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Go Yell It On The Mountain (or How to Avoid Getting Lost)

by Karen Ung
The air was still and the forest was closing in around us. We had long lost the trail, but pressed on in a southeasterly direction, hoping to connect with the trail or access road. Moving forward, step by cautious step, and hollering “Heeeeeey Beeaaarrr!” from time to time, we froze when we heard an answering sound nearby. Was it a moose or a bear warning us to keep our distance? Hard to tell with all the crunching of leaves and twigs underfoot. I unhooked my bear spray, removed the safety, and directed my friend away from the thicket the mystery beast sound had emitted from. Now we headed due south, not where we wanted to be, but where we needed to be at that moment in time. 
While I was annoyed by the whole situation, my friend panicked. After berating me for our predicament, she started yelling, “You need to call someone to RESCUE us! Right now! Call someone so they know where we are!! We need to be rescued!!” After calling my husband to let him know we were bushwhacking on the south side of the mountain and would be late for dinner, I calmed myself knowing we were no more than 1-1.5 kilometres off course, and had about three hours of daylight left. 
After what felt like an eternity, we made it back to the car with scratched legs and bruised egos. Our unintended detour had only cost us an extra hour on the trail, but was a good reminder of the dangers of “dayhike mentality” (term from Rich Johnson’s Guide to Wilderness Survival).

The summit register says “Jesus loves you!” but somehow we still got lost. 

What Went Wrong? 

A number of things went wrong on this moderate scramble:
  1. My friend took off ahead of me down the scree run, west of where we should have made our descent. Not wanting to lose her, I followed her into a snow filled gully.
  2. Our best option would have been to go back above tree line and find another way down, but we were too lazy to regain elevation, and my hiking buddy didn’t have the footwear to go through snow, so we veered southeast through the trees (toward the parking lot) and hoped we would rejoin the trail. 
  3. Since I had done the hike before, I had assumed we wouldn’t get lost and hadn’t taken the precautions I take in unfamiliar territory or longer trips. I had a detailed topographic map, but no compass. Once we were below tree line, it was hard to navigate by sight.
  4. There was cell phone reception, but both of us had low batteries, so we held off on using the phones for navigation (in case we needed to make an emergency phone call). When we finally checked our coordinates, we were on the right track and only 1 km from the car. I will be sure to carry a compass and backup phone charger next time! 


How Can You Avoid Getting Lost (and Yelled At)?

  • Pay attention to landmarks, especially at unmarked junctions, or where the trail is undefined (on slab and scree, above treeline). If you’re on and out and back trail, look back once in a while so you will recognize landmarks on your return. Things look different from a different direction. Also, your compass will  not know there is a turbulent river or cliff between you and your destination, so it is important to be aware of the terrain you are traversing.
    • Good landmarks are geographical features that are unique and easy to recognize like bodies of water, canyons, man made structures (bridges, roads, towns in the distance, etc.), interesting trees.
  • Follow the leader (within reason). If your hiking buddy has done the hike before and you have not, follow her. This does not mean you should be oblivious to your surroundings however. Make mental note of landmarks and question your trip leader if you think you are going the wrong way.
  • Stay on the trail. Sometimes it is hard to know where the “real” trail is when you are on slab or scree (above treeline) or numerous hikers and animals have made multiple trails. Stay on the trail that looks widest and most used. Refer to landmarks, and your map and compass frequently to make sure you’re still headed in the right direction.
  • Carry navigational devices on every hike:
    • A detailed topographic map and compass are the best items to bring as they don’t require batteries. Compass Dude has instructions on how to read a compass.
    • A GPS with extra batteries is helpful, but even fully charged gadgets can malfunction. You should always pack a compass for backup and know how to use it. 
    • Take a compass bearing from the trailhead pointing towards your car, and/or record your starting waypoint on your GPS.
    • Make sure you are comfortable navigating with a compass and/or GPS unit.
  • If you lose the trail, return to the last known point before you go too far in the wrong direction. Stay calm, get your bearings, and try again. Now would be a good time to get out the GPS or compass. If you need to, find an open area or higher ground so you can determine look for landmarks. After bushwhacking for quite a while, we made our way out of the spruce trees to an aspen forest where we could determined we were headed in the right direction, but too far south of the mountain. Worst case scenario, we would have continued south until we hit the highway, then walked to the parking lot, but getting that glimpse through the trees saved us an extra hour of walking. 
Always bring a compass and map! 
I have been temporarily off-course a few times hiking with others, but fortunately never too lost to require rescue or an emergency stay in the mountains. My biggest “getting lost” adventure was descending the east side of Grotto where there is no official trail. It was an epic adventure, but we chose to do it and were prepared. Stay tuned for wilderness survival tips in case you have to camp out! 

Have you ever gotten lost? What happened and how did you make your way back?

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khadija January 2, 2016 - 3:59 PM

Great post. I have actually read a lot of your blog posts in the last hour. I really enjoy what you are doing here. (And as a writer of fantasy novels, I'm enjoying looking at different aspects of that when you go through them in blog post). And truly, I love world-culture building. See more

USNG08 July 28, 2015 - 8:55 PM

Get MGRS / USNG gridded maps. Easy to learn. See: https://medium.com/@USNGFlorida/hikers-know-your-grid-31e02490ef39

Play Outside Gal May 17, 2015 - 5:35 AM

LOL, Mom! : ) I think it's safe to say we both did. Am definitely going to carry a fully charged cell phone from now on and brush up on compass skills. Will probably invest in a GPS unit when we do more remote backpacking again too.

Play Outside Gal May 17, 2015 - 5:33 AM

Linda, yes it is definitely best to be prepared! I learned I should be better prepared even if I've done a particular hike before!

Irene Herrington May 17, 2015 - 5:25 AM

A cautionary tale – I wonder if the hiking buddy learned anything from this experience … Stay safe out there (from real and imagined dangers).

Linda McGurk May 9, 2015 - 1:04 AM

Lots of good advice here, Karen. Now we live in an area where there's very little wilderness and very few reasons to veer off the trail getting lost is not as much of an issue, but it's definitely always good to be prepared. I know I need to do better with that!

Play Outside Gal April 25, 2015 - 2:29 AM

So annoying, but all's well that ends well. : ) Attitude makes such a difference! I think you and I would be the same – not too stressed out because we can find our way – but my hiking buddy freaked out (she's not from Calgary) so it was more stressful than it should have been. LOL.

Tanya Koob April 24, 2015 - 5:16 PM

YEP, follow the person who knows where she's going and never blindly follow the other person who thinks she knows where she's going!! Always a mistake and yes, been there. I was the one who knew the route and should have been leading. 😉
And, so true about sometimes just having to suck up the extra height gain to go back up and get on route again. Should have done that more than once.

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