One of the most common things I find along the trail; Lost Hikers!
No one should be heading out into the backcountry without at least the minimal navigational knowledge. Simple things like Google Maps or a hiking app can keep you safe and are very easy to use. Those who plan to venture off a little deeper into the rabbit hole need to learn how to obtain proper topo maps and use a compass to navigate.
With that said, let's dive into the world of Navigation.
You’re miles into the backcountry with only your instincts and your gear to point the way. In the vast wilderness, panic starts to set in. Is it this way? Or is it that way?
Getting lost on the trail is easy to do and a quick transition from a tranquil to terrifying experience, especially for solo hikers looking out at an indiscernible landscape. In this case, however, that anxiety doesn’t last because you’ve brought along the correct gear to combat the fear. Whether it’s mountain biking, trail running, camping, or backcountry skiing, you need to prepare for wild excursions. As always, The Manual has got you covered. Find the right gear here, along with the apps, guidelines, and veteran tips to keep you oriented no matter where your next off grid journey takes you.
Map Out Your Plan
Before you hit the trail running, make sure to plan your steps on a physical map. Some may think print maps are a thing of the past when compared to modern GPS technology, but maps never run out of battery and often present a better view of the landscape. As you plan to head out, it’s important to orient where you’re going and what to expect with a topographical area map.
Learning to read a ‘topo’ will help you not only figure out where to go, but what to expect as far as terrain is concerned. Is the trek steep, relatively flat, or a series of peaks and valleys? Where is the trailhead and how far is it from where you’re going? You can visualize and time these aspects, which also happen to be the next two keys.
Note Landmarks and Significant Locations
As you plan your outdoor adventure, identify distinct landscape spots on the map — river crossings, sharps turns or switchbacks, and/or odd or distinct geographic features. Knowing these will help to tell you where you are when you’re not sure. Having the lay of the land in your head before even lacing up your hiking boots, you’ll be better prepared if something goes wrong.
During your hike, these significant landmarks can help to orient your location. These include prominent peaks, rock formations, rivers, and valleys. Watch also for manmade signs like trailhead indicators, arrows, trail names, and other sources that will help provide you a sense of where you are in an otherwise alien landscape.
Download Integral Apps
Paper maps don’t rely on batteries, and modern topographic maps are made from high quality paper. These need to be your navigational foundation. Mobile apps, however, open up a world of interactivity. With just three apps, you can tackle most any North American trail:
This mainstay of GPS apps is extremely reliable for general overviews of the region you’ll be hiking into and how to get there. Use Google Maps to determine where to drive, places to park, and to gain a general lay of the land where you plan to hike.
Gaia is key to your hiking adventure. Not only can you get access to free, high-quality maps, geotags photos, hike records, an additional $40 annual membership lets you download maps for offline use — essential for being in the wilderness. The fee will also give you access to even more maps.
AllTrails — available for free on iOS and Android — is a monster, offering more than 100,000 trail guides, complete with photos and text descriptions. Looking for a place to hike in your location? Use AllTrails to search around you to see what trails are available. Once you’ve picked a place to go, track your hike, take geotagged photos, and share your progress on social media.
You can even upgrade your adventure with AllTrails Pro, which provides access to offline maps, off-route notifications, and a Lifeline feature for friends and family to track your progress.
Load the Essentials
Every hike is different. There are, however, several things that should always be in your bag, no matter what the situation. First off, a map and compass are critical. If you don’t have one already, Suunto is a great brand for novice and expert hikers alike.
The Suunto A-10 is a solid, affordable, and reliable model that will last a long time in your backpack. The Manual’s list of other backpacking essentials includes things like sufficient water, a first aid kit, and a reliable multi-tool, plus extra food and warm clothing. If you can, keep these in your hiking backpack, ready to go at all times, so you know you’ll never forget anything.
Include Emergency Gear
If you do get lost on the trail, you want to be prepared. If things take a turn for the worse, make sure you’ve packed the proper gear to rely on. Bring along a personal locator beacon or, even better, a two-way satellite communicator, so you can be easily tracked down. For a few hundred dollars, they can provide extra peace of mind in the event that your hike goes very wrong.
Follow the Trail
Finally! You’ve taken all the necessary preparatory steps to get out into the great outdoors. Life is a blast on the open trail, but don’t let elation make you lose focus. It’s important to follow the trail, especially if you’re new to this game. If nature calls or you discover a spur trail worth exploring, pay close attention to exactly where you exit the main trail. Getting “turned around” and suddenly not being able to recognize which way you came from can happen before you know it.
This brings us to a rather obvious yet overlooked key to finding your way in nature: pay attention. A successful hiker being a proficient navigator is paying attention. Indeed, I would estimate that 70% of navigational proficiency comes down to this one simple point. Establishing the habit of keeping track of where you are at all times means regularly correlating what you see on the map with what you see on the ground.
