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One of the pleasures of being out in nature in cottage country is the many areas you can hike.
However, hiking outdoors can become dangerous if you don’t have navigation skills, and you lose your direction and end up in the wilderness with no clue how to find your way back. This guide will teach you some skills to avoid getting lost in the first place and how to either find your way out or get rescued quickly if you leave the beaten path.
Preparing for your Hike
One of the most important things you can do before your hike is plan it out, share the plan, and acquire the necessary gear to be safe.
Planning and Sharing Your Route
By planning your route and sharing it, you will know where you are going and provide a rough guide for rescuers to track your previous steps and narrow down where you might be. Sharing your planned route and time of return with a trusted friend or family member, as well as the park service or property owner, will ensure that someone looks for you sooner rather than later.
Setting an Anticipated Time of Return
Once you have outlined your path and anticipated time of return, think about the terrain you will be walking, along with what you will need to bring. Understanding the area, landmarks, where water is, what sort of wildlife is around, and which trails connect to your path will help you identify hazards and exits from the wilderness area. It will also help you find shelter and resources, as well as bathrooms or rest stations if they are present on the trail.
Bring Navigational Equipment
Some tools and resources you should bring are a trail map or topographic map and compass, your phone, a whistle, a flashlight, food and water, a basic first aid kit, clothing appropriate for the trail such as boots and long-sleeved clothing, and a multitool like a swiss army knife. You should also bring along a GPS, a portable charger, a walking stick, a change of clothes in case you get wet or cold, a more comprehensive first aid kit, bear spray, and other supplies you see necessary for your specific hike.
Checking The Weather
Before you leave on your hike, check the weather and determine if you must put your hike off due to inclement weather. Look at your map as well, and learn how to read it. If the weather is good and your map readable, you can enjoy the trail!
On the Trail
Once you are on the trail, it is best to stay on marked trails, both for your safety and so you do not trample vegetation or disrupt wildlife.
If you must go off the trail, keep an eye on the path and return to it promptly. Refrain from trying to take shortcuts, as you could get lost in the forest.
Keep an Eye Out For Landmarks
As you walk the trail, look for landmarks like lakes, mountains, and other formations noted on the hiking guide to track your progress. Be sure to pay attention to markers and signs, as some paths split into different directions, and you want to go the right way.
Follow the Trail
Ideally, following the trail will prevent you from getting lost, but if conditions suddenly deteriorate or night falls, stay in the safest location close to the trail and do not wander in the dark. Avoid wildlife as well, especially animals that are with their young.
Leave No Permanent Trace
While it is recommended to leave no trace while hiking, you can make a camp and mark your shelter area with a few rocks or sticks, or carvings in the dirt if you need to leave your campsite to go find water or to get a better vantage point, and so rescuers can identify it.
Off the Trail
If you are lost and off the trail, the first thing you should do is STOP: Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan.
Stop, Think and Observe
As soon as you find that you are lost, you should stop so you do not wander further, as you could walk into danger or make it harder to be seen as you go deeper into the wilderness. Then you should think and plan.
Stay Positive, Stay Calm
Keep a positive mindset, which is critical for staying calm and ensuring survival. If you have resources to spare and you can afford to wait, consider waiting for rescuers. If waiting is not an option, observe your environment for signs that could lead you back out of the wilderness. Calm down and gather your thoughts before you plan your next steps, and do not panic, as panic leads to hasty, potentially dangerous decisions.
Assess Your Situation
If you have decided to wait, look through all your belongings and ration your food and water. Scout the area carefully after establishing camp to find water, landmarks, vantage points, and nearby hazards.
Stay within line of sight with your camp. Once you have scouted your nearby area for water, firewood, plants known to be edible, nearby hazards, and a highly visible area, return to your camp and conserve your energy.
Staying Dry and Warm
Stay dry and warm, set up a signal fire or a sign made of rocks or logs, and blow your whistle in bursts of three. Try to signal aircraft and search teams with the sun and a reflective object like your phone, glass, or mirror.
Waiting is the safest thing you can do, so it is best to wait for rescue. That said, there are ways to navigate back if you need to.
Roughing it Back
If you must leave due to unsafe surroundings, low supplies, or a certainty you can navigate to safety, plan out your route.
Use The Tech You Have
If you have a cell signal or a GPS or are near a landmark on a map, make a path based on your position and head in the direction you need to go with your compass. In the best-case scenario, you can make it back onto the trail or to a road or an occupied structure and return to civilization.
Navigating by Using Your Five Senses
If you do not have a GPS, map, or compass because you either lost it along the way or didn’t bring one, there are still some ways you can wander toward civilization, though these are less sure methods and do not guarantee rescue or escape.
The best thing to listen for is water or human activity, which are good signs. Rescuers are more likely to search near bodies of water like lakes and rivers than dense forests. You can purify water from streams by boiling it, and you can also follow water to look for civilization downstream.
Since many settlements are established around water, people boat on the water, and water flows to lower elevations where more people live, following a stream, river, or coast of a lake can be one way to find safety and meet your hydration needs once your supplies run out.
Look for the Sun
Other natural indicators can help you find out the direction you are going. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west in the Northern Hemisphere, and the inverse is true in the Southern Hemisphere. Shadows at noon typically fall north, with the sun a bit to the south in the Northern Hemisphere and south in the Southern Hemisphere. The North Star, Polaris, always points north in the Northern Hemisphere.
Feel the Wind
Wind tends to blow west to east in North America. Moss most commonly grows on the northern side of trees, and branches grow more densely on the southern side of them due to the absence of sun from the former direction and the shining of it from the latter direction (this applies to the Northern Hemisphere).
Making Your Way Back
Once you have your direction, you can make your way to safety. However, since you don’t have a map, compass, or other form of knowing your position, it is still recommended not to move or only to follow water until you reach a landmark lake and then go in a known direction that leads to civilization from there.
Getting Home Safely
Hiking in nature can be a wonderful experience, but it can also be risky if you leave your chosen trail.
With optimism, supplies, and a sense of direction, you can find your way back from the wilderness or be rescued from the forest, but remember this: the best way to stay safe as you hike a path is to plan and keep on the trail.
Born on the shores of Lake Superior, David spent his earliest years in the forest and on the lake. Having attended summer camps across Ontario, he developed a passion for outdoorsmanship, For the last twenty years, David served as chief executive officer of a fast growing technology company and graduated from Harvard Business School. David and his wife Stephanie have a cottage on Lake Muskoka, a refuge for them and their children to enjoy, hopefully for generations to come. David loves taking his boat out on the lake for tubing adventures with the kids, most days capped off with a sunset cruise. Today, David is a co-founder and the chief executive officer of Lake.
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