Last June, a Robbinsville grandmother and her 13-year-old granddaughter set out for a morning hike in the Snowbird Mountains of far western North Carolina. They got lost in the rugged terrain: their morning hike ended a day later when they were found by a Graham County search and rescue crew.
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:
Sunday, May 20, 9 a.m. Morrow Mountain State Park. Register here.
Sunday, May 20, 2 p.m. Morrow Mountain State Park. Register here.
Saturday, April 14, 8 a.m. Haw River State Park, Iron Ore Belt Access. Register here.
Thursday, April 19, 5 p.m. Haw River State Park, Iron Ore Belt Access. Register here.
Wednesday, April 11, 5 p.m. Umstead State Park, Raleigh. Register here.
Sunday, April 22, 9 a.m. Umstead State Park, Raleigh. Register here.