On Being Lost in the Backcountry

Where is the last place you'd want to get lost?
Where is the last place you'd want to get lost? Josh Lun
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If you’ve spent much time in the backcountry, you almost assuredly know the feeling (even if admitting it isn’t always easy). That feeling, which can come on slow or come on fast, of realizing: I don’t know where the hell I am.

The mind starts racing in tempo with the heartbeat. The woods start looking bigger, darker, meaner. The desert suddenly seems implacable. The mountains you were happily scampering around in suddenly seem unscalable. In short, the wilderness abruptly jerks the welcome mat off the porch and you can sense the vultures—proverbial or otherwise—starting to circle.

Getting lost in the wilderness is frightening, no question. It’s also just about inevitable every once in awhile.

Why We Get Lost

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Disoriented people are often shocked by how easy it is to literally walk in circles, despite their best efforts to track to a straight line. Robert Moor wrote about the phenomenon in a New Yorker essay (adapted from his highly recommended 2016 book On Trails). He references a 2009 study showing that people walking unfamiliar terrain usually end up looping around on their own backtrails—something most of us have probably experienced at one point or another. The research suggested one rather shocking takeaway, as Moor summarizes: “that, on average, people who are lost, without external navigational cues, will typically not travel farther than a hundred meters from their starting point, regardless of how long they walk.”

A lot of times cross-country hikers get lost through a combination of “small navigational errors that result in drastic diversion,” in Moor’s words. Many of those errors are due to obstacles in our course. Maybe you run into a gnarly thicket, or an impassable blowdown, or a marshy swale. You can very accurately navigate around such roadblocks using a compass, but we don’t always make the effort, banking instead on a roughshod form of dead-reckoning to execute the detour and resume what we think is our original bearing on the other side. Good chance you won’t resume it exactly. Enough of those detours can quickly have you going entirely wayward.

(And, really, the obstacles don’t have to be large or imposing: Slightly angling away from logs or elk crap or spiderwebs, if not accounted for, can add up to the same kind of disorientation.)

And then there’s that tricky issue of what you might call “gut-reckoning”: making navigational judgments based on intuition. Now, intuition has plenty of value. In many cases, it probably reflects some perfectly sturdy instinct. But in the case of wayfinding it’s a risky guide. Unless your navigation-by-feel has been proven over and over, it’s typically a good way to lose your bearings in a hurry.

Just think of the vague and often irrational in-the-moment subconscious decisions you make stumbling around unfamiliar backcountry: trending generally downhill, maybe, or favoring sunlight over shadow, or preferring open woodland to dense timber. Before you know it, you can’t for the life of you recall much about the way you’ve gone, and there’s nary a familiar landmark in sight.

Of course, that’s off-trail business. Surely if you’re hiking on a footpath, you can’t get lost, right? Not necessarily.

Trails can fade to nothingness, either because they’re rarely used or because of an unexpected dumping of snow. You can take the wrong fork, or inadvertently go astray along a game trail (which in many places are more heavily trafficked than the manmade ones).

Also potentially problematic: the understandable human tendency of clinging to a path—even just a semblance of a path—if we’re starting to have nagging doubts about our location. Sometimes the bushwhacker is quicker to pull up the reins, assess his or her orientation, and carefully backtrack if necessary. A trail hiker, buoyed by the confidence of following a pathway, may blunder on well past the point of uncertainty and end up a deeper kind of lost.

(But an analogous risk to the off-trail hiker? Blindly following cairns, blazes, flagging, and other manmade markers. Those can sometimes lead to middle-of-nowhere dead-ends, or through risky topography. More than a few such dangerously aimless breadcrumb trails have been left by lost people before you.)

Easier Said Than Done

Panic, and the rash and desperate decision-making it tends to spur, really is the main danger for a lost person. There’s a good chance you already know that; after all, “Don’t panic” is our habitual admonition to ourselves and to others in SHTF situations. Staying calm, though, when confronted with that wave of I-have-no-clue-where-I-am fear isn’t easy.

It’s like knowing by heart the advice of standing your ground in the face of a grizzly bear’s charge. A simple instruction, easily remembered, but a real feat to pull off when a grizzly bear is actually charging you, and your instinct is telling you that running like hell suddenly seems the much, much wiser course of action. (Hint: It’s not.)

