This is going to be easy, I thought.  I will drive to the base of a nearby mountain, climb 1.4 miles (2.2 km), 1000 (310 m) feet and come back down 1.4 miles.  I can do this in less than an hour, and I don’t need food or water.  It was afternoon; the Sun was in the southwest.

I arrived at the base, went up in 25 minutes to the summit, and came down another trail that had appeared on the Internet map to take a longer route, 2.4 (4 km) miles to where I had begun.  No problem.  I needed the exercise.  The trailhead where I started was west of me as I started down the trail.  All went well for 15 or 20 minutes, but then I noted by watching the Sun that I was heading south, and I needed to be heading north or at the very least northwest. I should have been walking with the Sun to my left, and it was to my right.

This concerned me a little, and right then I should have stopped and turned around.  The trail was wide and good, however, so I kept going.  When it bent towards the Sun and even a little beyond, I felt better, but I generally had the Sun on my right.  When I got towards the bottom, I saw a parking lot that was clearly different from the one I started at.  I saw a sign saying “west Trailhead 3.3 (5 km) miles.”  That was where I had started.  I was down the mountain but an hour’s walk from where I had started.

I saw a nearby road and thought that maybe the road would take me to the trailhead faster.  That was my second mistake.  I had no map of the road, and my Internet connection was not helpful, either.  But the road headed north.  That was where I wanted to go, until the road headed west and then southwest.  I thought more and more about turning around, and saw a woman walking.  I asked her if this road went near a certain landmark I had passed.

“I don’t know that place, but you’ve walked over the mountain and are on the back side.”

That is not what the Internet maps had shown.  I knew immediately what to do:  turn back. It’s a shame an hour earlier I didn’t do what I knew I needed to have done, for I would now be approaching where I wanted to be. When I reached the trailhead, I had two options:  completely retrace my steps, which was not a bad idea, but I would have to walk up to the summit again, 4.1 miles (6 km) in all, and why didn’t I bring water?  That way had a 100% probability of returning me to where I wanted to go.  Or, I could start on the signed trail that led north 3.3 miles.  The trail had a couple of forks that were not marked.  One led to the summit, which I considered, because that was familiar, but I stayed on the flat trail I had found–the Sun remained on my left, and within forty minutes was back at the car.

I was thirsty when I got back, and I thought what I had done is how people get into trouble.  Step 1, you have a sense of uncertainty., but you ignore it.  Step 2, you start fitting things into place so that you convince yourself you are going in the right direction.  Step 3, things aren’t right, and retracing your route seems too long.  Step 4, you try what turns out to be a shortcut, and it isn’t.  Step 5, you run out of daylight, you injure yourself, you panic, start burning energy and consuming water by running, get more lost, and you are stuck in the woods all night, with no food, water, or shelter.  I’m not young; my reserves are less, and while the young are often the ones who die of hypothermia, I am far from immune.


Seven years ago, on Isle Royale, I hiked in the dark after a wolf had visited my camp.  My flashlight was good, so I could see the trail, until there was a big blowdown in front of me.  I walked around the blowdown, and it took some time, but soon I was back on the trail.  Something nagged at me, however.  For whatever reason, I wondered if I had turned around. It happened to me once in broad daylight on the Appalachian Trail in 1998.  I stopped.  That was smart.  I took out a compass, which I had never used in the woods before, but always brought with me.  I needed to be going generally northeast, and my direction was southwest.  I had been turned around on the blowdown.  I thought I would come to it again, if I were correct, and I did just that.  I saw what I had done wrong and continued, northeast.  I listened to myself.


Twenty-one years ago, with nearly 90 days in the woods that summer behind me, I headed out on Burntside Lake for the Crab Lake portage several miles away.  I didn’t have a map for the particular part of Burntside I was on, but I had maps for the rest of the the lake.  My plan was to go due north and eventually reach the part of the lake that I had maps for.

About a mile from shore, I hadn’t arrived at the points listed on the map I had. I tried to “fit” some islands ahead of me into the map I had, and I kept going.  After a second and a third mile, the less certain I was whether I was on the map, or where the Crab Lake portage was.  I could still see the shore behind me, where I had launched.  I stopped paddling.

“You are lost,” I said aloud, to the waves.  “You have no idea where you are.  You don’t want to admit defeat and turn around, but do so.  Nothing good is going to happen if you try to keep going.”  I turned around, quite embarrassed, and two hours later was back in Ely.  The first place I went to was an outfitting store to see where I had been.

I never would have made the portage that night.  The next morning, I launched from a different point and had a good trip into the Burntside Unit of the Boundary Waters.  I didn’t get lost once, and I was comfortable the whole time.

Failure to prepare properly sets the stage for getting lost in the woods.  Take proper gear, even if it is a short hike.  I didn’t on the mountain.  A sprained ankle, a minor issue,  becomes a big issue on a remote trail. Check directions.  I had a compass, but the Sun was more than adequate.  If you can’t tell yourself, “I know where I am, how far it is to a certain point, and how I am going to get to the end,” you should be concerned.  Listen to your concerns.  Sure, it is fine to walk a few more minutes, but start considering turning around and going to the last point where you knew exactly where you are.  Don’t ever look for shortcuts through the woods.  Unless you have a clear line of sight to a distant trail, stay exactly on the trail you are on.

Don’t be afraid to tell yourself you are on the wrong trail.   Don’t be afraid to turn back to familiar surroundings.  Don’t be afraid of saying you don’t know exactly where you are. Don’t be afraid of later having people laugh at your getting lost or having taken the wrong trail.  Later being laughed at means later you are alive.

Be very afraid of being lost, in trouble, alone, and saying, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”


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