If you have never felt lost in the woods, the first time you look up and realize that you are not one hundred percent certain you know how to get back on track can be unnerving. Honestly, even if you have felt lost in the woods, however temporarily, it is still unsettling. You just have a few more tools to work with because you have already done this dance once or twice. Luckily, I have never been so lost that I could not navigate my way back to the trail or out of the woods, even if the route was a little less than perfectly straightforward.
I’m not alone in this, but the times I get lost the most are when I walk off trail to go to the bathroom. In order to get far enough to feel comfortably unseen, you have to wander out of easy sight of trail. So if you are not paying enough attention on your way out, it can be difficult to get your bearings and find your way back.
This has happened to me more than a couple times. In one instance, I was with a trail crew doing some work next to a river. I went up the hill to get far enough away from a water source to go to the bathroom and when I got ready to leave, I realized I could no longer see the crew. The river was so loud no one could hear me. Instead of continuing to call out when that so clearly was not a viable option, I stopped and thought about what I knew. I knew that the trail we were working on was downhill. My walk down was a little crooked, but sure enough I walked downhill and ran into the trail. It was somewhat away from the group, but once I was back on the trail, I knew which direction to head to meet up with them. In the end, I wasn’t even gone long enough for anyone to miss me.
I can remember another time I was uncertain of the way, but this time with the added bonus of dark. I had gone out at night, following flagging tape to the pre-decided bathroom area. On the way back, I looked around with my headlamp, but the next section of flagging tape directing me back to camp was nowhere to be found. Nighttime in the woods is prime panic fodder, but again, after a moment I realized that wandering around blindly probably wasn’t my best course of action. I knew a small creek ran into the dirt road fairly close by our campsite. So I walked to the sound of a creek and followed it back to the gravel road where it was easy enough to locate my tent.
Looking for those major landmarks, especially water, can be so helpful in navigating. Whether it is the terrain, a body of water or even that weirdly shaped boulder you noticed earlier, these things can help point you in the right direction.
When hiking, most people are on an established trail and those are usually not there by accident. Someone came along, planned out and built that trail, and most likely, they marked it in some way. The most common method of trail marking is putting up blazes. A blaze is the name for the colorful pieces of metal or spray painted shapes you see on trees. Here at Audubon, we have four different colors and shapes that help you to figure out which trail you are on. Once you understand how to follow a blazed trail, navigating becomes a little easier, so long as you remember to look around.
Although you are bound to accidentally wander at least a bit off trail if you hike enough, there are ways to keep yourself safe. Bringing a map and compass, or even a GPS, will only help so much as you know how to use them and if you know where the starting point is. It is hard to figure out where you are on a map if you have never looked at it before. So if you want to frequent less-maintained trails, you might want to consider becoming more knowledgeable in using various navigation tools.
One of the best things you can do when going into the woods for any reason, is simply to let someone know where you are planning on going and when. That way if anything happens, you have someone who knows more information regarding how to find you.
Apps like AllTrails can help you stay on track as well. There are an abundance of trails you can search for where hikers before you have recorded their path. So you can open a previous recording and follow along their trail, which can make you feel safer on a new-to-you trail.
As much as you want to prevent yourself from getting seriously lost, moments of uncertainty can happen even in familiar places. That feeling of being lost can be overwhelming. Whether you are new to hiking or the outdoors feels as comfortable as your own living room, you can still find yourself uncertain of the right direction leading you back onto the path. The best thing to do when we feel a little lost is to stop, take a breath, and take stock of what we know and recognize. From there, we can often figure out the best way to proceed from where we are and find the way that ultimately leads us to our destination. Even if it isn’t always the most direct path.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is partially open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, and some exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.