Getting lost in the woods

No matter how much I hate to admit, I have found myself at times lost in the woods. Not just disoriented, but completely turned around. One such trip was on a property adjoining the Birkhead Wilderness Area, 6000 acres of open forest, and it was on my birthday. I’m not sure how we got lost exactly, but fortunately I had enough sense to follow a stream consistently south which lead to a path and to the road I had parked on, although my friend and I disagreed on which direction from there the car was actually located. A friendly cyclist happened to ride by and confirmed my suspicions that the car was up the road.

At the annual Uwharrie Trail Thru Hike organized by Three Rivers Land Trust and the Uwharrie Trailblazers I got two calls from the same hiker who was unsure where he was in the woods. The cardinal rule of getting lost outdoors is to not panic. Both times this guy called me he was actually on the white-blazed trail, and I’m sure if he had taken a few minutes to think about it he would have figured it out on his own. The first time he called he had wandered off trail and found his way back to the trail but was unsure which direction to go. By the second time he called, he had pulled out his compass and asked me if he should just head north on the white-blazed trail, and in a short time he caught up to some other hikers and was fine.

While I was helping facilitate the backpacking trip, a buddy of mine was grouse hunting up in some high elevation public land in Haywood County. He stumbled upon a bear hunter who was also lost in the woods. My friend asked him where he was parked, and told him to follow a nearby stream downhill back to his car, which was about 4 miles away. The guy had no idea he had traveled that far. Gauging your distance is another important tactic to observe in the woods. I typically hike a little faster than 2 miles an hour, so I can usually tell how far I have come, though that may vary based on terrain of course. This hunter must have made it out okay, because his car was gone when my friend drove back by that parking area.

Besides not panicking, the second best advice I have found when it comes to not getting lost in the woods is to pay attention to your surroundings. Don’t hike with your head down looking only at your feet and a few feet of trail ahead. If you’re hiking a blazed trail, keep a watch out for the next blaze, every 50 to 100 feet or so, or every minute or two. With the recent hurricanes bringing streams up to high levels, many of the trails had washouts, which can easily look like a path if you’re not paying attention. Try to remember landmarks, such as a downed tree or a rock outcrop. Every so often look back and observe the surroundings in case you end up needing to backtrack.

I’ve heard the quote “hike your own hike” which has some truth to it. Every one doesn’t hike at the same pace and it can be frustrating to try to stay close to someone who is much faster or much slower than you. But it is always good advice to hike with a buddy or even a group when you can. Two heads are better than one and you can help each other navigate, and keep each other calm if there is an emergency. It’s always good advice also to stick to a designated trail if possible. Although taking a short cut may be a quicker route to the next stopping point, they aren’t always the best path, and could take you through some difficult conditions, such as briers or thickets, which are easy places to get turned around.

As far as helping with direction, particularly if you are going off trail, it is always good advice to bring along a map and a compass. Try to bring a waterproof map if possible since you never know when a forecast might change. And if it doesn’t have a north arrow and a scale bar, it’s not a map; it’s just a pretty picture. If nothing else, following a single direction on a compass will keep you from going in circles at least. And be prepared for dark – bring a headlamp and a backup flashlight. Trails become considerably harder to follow once the sun goes down, so you may want to think about stopping altogether and preparing shelter and a fire.

With advances in technology, I now rarely go out in the woods without a georeferenced aerial map of the property I’m visiting stored in Avenza maps on my phone. This app shows you as a blue dot walking around on the map of the property so it is much easier to know where you are at any given time. It’s still good to pay attention to your surroundings though, and carry a physical map and compass as well, since you never know when your phone battery might give out. I’m sure I have more lessons to learn about spending time in the woods, but hopefully I’ll be able to avoid learning at least a few of them the hard way.