There is little as scary as realizing you don’t have any idea where you are. I prefer to call it “temporarily misplaced” but in the end….being lost is numbing.It is so easy to make rash decisions and make things so much worse.
I will admit this: I have been “temporarily misplaced” twice over the years while hiking.
The first time wasn’t a huge issue – I was maybe 19 or 20 and lost in a regional trail system on an island with no map. Lesson learned? Don’t hike with idiots who think that it is a great idea to have a mud fight in spring….then get lost as the sun is setting. (All of them were shivering.) I did though have enough sense to stop moving on the trail, stop, think and then go up higher to see what I could notice (on a summit trail). Years later I figured out my mistake while rehiking the area – we had taken a left instead of a right and had gone to a different summit, a lower one. Once high I was able to see where we were and we headed down till we hit a road. Due to being on an island I knew the roads only went 2 directions, so as the sun was going down we found the main road, then walked back to our car.
It wasn’t horrific….but it was scary. I thought at the time I had better skills than I did….my skills were very bad. At the time I had a couple “backcountry” trips under my belt and a misguided view of my skills set. I didn’t hike much after that for a couple years. I learned a scary lesson on not planning well, assuming a local area is idiot proof, going without a map and hiking in an area that had little if any trail junctions signed.
The second time was truly one that clawed at the stomach. A hiking partner and I had left the main trail off the PCT to find water and a protected area to camp in. We took a well marked set of trails down to a camp area. It was late in fall so very icy with snow around us. We had 3 sets of topo maps and two guide books. In the morning we knew we needed to hike up a certain distance farther on this back trail, then there would be two trails to choose from to reconnect to the PCT. Well, we hiked and hiked, finally coming to a pass where there was 3 trails shooting off. None marked that they connected to the PCT. 2 of 3 were signed – and they headed the other way, the 3rd one pointed in the direction we should be going (and it wasn’t signed). We also saw a faint path that was brushed over next to it. Brushed over means the trail is closed and it didn’t look like a trail – more a game trail. So we wondered….do we take this trail, the unmarked one? There didn’t seem to be any other choice besides heading back to camp and climbing back up to the PCT. After All….all the maps and guidebooks showed there WAS a trail back here…right?
And we headed off. It went in the direction we needed at first, reached another pass. Just like described.
Then it went downhill when it shouldn’t. This is when it really started bugging us. Yet you know how it is…we kept going and it kept going downhill. Then it leveled out in a valley and went back uphill. Finally we got spit out in a fresh clear cutting area and on a logging road.
We had no idea where we were. Nothing matched up. There was no trail on any of our maps or books that lined up. Our fears were starting to eat at us. We had hiked 3 miles as well from the last point where we knew we were.
So we stopped. We quit moving before we made it worse. And got out the biggest map, compass and GPS and started charting. Then I stopped and looked across the way – and realized that our view should have been west, but I could see the peaks of eastern over the mt. pass nearby. The peaks are very recognizable there. So I knew if we kept going….we were heading downhill into the heart of Eastern Washington. We need to be going south/west. By looking carefully at the maps we realized that at some point the trails at that first pass had been redone. We could see the creek we crossed down in the valley, we could see the topography where we went. But still…..we needed to get over a ridge to get back on the PCT.
We got very lucky though – we saw a truck coming up this remote logging road and I flagged the guy down – turned out he knew the area well, he was raised in the area. When we asked him he knew exactly where we went wrong. The trails we had hiked down the night before were open to motorcycles….and that pass? Well, that brushed out ‘game path’ had been the one. It was brushed out to keep bikes off of the PCT. The trail we had been on had been rebuilt a couple years before and rerouted due to logging. It was now longer and came out in a different area than noted on maps. He laughed and said he had a couple buddies over the years get lost back there due to the lack of signage/out of date/NEVER updated maps while hunting.
He helped us out and showed us the route – down the logging road and a right onto the main logging road, then uphill not far and you connected to the PCT once again at a crossing of that road on another pass. Yet NONE of this was marked! It was horrible. Later, when we got home I did research online and found a number of people who had gotten lost back there, spending hours and hours looking for the trail that didn’t exist – ending up where we did. But not being lucky enough to run into a hunter who knew the area. All of those people made the decision to turn back and go back, all those miles to where they last been on the PCT. This is what we had been about to do as well. We had figured that the main logging road had to connect – yet those roads didn’t show on most of the maps (and not in the guidebooks).
So the lesson learned? You can get lost even with 3 brands of maps and 2 separate guidebooks if a trail is moved and or closed. Maps can be wrong (oh wow, they can be!). We did the right thing by noticing every junction we encountered (taking photos, compass reading and GPS coordinates). And we stopped walking when it became futile.
The good thing was we had time to get lost and we had people who knew where we were. The scary cases of people getting lost is when no one knows what route a person went on. For example, at that first pass I had cell phone coverage and checked in with Kirk and gave him our coordinates telling him our route for the day. So he knew a general idea of a couple miles where we were.
I think it is often very hard to just say “Stop!” and quit walking. You really have to quit moving and sit down. Force yourself to take a lunch break – the English thing of making tea is a good habit – you force yourself to sit for 15 minutes, allowing the panic to go down. Never, ever have an issue turning around and going back the way you came if it was safe. Better to do an extra 10 miles backtracking than getting further lost!
I can say though now when an obscure trail is part of our plan I Google the heck out of it if it is in active logging areas. And I never trust books/maps to be right.
Still, it wasn’t a bad trip in the end. We had fun, we hiked hard and got temporarily misplaced. To which I will add, the hunter who helped us was an incredibly nice man – many times I see so many nasty comments towards hunters and yet….in the end they are hikers as well. And they have good trucks 😉 As well, I got to see the land from up high (he gave us a lift) and he told me the history of the whole area. As soon as we hit the pass where we should have come out at….I could see exactly where we had left the PCT the night before, across a valley far below us.