Sarah Savage was alone in the woods and didn’t know which way to turn. She had been eager to explore the Appalachian Trail when she moved to Pennsylvania and discovered that her house was near an access point. But not long after she took off from the trailhead, the path branched in different directions. She wasn’t carrying a cellphone or a map. Nervous, she turned back.
“I was afraid of getting lost. I didn’t know how to read a map or even that maps existed for where I was hiking,” said Savage, 49, who works in educational publishing.
But she liked the physical and emotional benefits of being out there, so she kept going back. She brought a map and followed the trail as best she could, yet she still felt apprehensive. “I had no sense of direction,” she said. “I wasn’t paying attention to north, south, east or west.”
Navigating is a use-it-or-lose-it skill and one that few hikers, cyclists or walkers employ anymore because of their increased dependence on GPS units, Garmin computers, Google Earth and similar technologies. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, nine of 10 smartphone owners use their device to get directions or for other location-based services, up from 74 percent in 2013. That heavy reliance on devices can give people a false sense of security.
In October 2015, a surveyor found the remains of Geraldine Largay, 66, who was hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail alone in the summer of 2013, stepped off the path and apparently became disoriented. She tried to use her cellphone to text for help, possibly causing further disorientation, especially if she was moving around while looking at her device instead of her surroundings. But she was in the dense woods of Maine, and she couldn’t get a signal. She survived almost a month before dying of exposure and starvation.
Nobody knows how many U.S. hikers get lost each year, according to Robert J. Koester, an instructor for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the chief executive of dbS Productions, which conducts search-and-rescue training and publishes related information.
While a database that Koester created shows 24,000 formal search-and-rescue efforts a year, it’s imprecise, he said, given that many hikers get lost for only a short time. “Many are able to eventually reorient themselves, or are lucky enough to stumble across someone else,” he said. But for some hikers, the wrong turn proves deadly.
Preventing such tragedies is one reason that Stacy Boone teaches land navigation classes through her company, Step Outdoors, which works in southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico. Boone, who says she is a relative by marriage of the 18th-century explorer Daniel Boone, organizes wilderness trips to teach inexperienced hikers and backpackers how to use a map and compass. She has earned the Triple Crown of Hiking, an award given to people who have completed the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. She says that knowing how to follow a map while traversing a trail, how to orient a map north and how to set a bearing are critical skills that have helped her in forests, mountains, canyons, fields and deserts, no matter how many twists and turns she has taken.
People tend to panic when they’re lost or think they’re lost, Boone said. And panic leads to irrational behavior. Her first rule? Just stop. Drink water. Eat a snack. Doing so will help you calm down. It will also help you slow down.
“The classic behavior when you get lost is to speed up,” said Jamie O’Donnell, a field instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School, a nonprofit based in Wyoming. “People think, ‘Oh, I need to work hard to get myself out of this.’ In doing that, they often make the situation worse by hiking fast. They quit paying attention to terrain features.”
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