Avoid getting lost in the woods by learning these signs

| December 6, 2014

untitled-123Even experienced hikers and backpackers sometimes make mistakes and get lost after wandering off the trail. In this article, I’ll cover the reasons why people lose the trail and then give some good tips for making sure that we stay on it.

Hikers, backpackers, snowshoers, runners, and mountain bikers lose the trail for many reasons. Often, there are underlying causes that add up to create conditions that leave us open to misfortune. When an “error event” follows and we come off the trail, we then find ourselves unable to re-locate the trail and we get lost.

Why do people get lost in the woods?

Here are just some of the underlying causes that can set us up for problems later:

  • We’ve been hiking for many hours, and are tired and walking on autopilot. When in this zone, we pay less attention to where we are and make minimal effort to keep track of our position as we go.
  • The group that we’re with is a little too casual, or too tired, so that when one person stops to tie a shoelace or take a bathroom break, everyone else keeps going. The person left behind then starts off in the wrong direction or fails to take a turn that the others took.
  • The trail is covered with snow making it harder to follow.
  • We are hiking after dark.
  • We are on a rarely traveled or unmaintained trail that’s harder to pick out.

Causes of “error events”

“Error events” are the actual moments when we accidentally lose the trail. These most commonly occur when:

  • Crossing a rocky or sandy area where it’s hard to see the trail and we forge straight ahead when the trail takes a sharp turn
  • Following a false trail made by others who were lost
  • Mistaking a drainage ditch at a switchback for the real trail
  • Detouring around downed trees or around a bad stream crossing
  • Going off trail to find a photo opportunity
  • Deliberately taking a shortcut on a switchback when the trail turns the other way

An inability to relocate

Once we’ve come off the trail and realize it, our ability to re-locate the trail depends on our level-headedness, equipment, skills, and knowledge of navigation techniques. Some reasons why we might not be able to relocate are:

  • Not having a map, perhaps because we were relying on the group leader to do the navigation
  • Having an inadequate map, or just not knowing how to navigate with it
  • Not carrying a GPS receiver, or just not knowing how to use it to position ourself on the map

How to avoid getting lost in the woods

To stay on the trail, it’s important that we study the map ahead of each leg of the journey so we know what features we expect to see and can check them off as we go past. Obvious features are things like trail signposts which are marked on the map. Others include streams, walls, small peaks, and turns in the trail.

Some signposts make navigation easier by including the names of the trails.


Others, like the two examples below, just tell you that you’re on a trail or at a trail junction, so you absolutely need a map to know which trail you’re on.



We should also have a good sense of how long it will take to reach each feature and if we don’t happen upon the feature within the expected time, we should stop and take some time to review the map again.

Trails like the one shown below are easy to follow in the summer, but after a snowfall it can be hard to distinguish the trail and if we come off it only a few yards we may have difficulty finding it again.


In situations like this, we need to be especially tuned in to the signs that we are still on the trail.

For trails that are very well maintained, sometimes larger rocks are moved to the edges of the trail to easily show where it goes.


Where trees have fallen across the trail, maintenance crews will cut them and then sometimes lay them along the trail, marking the edge.


Keeping an eye open for sawn trees is an important technique for staying on maintained trails. The trees in the following photo are large and obvious, but sometimes the trees are quite small and hard to notice if we’re not looking for them.


Another sign that we’re still on the trail is a line of rocks that’s been laid across it with the goal of diverting any water running down the trail to one side, thereby reducing trail erosion. The photo shows an obvious example, but sometimes the rocks are smaller and there are other rocks in the surrounding area making them harder to spot.


Blazes cut into tree trunks are reliable signs that we’re still on the trail. They are often created at sharp turns in a trail, and are typically found in areas that get a lot of snow. As they are located well off the ground, their utility is not affected by snow. If we are traveling in snow and are relying heavily on blazes, we are at risk of becoming lost because we don’t know how far it will be to the next one and we only have to deviate from the trail by a few yards to completely miss it. Under these conditions, we need to be well versed in navigating by dead-reckoning and timing or pacing as well as navigating with a GPS receiver.


Other signs that we are on the trail are less reliable. Waymarking cairns are used in many parts of the world in places where a trail is hard to follow because we’re hiking over rocky or sandy areas that don’t have obvious trail, as this example.


The rock cairns below are on a trail in Moorea, French Polynesia, where the jungle is thick and trails can be quickly overgrown.


This huge example is typical of cairns in the UK located in areas where cloud comes down quickly, making it easy to get lost.


The problem with the smaller rock cairns is that sometimes they are made by people who have come off the trail themselves, but they think they are on the trail and are trying to help others by marking it. Rock cairns are useful pieces of information, but they are not to be wholly trusted.

In some areas, another sign that we’re on the trail is horse or mule droppings.


People who ride into the backcountry usually know it fairly well and tend to use standard trails and typically don’t go cross-country. Horses are less likely to come off a trail than a person.

Unfortunately, there are other signs of human activity, especially close to popular trailheads, that suggest we are on the trail!


One of the least reliable indicators that we are on a trail is human footprints.


If we start following someone else’s tracks as the sole indicator that we’re where we are supposed to be, we are taking a risk. I sheepishly admit to having done this once when solo backpacking in the mountains in Oregon in December with thick snow obscuring most signs of any trails. I was navigating by dead-reckoning with map and compass while trying to follow the occasional blazes on trees. I came across some recent footprints in the snow going in the right general direction and followed them. I relaxed my navigation efforts and some time later realized that I was going down when I wasn’t supposed to be. I was on “a” trail but not “my” trail. This mistake added six miles of hilly snow hiking to my trip and the last few miles were covered in the dark. When I eventually get back to my car, it had a flat tire – so it was an adventure!

If you have suggestions for other signs that we are on the trail, send them in and I’ll add them.

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Photo credits: Mark Beresford


Category: Skills

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