Panic sets in. You’re miles away from the trailhead but you don’t know which direction it is. Is it that way? Or is it that way?
Getting lost on a hike is a gut-wrenching experience, but it is also preventable. We’ve gathered a list of tips, gear, and apps to help you navigate the outdoors — it doesn’t matter if you are going backcountry skiing, mountain biking, or trail running.
Plan with a Map
Before you go anywhere near the trail, plan out your hike with a map. Bonus points for using paper, but Google Earth, CalTopo, or Garmin Basecamp work great too. What does the area look like? What direction will you be hiking in? Where will the trailhead be? If you have the lay of the land in your head before even touching the dirt, you’ll be much better prepared if something goes wrong.
Bring the 10 Essentials
When packing your gear, keep the 10 Essentials in mind. The Mountaineers put together a check list of the most important things that can save your life. It’s been updated a bit since it was first introduced in 1974, but it remains the best standard. You may not need any of them if the trail and weather are clear. However, if the fog rolls in and someone gets injured, you’ll be happy to have the supplies. Here is the full list.
Pay Attention to Landmarks, Trails, and the Sun
Now you’re on the trail. Keep an eye out for where you are and how you got there. Which turns did you take? Did you pass a big boulder? Are you heading east or west right now? Pay special attention to where you are if you are in a big group. Not everyone will be watching.
If you do get off the trail or can’t find your way back to camp, follow the STOP steps outlined by the U.S. Forest Service:
- Stop: Stop, stay calm, don’t panic. Don’t rush off in the wrong direction before you’ve had a think about how to get back.
- Think: Retrace your steps in your head and make a good plan. Don’t move anywhere unless you have a good reason to move. If you’re unsure, just stay put.
- Observe: Get out your map and compass or GPS and figure out which direction you need to go. Don’t wander aimlessly or go off trail.
- Plan: Think through a plan to get back to the trail or trailhead. If you’re not confident, or if you’re injured, just stay put.
Map and Compass
A map and compass, which are a part of of the 10 essentials, are the the most important things to help you keep moving in the right direction, and using them on every trip is great practice. The batteries won’t die, because there aren’t any. National Geographic offers great illustrated trail maps for popular trail areas. The Suunto A-10 is an inexpensive compass that will last a long time in your backpack.
A GPS is the easiest way to figure out where a trail is going, where the summit is, or how to get home. Just look at the screen and follow the dots. The Garmin Oregon 750t GPS has a large, easy-to-use touch screen and pre-loaded topographic maps for all of the U.S. Download tracks to your Oregon before the trip.
While not as easy to read as a full-size units, GPS watches can tell you where you are and where you need to go. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak also provides weather, elevation, and heart rate.
A cross between a GPS and a satellite phone, the Garmin inReach let’s you message family and friends from anywhere in the world. Let them know you’ll be late or that you’re having a great time. It also has an SOS function that will alert Search and Rescue if you need help; you can message back and forth the emergency dispatchers while they are on the way.
Just need a connection from your phone to your friends when you’re outside cell reception? Get a goTenna Mesh and you’ll be able to text and send coordinates. These devices only work about four miles in the woods, but that might be all you need to find your friends again.
One of the most powerful emergency devices is already in your pocket. Your phone has a great GPS and can download maps offline to take with you into the woods. These are some of the best navigational and mapping apps for your phone.
Gaia is one of the highest-rated mapping apps available for iOS and Android right now. Gaia gives you access to high quality maps, tracks your hike, and takes geo-tagged photos. The added annual $20 membership gives you access to more maps and lets you download them offline.
You can also take your maps offline with the Android app Backcountry Navigator. You can plan out trips, follow tracks, and record waypoints with the app. You can pair it with your Android wearables so you don’t have to take your phone out of your pocket to make sure you’re heading in the right direction. Maps are available for the U.S., Canada, Spain, Italy, and New Zealand.
While not as strong at topographic mapping as the previous two, AllTrails — available for free on iOS and Android — makes up for it with more than 50,000 trail guides, complete with photos and text descriptions. Search around you for a specific location and see what trails are available. Once you’ve decided, track your hike, take geo-tagged photos, and share your progress to social media.
Similar to AllTrails, ViewRanger gives you access to thousands of trails around the world. Pick one and follow or just make your own. Track your trip, add waypoints and photos, then share to social media. ViewRanger, available for free on iOS and Android, now has a companion app called Skyline that uses augmented reality to show you exactly what mountains you’re looking at. Knowing which peak is which helps identify where you are on the map.
Cairn offers free maps from around the world and can take them offline when you don’t have cell coverage. The biggest benefit is real-time tracking for your friends and family. Share a live map with them and they can see exactly where you are and what your ETA is back at the trailhead. If you need to make an emergency call, the crowdsourced cell phone coverage map will help you find spots where you might get reception.