Getting lost is no fun. It can make you retrace miles, miss a campsite, and keep you out past dark. At worst, it can lead you into dangerous exposure. The best way to avoid these problems is to stay on track at all times. As every hiker or climber knows, this can be hard, especially when you’re in deep woods or on a river where one bend can look much like the next. Here are some ways to avoid getting lost.
Look at the Map
This may sound obvious, but most of us don’t break out the topo map until we realize we’re lost. Now you have the hard work of finding your starting place and figuring out where you lost the route and how to get back. Start your trips by looking at the map. Or on the sea, a chart. And don’t just look at a map for trail information. Learn how to read a topographic map to spot cliffs, ravines, and other landforms. This will help you know how the landscape depicted on the map will look in reality.
Use landmarks to know where you are. Prominent peaks, rock formations, rivers, and valleys can give you a sense of your location in the landscape. When the angle seems off, you’re probably not where you should be.
Deep in the forest, you may not have obvious landmarks. Look for spots where you can know precisely where you are at a given moment: where a trail crosses a river, distinctive turns or switchbacks, a giant rock. This will tell you where you are when there’s not much else to go from.
Watch the Clock
Pay attention to how long you’ve been hiking (or paddling, skiing, etc.). If you know something should be two miles away, you’ll know the average hiker will bump into it in about an hour—if you don’t, it’s time to stop and assess where you actually are.
Get A Fix
When you’re confused about where you are, get a fix. This establishes your position—a necessary step before you can decide which way to go. Learn how to take a bearing off a definite object (i.e. a peak) with a compass. Bearings from three points will pinpoint your location. Then, it’s simpler to get yourself where you want to go.
Know Your Direction
Once you’ve gotten your fix, you can find the rough direction you need to go to reach your destination. It may not be the most direct line since we’re in mountainous landscapes, but now you can follow a bearing to your next spot.
Don’t Rely on Gadgets
Go old school. Instead of staring at the screen of your GPS, learn how to read a map and use a compass. They won’t run out of batteries or lose a signal. A GPS is certainly useful in featureless landscapes, but it has you staring at a screen instead of the mountains you came to see.