past weekend we spread the hikers out over a 1.5-mile stretch of trail and let them fend, for the night, on their own. Some of the lessons learned from that exercise.