How to Not Get Lost on the Trail

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  ~Psalm 25:4 (ESV)

On one of our many day hiking trips to the Red River Gorge Geological Area in Daniel Boone National Forest, we encountered a couple at the trailhead who were on a multi-day backpacking trip.  As we were loading gear into the car after our hike, a man approached us seemingly to ask for directions.  After a brief discussion it turned out he and his wife were hoping to get a ride because they had taken a wrong turn on the trail and were now three miles off their intended route, and around eight miles from their vehicle.  We happily gave them a ride, and our conversation on the drive inspired me to post a few thoughts on how to not get lost on the trail.

Before You Go:

Learn how to navigate using a map and compass and carry them as a backup:  With today’s amazing GPS technology and the availability of some excellent smart phone apps, many people rely exclusively on these devices.  As much as I am a fan of digital technology, there are limitations:  batteries run out, devices break, software fails, and GPS signals can be obscured by weather, rough terrain, and heavy foliage.  For these reasons I strongly recommend learning how to read a topographic map and navigate using a magnetic compass and carrying both as a backup especially when exploring more rugged and remote areas.  There are plenty of good books to get you started, but hands-on experience is important if you ever have to count on these skills.  Check with a local park, outfitter, or hiking club to see if they know of classes available in your area, or if you live near an REI store they typically offer a Map & Compass Navigation Basics course several times a year.

Research the trails and parks you plan to hike:  Research is amazingly easy with many helpful park websites, well written blogs, online guides, and even a number of free online sources for USGS topographic maps.  One of the most important things to understand before loading up your gear and heading to a new destination is the difficulty of the trails and terrain you will face so you show up prepared with appropriate maps and trail guides.  In parks with good signage and well-blazed, easy-to-follow trails, a simple overview map showing roads, trails, facilities, and a few geographic features may be sufficient.  But, in rugged terrain with twisting, turning, or poorly marked trails, a detailed topographic map and possibly a descriptive trail guide may be necessary.

Although visitor centers and park offices are usually a great source for maps and information, do your homework rather than just showing up.  Hours of operation can be unpredictable and many isolated or smaller parks close facilities in the off season, while some have no facilities at all.  Also, some parks require reservations or advance purchase of permits, especially for overnight stays, and may require you to check-in when you arrive.  Knowing and preparing for these things ahead of time will avoid disappointment later.

Map Detail Comparison

Three maps of the same area in Red River Gorge showing different levels of detail.

Download and print hardcopies of maps and other information:  You can likely find everything you need online, but make sure you download it to your devices before you go as cell service may be limited or non-existent on the trail.  Even if you are using your electronic devices as your primary navigation tool, print and carry hardcopies as a backup.  I am a big fan of physical maps and guide books; but, rather than bringing the whole map or a toting a heavy book in my pack, I make copies of the sections and pages needed, seal them in a zip-top bag to keep them dry, and carry them in a pocket so they are easily accessible on the trail. Personally I prefer using a paper topo map as my primary navigation tool as it gives a broader perspective than the confines of a phone or GPS screen.

Map sections and guide book pages ready for the trail.

Leave a trip plan with at least one responsible person:  Not every hike requires extensive planning, but the further you venture away from civilization and the longer you plan to be out, the more intentional you need to be.  Even on short day hiking trips with minimal preparations, it is good to let at least one responsible person know where you are going, who you are with, the trail(s) you intend to hike, and when you expect to be home.  On longer trips let two or three people know, and include more details, like vehicle information, local agencies to contact, and a daily itinerary with trailheads, routes, and specific campsites if possible.  An easy way to send all this info is by marking up a map with these details and attaching it to an email.  Taking the time to prepare a thorough trip plan helps familiarize you with a new area, which is helpful in keeping you from getting lost, but more importantly, by sharing it with someone else, it will help rescuers find you if something does go wrong.  Just make sure you contact everyone after you return home or if you decide to extend your trip so they don’t get concerned and start alerting the authorities.

Trip Plan Example

Example trip plan with detailed maps.

On the Trail:

Orient yourself at the trailhead with your map:  Once you arrive at the trailhead, take a few minutes to look at the map and orient yourself as things tend to look different in person than they do on a screen or in a book.  Start by finding the trailhead on your map.  As ridiculously simple as this sounds, I have actually run into quite a few people on the trail who asked for directions and were not sure where they started their hike, not a good position to be in if you find yourself lost or in need of help.  After you know your starting point, study the trails you will be hiking, as well as nearby trails, especially those intersecting your route.