As this National Geographic article delves into, our brains provide us plenty of inherent wayfinding ability, even if we lack the “sixth-sense” of detecting magnetic fields like certain other animals. Our hippocampus helps us link memories to specific landmarks; our entorhinal cortex organizes our mental map. With fully functioning gray matter and moment-by-moment awareness, we’re quite good at keeping track of our location: whether we’re regularly gauging it relative to constant landmarks, dutifully pinpointing ourselves on a map at frequent intervals, keeping close track of the distance we’ve covered along which bearings, or—and this is really the way to go—doing all of the above.

When we’re lost, though, the panic unleashed by surging adrenaline and other fight-or-flight hormones can easily overwhelm those cognitive resources.

In a 2010 Backpacker piece well worth reading, Jim Thornton—who was airdropped into the heart of Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness for insight into lost-person behavior—wrote, “In many ways, it’s this emotional deterioration—as much as being lost itself—that poses a high risk to our survival. Just when we most need to think clearly and act rationally, the psychological fallout of disorientation can steal the very faculties we must depend on.”

Panicky lost people are more likely to do dashing around fruitlessly, exposing themselves to injury, dehydration, and exhaustion while quite possibly getting themselves much farther off-course than they initially were.

There’s good news when it comes to avoiding getting lost in the first place: namely, practice makes perfect. Your most important defense is awareness, and you can hone this navigational skill anytime and anywhere, including walking to the bus stop or biking home from work. Evidence suggests the intensive use of mental maps by London cab drivers makes their hippocampi bigger; no reason why you can’t try to bulk up your own.

If you do get lost—well, you know the drill by now: Don’t panic. Here’s the deal: Unless you were in some almost narcotic wilderness reverie trance-walk for half a day, you probably aren’t far away from a known point of reference. In the past hour, maybe you’ve hiked two, three miles. It’s unlikely you’re dramatically off-course, in other words.

S.T.O.P.

Search-and-rescue professionals promote the acronym S.T.O.P. as a memory aid for the most prudent response to your pickle. “S” for, well, stop: Take the opportunity for a snack break and a breather to steady your nerve. “T” for think: Try to recall landmarks you recently passed, the last time you checked the compass or the sun’s position, etc. “O” for observe: Evaluate your immediate environment to decide whether you’ve got enough daylight to try to backtrack or scout around or whether you should stay put, and assess local landmarks, signs of weather, nearest water sources, and other key details. “P” for plan: Try to retrace your route? Make camp to get a fresh start tomorrow? Climb a nearby height to survey your surroundings and/or check for cell service?

Most of the time, staying put’s the smartest option. Lost hikers who do so are typically found within a day or two. If the weather’s clement, the sun’s high enough, and you feel reasonably confident you can retrace your steps or look for a mapped feature such as a river or peak to reorient yourself, be meticulous about your foray. Treat the site where you became lost as a new reference point. Use your compass and track your distance as you journey out so that you can find your way back to that place if need be.

A lot of advice for hiking your way out of being lost is best left un-followed. For example, you may have heard you can reach civilization if you follow a river or creek downstream. Well, if you’re in a wilderness setting, that may be a prohibitively protracted gamble: A drainage in canyonlands, mountains, or swampy bottomlands may take you on a tortuous course that courts injury or exposure.

The Art of Being Lost

A side benefit of the experience of being lost—one you’re more likely to appreciate in retrospect—is the keener perception of the country around you when your senses are fully engaged by that pit-in-your-stomach feeling of disorientation.

Not least because I’m hopelessly prone to bushwhacking, I’ve been turned around in the woods more than a few times (though, thankfully, never long enough to enter full freakout mode—yet, anyway). The landscapes where that’s happened are logged nice and sharp in my brain.

Right now, for example, I’m recalling a certain modest-sized river swamp in Wisconsin where one New Year’s Day I lost my bearings as a kind of blizzardy graupel started falling. I can see the swamp so clearly: the barren black-ash trunks and scattered dark arborvitae in the growing whiteout, the ice-glazed backwater channels, a spine-shivering heap of coarse hair and hooves that seemed a little too demonic-looking to have actually once been a deer.

Awakening to your immediate surroundings in a way you usually don’t when you’re feeling completely centered and on-the-map: Maybe getting lost every once in awhile isn’t such a bad thing.

Tell Your Story

Have you ever been lost in the backcountry? We’d love to hear your stories. Give us the humiliating tales and the courageous ones, the funny ones and the freaky ones—we want to hear them all!

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