Getting lost on the trail is one of the biggest reasons why some people never get started hiking. The fear of losing track of the path, getting lost, and wandering aimlessly in a foreign landscape is enough to deter someone from strapping on boots and hitting the trails. If this is you, you’ve come to the right place because I’m here to help you with that!
Whether you are hiking marked, popular frontcountry trails or wandering unmarked, remote backcountry paths, trail navigation skills are a beneficial tool to keep tucked in your arsenal. In this blog post, I am going to share five helpful navigation tips to help you avoid getting lost on hiking trails.
Why Are Trail Navigation Skills Useful?
Being able to identify the ways that trails are marked – or to look out for distinguishable landmarks, if unmarked – is a skill that may not seem necessary, but it could be the difference between getting lost and staying on track.
If you’re on a wildly trafficked trail in the middle of a crowded state park, it could be considered overkill to carry multiple forms of navigational tools or to familiarize yourself with the route beforehand, but getting lost can happen to anyone, on any trail, at any time.
Though it may be less dire or life-threatening to become lost or disoriented in a populated state park as opposed to a remote mountain range in the middle of an underpopulated forest, possessing the skills and the knowledge to properly navigate a hiking trail can be the difference between spending the night unprepared on a trail or having a rewarding, safe hike.
How to Avoid Getting Lost on Hiking Trails
Trail Navigation Tip #1: Know Your Route
Before you set foot on the path, familiarize yourself with the trail.
Download a digital map and study a paper topographic trail map of the park, forest, or area that you’ll be hiking. Mark your route, circle campsite spots (if backpacking), and highlight landmarks to look out for.
Topographic maps not only show you how to get from point A to point B but allow you to materialize a mental video in your head of how your hike will look. From terrain type to river crossings and waterfalls, you’ll gain a better understanding of what exactly your hike will entail and how you’ll need to best prepare for it.
What Questions Trail Maps Will Answer
- Will I be crossing any rivers?
- How many feet will I be ascending or descending?
- Are there any water sources at the trailhead or on the trail?
- Is my hike going to be a loop or an out & back?
- How long is the trail?
- What type of terrain will I be hiking in?
- Where are the designated campsites located, if any?
Trail Navigation Tip #2: Carry Multiple Forms of Navigational Tools
Carry multiple forms of navigational tools in your backpack.
Having multiple forms of navigational tools (paper map, compass, and digital map) will ensure that if your paper map gets destroyed, your compass falls off a cliff, or the phone containing your digital map runs out of battery, you will have at least one extra method of finding your route.
Benefits of Each Navigational Tool
Paper maps aren’t susceptible to battery drain, electronic glitches, or technological failure, making them a reliable backup to electronic devices.
Paper maps give the hiker a more integrated experience with nature as opposed to electronic devices, which warrant a hiker to constantly stare at a screen as they follow the trail.
Marking up a physical map, such as highlighting desired routes and circling potential campsite spots, is easier (and more satisfying, to me) than doing the same task on an electronic device.
Also, if you have a waterproof map or laminated map, it can’t get wet, so even if you’re caught in a rainstorm, the map will stay dry, and the ink won’t bleed!
Overall, paper maps and compasses are a reliable duo to orientate you on the trail.
Compasses, when used properly and in conjunction with a paper map, are a proven, accurate method of mapping and tracking a hike.
Quite reliably, these portable, palm-sized devices use Earth’s magnetic field to determine geographical position. (Just make sure to adjust your compass based on the declination, the difference in degrees between true north and magnetic north, before setting out on the trail).
If you don’t understand how to use a compass or read a paper map, this method could be dangerous to your safety. Taking the time to practice and learn how to use these two devices together could be great to have in your hiking arsenal.
Digital maps are usually more up-to-date with current conditions, closures, etc. than paper maps. You can utilize numerous apps and download offline maps for just about any area you can think of, with utmost accuracy.
Not only can these digital maps guide you through the trail, but they can take you to exact coordinates, such as a trailhead, piece of BLM land, campsite, or forest road.
Digital maps have the highest chance of saving you in an emergency but shouldn’t be relied on as a lone navigational tool.
Trail Navigation Tip #3: Follow Marked Signs
If you’re hiking on a marked trail, there are many different methods that rangers use to indicate the correct path.
Since every trail is unique, there isn’t a universal method or technique for how to mark a trail, and how often to mark a trail, so watch out for various signage and markings.
Though there are exceptions, typically the more popular, trafficked, and funded a park or trail system is, the better marked it will be. The further you go into the backcountry, away from civilization and into the remote wilderness, the less likely it will be clearly and properly marked.
Most Popular Ways that Trails Are Marked
Paint on trees, or colorful blazes, are often used to indicate what trail you’re currently on in a multi-trail park, forest, or area-wide system.
Each trail or trail type, typically visualized on a map, might have a different color.
The blazes could indicate what trail you’re on or what type of trail you’re on: horseback, foot traffic, mountain bike, or shared use.
Blazes signal the beginning or the end of a trail, a change of direction, which way to go at an intersection, or simply tell you you’re on the right path.
Affixed Tree Markers
Affixed tree markers, such as plastic, metal, or wood attached by nails, are popular on forest trails with a plethora of trees.
These markers require more labor and skill than paint, but they are longer lasting.
These affixed markers might be in different patterns and formations (sometimes the paint uses this identical method, as well). The below graph is what the affixed markers indicate.
Wooden posts are probably the easiest markers to see. These posts are often used in funded county, state, or national parks, and other populated recreation areas, but they can be seen anywhere.
Four-sided posts embedded in the ground can show a hiker which trail they’re on and indicate on all four sides which trails are around them.
