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How to Prevent Getting Lost While Hiking

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7 Tips to Avoid Getting Lost When You’re Hiking

If you’ve ever found yourself wandering down a path, only to realize that you’ve taken a detour into the wilderness of confusion, you’re not alone. Getting lost on a hike can be both unnerving and frustrating, but fear not! There are steps you can take to ensure you prevent getting lost while hiking.

In this post, we’re going to chat about some practical tips and tricks that have saved my sense of direction more times than I can count. So, whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a trail rookie, stick around as we dive into the art of staying found in the great outdoors.

Let’s lace up those boots and keep the adventure where it belongs — on the trail, not in the confusion of the unknown.

1. Research Your Trail

Young couple looking at map while hiking on the mountain

Before you embark on that next epic hike, let’s talk about the essential first step — doing your homework on the trail. I get it, the thrill of the unknown is part of what makes hiking so darn exciting. But trust me, a little research can be the difference between a smooth journey and an unplanned camping trip in the middle of nowhere.

First things first, hit the internet. Search for trail maps, reviews, and any nuggets of wisdom from fellow hikers who’ve ventured before you. Online forums are full of golden advice and tales of triumph (or caution).

Check out the elevation gain, terrain, and difficulty level. You don’t want to find yourself halfway up a mountain, realizing your leisurely stroll has morphed into a vertical ascent worthy of a mountain goat.

And don’t be shy about consulting weather forecasts. Sure, it might sound mundane, but knowing if a thunderstorm is headed your way can be a game-changer. No one wants to play hide-and-seek with a lightning bolt.

Look for landmarks and notable features along the trail. It’s like creating your own mental map before you even lace up those boots. Trust me, the rock shaped like a grizzly bear might just be your saving grace when you’re questioning if you took a wrong turn at that last fork in the trail.

2. Bring a GPS

A handheld GPS device can be your trail guardian angel, especially in areas where the trail markers play hide and seek or when you find yourself in a vast sea of trees that all look the same. It’s like having a digital breadcrumb trail, guiding you through the wild with the precision of a laser-guided missile.

These devices add an extra layer of confidence to your hike. Most modern GPS gadgets not only pinpoint your location but also track your route. So, if you do take an unexpected detour (hey, it happens to the best of us), you can backtrack without breaking a sweat.

The best part? Some GPS devices also double as a satellite communicator. If you do happen to become lost, you can use the device to share your location with loved ones back home or contact emergency responders.

3. Pack a Map and Compass

Hiker holding compass in the wilderness

While a phone and GPS are great to have to prevent getting lost, nothing beats a good old-fashioned topographic map and compass.

Batteries can die, signals aren’t always reliable in the wilderness, and technology can fail. However, a paper map and a trusty compass are reliable backup tools that can help you get back on the trail and avoid becoming lost.

That’s why these two items are not only part of the 10 essentials you should bring on every hike, but they’re also considered must-have pieces of survival gear every hiker should carry.

Of course, a map and compass are only good if you actually know how to use them. There’s no shame in practicing in your backyard. It’s better than realizing you’re lost and suddenly deciding to become a compass expert.

Now, I get it, these gadgets might seem a bit antiquated, but let me tell you, they’ve been the hero of many a hiker’s tale. When the trail gets twisty, and the trees start playing tricks on your sense of direction, that map and compass combo will be your ticket to the trailhead.

4. Stay on the Trail

Hiking trail signs in the mountains

One of the easiest ways you can prevent getting lost on a hike is to keep your adventure where it belongs — on the designated trail.

First off, keep your eyes peeled for trail markers. They’re like little breadcrumbs, guiding you through the wilderness. Whether it’s colorful blazes on trees, cairns stacked like nature’s LEGO, or trail signs that practically scream, “This way, adventurer!” — don’t overlook these subtle (or not-so-subtle) hints.

Related: The 7 Important Principles of Leave No Trace You Should Always Follow

Now, I get it — sometimes, trails can be as clear as mud. When in doubt, stick to the most well-trodden path. If it looks like everyone and their grandma took this route, chances are, it’s the right one.

Keep a keen eye on the trail map you snagged before starting your journey. Knowing where you are on the map can save you from a detour disaster.

If you do have to step off the trail — say to use the bathroom — make sure you pay special attention to where you’re going so you can make it back to the trail when you’re done.

5. Pay Attention to Your Surroundings

If there’s one skill every hiker should master to prevent getting lost, it’s the art of paying attention to your surroundings. I get it; the scenery is mesmerizing, the birds are singing, and there’s a chipmunk doing acrobatics in a nearby tree.

But amidst all this natural spectacle, keeping your wits about you can be the difference between a chill hike and an unintended camping trip.

Scan the terrain as you go. Notice distinctive features like that boulder that looks like it’s doing yoga or the tree with the quirky knot. These Mother Nature landmarks aren’t just for Instagram — they’re your breadcrumbs back to sanity if you take an unintentional detour.

Also, don’t forget to glance backward every now and then. Trails can look different on the return trip.

If you’ll be doing an out-and-back trail instead of a loop trail, you’ll want the journey back to be as familiar as the first go-around. It’s like mentally dropping a trail of breadcrumbs, but without attracting a hungry horde of forest creatures.

6. Look for the Sun

If you get turned around on the trail, Mother Nature can provide help to get you going in the right direction again. For example, you probably remember hearing that moss grows on the north side of trees in the northern hemisphere and the south side of trees in the southern hemisphere.

While this is generally true, be aware it isn’t always the case. Moss loves to grow on darker, more humid environments, so it will grow anywhere it can find these conditions.

Another thing to consider is that trees often grow their branches in the direction that receives the most sun. Since the south-facing side is exposed to the most sunlight throughout the day, this is typically the side that will have more branches.

Again, keep in mind that this isn’t a hard and fast rule. After all, it is Mother Nature we’re talking about. There are almost always exceptions!

However, there is one thing that’s always true no matter what: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. If you know what time it is, you can get a pretty good idea of which way is east and which way is west based on where the sun is in the sky.

7. Remember to STOP

If you do end up getting lost when you’re hiking, there’s an important acronym to remember: STOP.

S – Stop walking, stay where you are, keep calm, and don’t panic.

T – Think about where you are. In your mind, retrace the direction you went. What landmarks do you remember seeing?

O – Observe what’s around you for clues about your direction, such as trail blazes and signs. If you’re on a trail, stay on it. If you have a compass, use it to better understand your location.

P – Plan your next course of action based on what you’ve learned from your observations. If you’re not confident about your plan, it’s close to becoming dark, or you’re hurt or tired, it’s better to stay where you are and come up with a new plan in the morning.

How to Prevent Getting Lost on a Hiking Trail

Remember, getting lost is a hassle we’d all rather avoid, but armed with a mix of preparation, tech-savviness, and good old-fashioned attention to your surroundings, you can keep the adventure on the trail and out of the realm of unexpected bushwhacking.

Whether you’re rocking a classic map and compass or embracing the wonders of GPS technology, the key is to be proactive. Do your homework before hitting the trail, stay on the path like it owes you money, and pay attention to the subtle hints nature drops along the way.

So, the next time you’re lacing up those boots, keep these tips on how to prevent getting lost in mind. Here’s to staying found, embracing the trail, and turning those potential lost moments into unforgettable, worry-free adventures!

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