Next, identify major, extended geographic features in the area such as roads, rivers, and ridgelines.  When paralleling your route, these features are called “handrails,” and when perpendicular to your route they are called “backstops.”  These features are helpful to keep you oriented along the way, but also provide easy-to-find destinations to navigate toward if you get turned around.


Rough Trail (#221) trailhead in Red River Gorge.

Check your progress using the map:  As you hike periodically check your progress against the map.  Pay close attention at trail junctions and always be on the lookout for distinctive landmarks such as prominent bends in the trail, high points like peaks, ridges, and cliffs, and low points like ravines, creeks, and lakes.  It is also good to look behind you on occasion as another means to stay oriented.  Even on a loop trail this could prove useful if you ever need to backtrack.  Paying attention as you go and noting each point on the map ensures you will never be too far off your desired path at any given moment.

Proceed cautiously at poorly marked trail junctions:  There are situations where extra precaution is warranted.  Areas with poorly marked or numerous unofficial trails can be particularly difficult.  Also, be aware that signs and markers are sometimes damaged by weather or vandals.  If you end up at a questionable trail junction, proceed with caution and use your map and compass to determine which path coincides with the direction you are traveling.  After choosing a route, proceed a short distance and look for trail blazes (or cairns in some environments), signs, or recognizable terrain features.  If you find a clear indictor that you are on the right path press on, but if nothing appears or the trail starts to fade, return to the trail junction and try a different direction.  If you find yourself at a particularly confusing trail junction be sure to mark the direction you came from in a non-destructive fashion to help you backtrack if you do not find a clear way forward.


Weathered trail marker on Buck Trail (#226) in Red River Gorge.

Don’t take unnecessary risks if the trail is obstructed:  Another situation demanding extra precaution is when you encounter obstructions on the trail such as creek crossings, blown down trees, slides, or wash outs that require you to detour around.  If an obvious path is not evident take your time looking for a safe and clear way through, but don’t venture too far and risk losing the trail completely.


One of many creek crossings you’ll find in Red River Gorge this one on Chimney Top Creek on the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail.

Turn back if you are in doubt or daylight is running out:  If you are in doubt or travel becomes too difficult or hazardous, it is always better to turn back and try another day.  Also, pay attention to the time as well as the distance you have traveled and the distance you still need to hike to reach your destination.  If it looks like you will lose daylight take the fastest and easiest route back to the trailhead.  Carrying a headlamp or flashlight is an essential precaution, but even with a light source night navigation is difficult in good conditions, and can be downright dangerous in many circumstances.


Night navigation is dangerous in areas with high cliffs.

Don’t panic and stay put if you really are lost:  If everything I have suggested here fails you and you believe you are lost, you need to stop, take a breath, and assess the situation.  Pull out your GPS, smartphone, or map and compass and perhaps after resting a few minutes to clear your head you will be able to figure out where you are.  If not, it is time to start thinking about shelter and other resources at your disposal, including ways to signal for help, but these are topics for another post.  If you really are lost and searchers need to be called in the worst thing you can do is wander aimlessly.  Stay put!  If you rush around in a panic you might end up getting injured and you will ultimately make it harder for a search team to find you.


How prepared are you to spend the night if you get lost?

As for the couple we helped that day, their two biggest problems were inadequate planning and a serious lack of awareness on the trail.  By their own admission they did not know the area very well and did not do much homework or come prepared with a good map.  On the trail, after they veered off course, they passed through two trail junctions, a trailhead and parking area, and crossed a gravel road all of which were marked even on the basic overview map they were carrying.  Had they been paying more attention, any one of these features should have alerted them to their mistake and allowed them to take corrective action sooner.  With a more detailed map they also would have had a few more opportunities to right their wrong because they could have seen where their route was either paralleling or crossing a creek and they would have had a better understanding of the terrain they were traversing.  In the end they were fortunate they remained on the official trails (there are many unofficial trails in Red River Gorge) and that their detour led them to a trailhead where they were able to find assistance.

How to Not Get Lost Infographic

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2017.