Post signs can display anything from arrows, numbers, or letters to colors, symbols, or trail names.
Larger post signs are typically used at trailheads or junctions when trails are beginning or splitting so that hikers can clearly see which trail goes in which direction.
Cairns are often used in areas where trees are sparse, such as the desert, high-elevation alpine areas, sandstone, slopes, or flat, barren fields.
Rangers assemble cairns by carefully stacking rocks from biggest on the bottom to smallest on the top. Parallel lines of rocks are also sometimes used to mark a trail on sandstone or flat, rocky terrain.
Contrary to popular belief, hikers (or any other visitors) are not permitted to assemble or disassemble cairns, or kick rock lines. This recklessness could result in a fellow hiker veering off-trail, becoming confused, or getting lost.
Carvings are engravings on tree trunks.
Since these markings cause permanent damage to the trees and aren’t very easy to see, they are less commonly used.
Flags or Ribbons
In this tree trail marking, flagging tape or ribbons are tied around tree trunks or limbs.
These don’t cause any damage to the tree but are more likely to fall or break off in severe weather.
Trail Navigation Tip #4: Look Out For Distinguishable Landmarks
On backcountry trails or other trails that aren’t well marked, watch out for distinguishable landmarks to visually map your path.
Make a mental note of a giant rock, an oddly-shaped tree or stump, or a river crossing so that if you are on an unmarked trail, or at a junction, you will be able to find your route.
Maps are certainly helpful when it comes to finding your route, but I find that visualizing mental images of distinguishable landmarks helps me navigate tremendously. Even on trails that are well-marked, this tactic keeps you focused and aware of your surroundings.
Trail Navigation Tip #5: Pay Attention to Your Surroundings
Paying attention to your surroundings is extremely helpful when trying to navigate yourself through a trail.
Don’t keep your eyes glued to your electronic device, and don’t get too lost in conversation with your partner or group because you may miss a turn or lose track of your whereabouts.
Though it may be tempting to slide your AirPods in your ears and lose yourself in music or a podcast or chat with your friends about their favorite places to eat, not paying attention to the trail could disorient you when you try to redirect your focus back to your hike.
If you pay attention to your surroundings, keep your eyes peeled for trail markers and distinct landmarks, and occasionally refer to your map, you are less likely to become lost.
What To Do If You Get Lost on a Trail
Getting lost is part of the hiker experience. Encompassed with the blisters, the breathtaking views, the wildlife encounters, the sprained ankles, and the deep connection with nature is the certainty that you will get lost at some point.
If you haven’t gotten lost, don’t worry: your time is coming. That’s not meant to be scary or threatening; it’s reality.
Getting lost is a spectrum. You could be stranded on a remote Pacific island or at the top of a mountain in the Alaskan wilderness. Or you could be spending an unplanned night in a forest or wandering just off the path on a crowded state park trail.
Whether you’re lost for two minutes or two days, I am going to share with you the steps that you should follow should you become lost.
Step #1: Don’t Panic
Remaining calm and clear-headed is the first step and often the hardest to do.
The simplest task on this list of things to do should you get lost is to stay calm, yet it’s the one that “first-time-getting-lost” hikers can’t seem to do. It’s perfectly understandable! But staying calm and avoiding panic will keep your mind clear, focused, and sharp. After all, you need your mind free of fog if you’re going to get back on track!
Step #2: Stop Moving
If you think you made a wrong turn, your first instinct might be to turn around and try to find the correct path. But after the first realization that you haven’t seen a trail marker in a while or at the first indication that you might be lost, stop moving.
You are welcome to make a complete, 360 turn to evaluate your surroundings, but moving from your current spot without any thought put into it could put you in an even stickier situation.
Look at your map, study your surroundings, figure out where you might have veered off the path, and formulate a plan before you move.
Step #3: Come Up With a Plan
As foreshadowed in the last step, coming up with a plan is the next step.
If you have a map, ascertain your current location. Digital maps will give you a clearer coordinate whereas a paper map might take you longer to determine your position, especially if you’re already disoriented.
Then, think about the last place you were where you were one-hundred percent certain that you were on the correct path. This could be a trail marker or other distinguishable landmark. Attempt to locate that spot on the map and retrace your steps.
If you don’t have a map, make an educated guess about your last-known location and retrace your steps until you spot a trail marker or another indication that you’re on the right path again.
If you are unable to remember the last place you were at when you were certain that you were on the correct path, get to high ground. If you’re buried in a tree-studded forest, your view of the land is skewed, your vision resembling eyes through a pinhole binocular lens.
Get to a point where you can view the landscape through a wider lens and maybe you’ll be able to spot the trail or spark a remembrance of a particular landmark.
Step #4: Use the Sun or Wind to Determine Your Direction
If you know which direction you should be heading, and you don’t have a compass or digital map (or they got lost or damaged), the easiest indicator of your direction is nature!
The sun is the best indication; it rises in the east and sets in the west, regardless of where you are on the entire planet.
Wind is the next best option. If you know the wind direction, which would be something you would research ahead of your trip, you could determine your direction based on the way the trees, grass, or plants are bending.
Navigational skills are crucial for not only survival but simply for having a successful hike.
On the extreme end, getting lost could result in a life-threatening situation, but even on the mild end, it could cause stress, unhappiness, unwelcome irritation, and misdirected resentment toward nature.
With a few navigational tools and skills in your arsenal, like the ones I listed above, you could prevent a stressful, possibly deadly hike and ensure you have the absolute best experience in the mountains, the forest, the desert, or wherever you’re wandering!