Wear Your Watch
An excellent subhead to paying attention is keeping an eye on the clock while you’re hiking. In spite of ample preparation, in can be surprisingly easy to miss a turn (or two) on the trail. Track your time by estimating time between waypoints. Most hikers cover about two miles in an hour. While this may seem slow, remember you’re not walking down a flat, paved road. Stepping up, over, and between ascending and descending terrain takes much more time. If you find that it’s taking too long to get to a checkpoint, simply stop, take a look around, and consult your map if you can’t confirm your location.
Make sure that you also know when sunset is coming to make sure that you’re not stuck on the trail unexpectedly after dark. You don’t ever want to be stuck wandering through the wilderness with nothing to direct you.
The woods can be scary at night. Even if it is still daylight, anxiety quickly follows feeling lost. Just like any stressful situation, first take a breath to calm yourself. Whether or not you’re truly lost, the worst thing you can do is panic. If you properly planned your hike and have followed your waypoints or landmarks along the way, there’s a good chance you are either still found or are easy steps away from finding your way once again.
The U.S. Forest Service’s STOP acronym is an easy-to-remember method to reorient yourself and get back on track:
S: Stop. Stay calm, and don’t rush off. Flying off in the wrong direction is a great way to get yourself into much more trouble than you’re already in.
T: Think. Retrace your steps. Don’t move on unless you are assured of the direction you need to go. If you’re unsure, stay put until you have a plan.
O: Observe. Pull out your map and compass/GPS to figure out where you are and where you need to go. If you’re prepared, there’s no need to wander aimlessly or go off-trail.
P: Plan. Prepare a plan to get back to where you need to be. If you’re truly lost, or if you’re injured, stay put and send out an emergency signal on your phone.
Tell a Friend
Speaking of staying calm, you don’t ever have to worry about being stranded in the wilderness if you’ve got a backup at home. For any outdoor adventure, solo expeditions in particular, it’s crucial to share your schedule with someone reliable. For big or long trips, you can even share a copy of your trail maps with them and let them know where and how long you plan to hike. Establish a worst-case scenario timeframe to let them know when they should start to take steps to track you down.
Most provincial and national parks will feature a ranger station where you can check into before your hike. This gives you an extra set of people who will know when you’re heading out and when to expect you back.
Hiking is one of the more wonderful, calming activities that you can participate in. Whether it’s alone or with a friend, this physical activity will reconnect you with the natural world in an active way, releasing all sorts of positive hormones. There’s no need, however, to get too excited and put yourself in a hazardous situation. Taking the right precautionary steps will help you to keep yourself centered on the trail and avoid most manners of precarious situations.
Some of you may have already noticed on the Facebook Page, the curse of Walters Falls has been broken! What is the curse of Walters Falls? Well, a small section of the Bruce Trail in Sydenham was chosen for a multi-day hike about 3 years ago. I planned it very carefully, and posted it to the Events Page. On the first attempt, it was cancelled due to the pandemic. On the second attempt, we made it to the first camp, and even though the forecast was clear, a torrential downpour kept us in our tents all night, and forced us to cancel the next morning. On our third attempt, there were 7 of us, and although we made it further this time, again the forecast lied to us. We were drenched and freezing cold. We were forced us to bail out on the second day at the midway point.
So, this past week, I was determined to complete the hike. Along with Marta, (a new hiker that plans to become a skilled backpacker), I set out to complete the section, and did just that! On the drive up, again the rain began, and my heart sunk. However, by the time we reached our parking area, the sun was shining. We hiked 10kms the first day and made it to the Big Head Backcountry Camp site on the Bruce Trail. We quickly set up camp, filtered all the water we needed from a nearby stream, and set up the bug mesh so we would have a place to cook and eat. To our surprise, even though it is bug season, there were no Black Flies, and only a few Mosquitoes which left after only about 30 minutes.
After dinner, we noticed the temperature was dropping quickly. Again my heart jumped into my throat, as the cold temperatures caused us to bail on a previous attempt. We climbed into the tent very early (about 6:30pm), bundled up in our sleeping bags and prepared some extra clothing just in case the temps continued to drop. Although I did need to pull my puffy jacket into the sleeping bag with me, we made it threw the cold night and woke up at 7:00am to mild temperatures.
After making breakfast, cleaning dishes, packing up camp and filtering water for the day, we headed back onto the trail for a very long day. This is the final leg of the trip, and it was to be a challenging 23km day. As a first time backpacker carrying a 60L, 28lbs pack, I have to say Marta did exceptionally well. This is a tough go for even a seasoned backpacker, and she pushed through like any professional would. Along the way, we were met with some challenges, but the amazing scenery and bright sunny weather kept us going until we finally reached the vehicle and headed directly to Champ Burger to refuel with a much deserved meal.
A huge thank you to Marta for joining me on this once cursed adventure and for making the trip a very enjoyable one! And thank you to Mother Nature for the lack of insects and the great weather, allowing me to finally complete what I thought was a lost cause.