Survival Skills – Navigating Your Way When Lost

Every year people get lost in the woods, even experienced hikers. There is a certain romanticism associated with the mystery and challenges nature provides. Climbing mountains, white-water rafting, and other extreme sports appeal to the adventurous nature of many people. Hikers are another group of outdoor athletes that look for new and difficult terrain to upgrade their skills. Even the most experienced backpackers can get off the trail, only to discover they are lost.

Blazes, Cairns, Rock Ducks, and Carvings

Under the National Trails System Act, national trails agencies or private trail stewards are charged with the responsibility to clearly mark hiking trails. At the same time, responsible hikers try to follow the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles by properly disposing of trash, respecting wildlife, and minimizing any evidence they passed through an area. Trying to do it all can be a challenge because trailblazing leaves evidence, but it also saves lives.

Trail markings serve two purposes. The first purpose is to indicate where the hiker is, and the second tells him or her where to go next. Both functions are essential to provide safety to hikers. It’s also important for a hiker to know how to read a blaze trail marker. In wooded areas most markers are painted today. In the past, carved trail blazes were common and some still can be seen. Painted trail blazes have distinct patterns the hiker needs to know to keep from getting lost and to avoid dangerous areas. White is a common color and may be seen with a colored border. A single rectangle means the trail continues straight. Two rectangles side-by-side with one above means the start of the trail, and the reverse means its end. A right turn is indicated with a bottom rectangle centered and a rectangle above it more to the right, and it is reversed for a left turn in the trail. One rectangle on top of a second with a third either on the right or left indicates a spur and its direction. Blazes range from 200 to 300 yards apart, but difficult trails may have markers closer together. When blazes are located on both sides of a trail, it means the trail can be used in both directions.

Cairns, or ducks consisting of only 3 or 4 stones, may be found in areas where there are few or no trees to blaze. Basically these rock piles let you know you are still on the trail. Direction may be indicated by a second rock on the side of a cairn or a line of small rocks. Because they can be knocked over, moved, or taken down, they are not as reliable as blazes.

Compass, Map, and GPS

There are essentials every hiker should have and know how to use including a compass, map, and global positioning system (GPS). Technology is an asset, but GPS cannot replace a compass. A map downloaded on your phone is only as reliable as your cell service. Knowing how to read a map can be critical if a hiker is lost or uncertain of his or her location. Competency at topographical map reading can be a life-saving skill. Hikers can find instructional videos on YouTube, written courses online, or take a class offered by a sporting supply company that sells hiking supplies. Knowing how to use a quality compass is also an essential skill. More and more outfitters are teaching navigation classes for hikers. There are 24,000 search-and-rescue efforts undertaken in the average year. Many hikers are lost for a short while and manage to get back on the trail. The outlook for others is grim, and every year some hikers lose their lives.

If you find yourself not knowing where you are and unable to locate your trail, sit down, have a drink of water, eat a little snack and try to relax. Once you feel a bit better, take out your map and compass and start looking for your location. Don’t depend on your GPS at this time. You need to know the lay of the land in order to locate your trail. If you are not able to find your location and you have cell service, call for help.

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