Not Lost, It’s Being Directionally Challenged

That feeling. Where your brain tells you that something isn’t right. You are not where you think you are. Maybe it’s that panic feeling in your stomach.

The first time I got directionally challenged (and I refuse to call it lost. Lost is when you have no way of figuring where you are.) was in college. A couple of my roommates and I went on a hike on an island near where we lived. We had no maps, no guide-book. Water? Food? HAHAHAHA. Right. Of course not. We were young and pretty dumb. Being 18 to 21 is a special time of life.

The first mistake was starting in the afternoon, when it was warm. Then wallowing in mud puddles and coating arms in it (that one was my idiot roommate, not me).

Then, at an unmarked junction we went downhill, not uphill. Well at first we went uphill. By the time I had that feeling, I had no idea where we were. But in a clearing I looked up and saw the summit we were supposed to on, in the far distance. Well.

But, like clueless morons, we kept walking. AWAY FROM THE SUMMIT! Eventually we were dropped out onto a road. And had no idea where we were. Curly and Moe, I mean my roommates, were covered in dried mud and freezing as the sun was now starting to set. And dying of thirst. But maybe I had a little clarity. I realized that if traffic went by, most of it should be going towards the town, not away. I knew our car was away from town, on this road. So we sat and watched. Finally, I decided to walk the road, and turned left onto it. I guessed correctly and soon we saw the trailhead we had started at.

Apparently this is why cell phones were invented. For idiots like us. I also highly doubt those two ever hiked after that.

But that leads to another example (I have too many of these stories apparently) where I or someone else thought we were somewhere else than where we were. Thankfully we stopped, and dealt with it, before we got horribly lost.

On a trip on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) a friend and I were doing a 3 day, 2 might hike, on the edge of winter. The weather was clear and cold, it never got above freezing that first day. We were in a more remote section of Washington, that sees few hikers, even in summer. Heading Southbound, we left the PCT at a well-marked intersection, and followed 2 trails downhill, going Eastern off the Cascade Crest, to a camp area mentioned in guidebooks. The camp area was good, with water and fires were allowed. In the morning, based on multiple guidebooks (and maps) we followed the trail out of camp, side hilling. The trail was great, though open to dirt bikes. There was a trail junction where we’d turn right and connect shortly to the PCT (according to the maps/books).

Well…maybe not. What we figured out later, much much later, was that trail had existed at some point, but guidebook authors kept claiming it was there. It had been brushed over to keep motorcycles off of the PCT. The trail we were walking on, well, at first it seemed to go the right way. Then it twisted us around and by the time we had that feeling, we had no idea where we were. (See above photo of old cabin built for hunters). Yet, we knew we were on a trail that did see traffic. It was well maintained. But not marked. Eventually it spit us out on a logging road with a turn around, and the trail went a bit further and came up to main logging/forest service road. The road went downhill and uphill.

So. Where were we even? Nervous? Yes. But we studied the peaks and slowly I realized we were WAY far east of the crest. I could see one peak we should have been seeing from a different angle. Hence I knew suddenly where we were. If we went downhill, it’d be a long walk and we’d end up going diagonally, and come out many miles from the PCT – and even further from the crest. Like many, many miles. No one would have any clue we were there. So uphill was picked. At that moment a hunter came along in a large pickup, and with every ounce of energy I flagged him down. Not caring if I looked like an idiot. Mr. Local told every year hikers got lost back there, and he agreed to give us a ride back to the western side of the crest using the roads. Turned out had we walked uphill, we were only a few miles from a pass on the road, where the PCT would have crossed.

I learned a lesson that day on not trusting maps and guidebooks. I spent years on local hiking forums telling others to not believe those maps/books. And that it’s OK to lose your dignity to get out of a mess.


  • If you are hiking in a more remote area, do research online first to see if the map of the area/guidebook is accurate. Is it up to date? Have floods or other issues occurred in recent years or even up to a decade before? An example is a remote section in the North Cascades that was blown out in 2003. 15 years later people assume it had to have been fixed. It wasn’t. And most likely will never be.
  • Tell a responsible person where you went hiking, and stay to that plan! No changing trails because you got an idea on the drive, and you are now 15 drainages over from where you are assumed to be.
  • Don’t panic. Force yourself to sit down and take a break. People get truly lost often due to panic. They keep moving, and end up farther. This is especially bad if you have lost a trail, or were off trail to start with. It’s simple to say it, but the British concept of sitting down and making tea – it really helps. It gives you something to focus on, and slows the brain down.
  • Make a plan. For example, in the case of our PCT trip we should have turned back and gone to the camp, then back up the two well-marked trails to the PCT, even if it meant eating hours and miles of trail. We kept going ahead, when we both knew it wasn’t right. That was on us. I let my mind tell me that we’d find the right way.
  • If that plan is admitting you are truly lost? Stop moving. Nearly every favorable ending in lost people I have read over the years (and there have been many of them in the Pacific Northwest) is the person stopped moving. They found an open area, with water. And stopped. They became easier to find.

Ironically, as I was writing this a copy of Backpacker The Survival Hacker’s Handbook: How to Survive with Just About Anything showed up to review. It was an interesting read, with each chapter covering a case – and what brought on the disaster, as well as methods and tips on avoiding similar situations.