Losing your bearing in the woods, even if you’re in an area that’s not too far from civilization can be scary. Getting lost in the backcountry can cause unnecessary stress on you mind and body, and make your loved ones worry about your safety. The best thing you can do as a responsible hiker or camper is to be prepared.
Dense woods or forests are surprisingly easy to get lost in. The mass of trees and vegetation limits how far you can see, and the landscape itself all looks the same.
There are several things you can do to be aware and allow yourself to always know where you are in the woods. As long as you do these simple things, you can avoid getting lost in the first place.
Situational awareness is the practice of being present in what you’re doing, so you know where you are and how long you’ve been out there. This is the simplest, yet most important step to not getting lost in the woods.
To be aware of your surroundings, instead of having your head down looking at your feet or your phone, look ahead and observe everything around you. This way, you can also pay attention to when you’ve changed directions and where you are in relation to where you started.
Situational awareness will also make your time in the woods more enjoyable. You’ll be able to experience the sights and sounds of nature without interruption, something that’s all too uncommon in our modern world.
If you simply pay attention to what you’re doing in the woods, you can get around just fine without the aid of GPS or maps on short journeys.
Taking mental notes of different landmarks along your travels through the forest can also prevent you from getting lost. Even in a seemingly monotonous forest, there are certain things that will stand out.
Landmarks can be just about anything that catches your eye. It can be a particular rock, a certain species of tree not surrounded by others of the same kind, or downed logs or brush piles. If you get turned around, remembering landmarks can help you find your way back.
Some landmarks are more obvious than others. Things like fire watch towers, buildings, and bodies of waters are great landmarks to remember because they are unmistakable. However, other landmarks are less obvious, so make sure to make note of things that are easy to remember and recognize.
With the accessibility of handheld GPS units and mobile phone mapping apps, maps can seem obsolete. This is far from the case, and you should always have a physical map of the area you’re camping or hiking in.
Believe it or not, humans traveled hundreds of miles for many years without a map at all. Some of the places these people were travelling to nobody they knew had ever seen, so you should be able to get by just fine with a map.
The best thing about maps is unlike GPS devices, they don’t rely on a battery. No matter how long you’re outside, a map will always be useful, just make sure to protect it from the wet and rain.
These maps can be simple paper maps that you printed off, park provided maps, or highly detailed waterproof maps of a given area. Regardless, make sure your map is useful to the area you’ll be venturing through.
If provided, maps can also tell you mileages, what color blazes the different trails are, water features like lakes, streams, and rivers, and where the numbered trail markers will be. This is the low-tech way of knowing where you are on a map if you’re hiking on established trails.
Have a Compass Handy
No one who travels into the woods should do so without a compass. You don’t have to be an expert navigator to use a compass, but it will help give you basic information of which direction you’re going or which direction you need to go.
You can also use a compass in some scenarios to triangulate your location with the assistance of a map. We won’t get too into that, because its not very useful unless you’re in an area with open terrain.
If your situational awareness, map reading skills, and landmark memory all fail, a compass can usually save the day and get you back on the right track.
GPS Devices and Apps
Although you can get around just fine without one, GPS devices and apps are an incredibly useful tool for navigation.
Because GPS gives you your exact location data in real time, it takes all the guesswork out of finding your away round the woods. Many apps and devices even allow you to download digital maps ahead of time, so you won’t require cell service to use them, which is most often the case in backcountry areas.
The worst thing you can do with GPS is to rely too heavily on it. Use the other steps to navigate first and use GPS to supplement it and help you if you really need it. GPS units can break or lose battery, so if you strictly rely on them for navigation, you can get seriously lost in the woods.
Traveling through the woods, whether you plan on going for a short hike or a multi-day adventure is a unique and rewarding experience. It allows us to unplug from the modern worlds and get back to the solitude of nature.
However, not being prepared and taking the proper care when navigating can lead to a sticky situation. You should do everything you can to avoid getting lost in the woods, and it starts by being prepared and aware of your surroundings.
Make sure to follow all these steps when hiking or camping in forested areas, or any backcountry location for that matter. If you do, you can be sure to get back to camp safely each time and it will lead to a much more enjoyable time in the great outdoors.