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Staying oriented starts well before your hike. Here’s what to pack, how to plan, and what to do in the wilderness so you always know where you’re going

Dakota Kim  – June 26, 2019 | Updated July 30, 2019

We hike year-round in the West, but the spring through fall hiking season sees a spike in lost hikers. Hiking rescues have increased in Southern California in the past few years, putting a burden on park officials and volunteer rescuers at understaffed yet extremely popular parks such as Joshua Tree. 

If you’re heading out on the trail, some preparation is key to lessen your chances of getting lost—and be armed with knowledge in the event that you do get lost.

Essential Items to Pack

To start, here is a checklist of tools and items you should always keep in your pack, even for a short day hike.

  • Pocketknife
  • Map and compass
  • Lighter or matches
  • Headlamp
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Tarp and raincoat or plastic poncho
  • Extra clothes (so if yours get wet, you aren’t freezing)
  • Food and water, and a water purification device
  • Lightweight emergency blanket
  • First-aid kit with whistle
  • CD-ROM (to shine a light to rescuers)
  • Bright bandana
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Optional tools:

All of your tools, but especially the more complicated, techy ones—as well as the map and compass—will require training before you go into the woods. Learn to use them well in advance. REI has a basic instructional on using a compass, and a clear video on reading topographic maps.

Planning Your Hike

Try to always hike with someone, setting off early in the morning. Always check the extended weather forecast, even days after the day of your hike, and cancel a hike in the event of hazardous weather conditions. 

Have a plan before you set out, identifying potential danger spots like swiftly-moving streams or rivers, steep mountains or ravines, and snowfields. Always leave word with friends and family as to where you’re going and when you’ll be back, where you’re planning on parking or setting out, and even what trail you’re planning on hiking or your objective. A simple Facebook post could mean the difference between your imminent rescue and days lost in the forest. Use Map My Hike and post a screenshot of your planned hike to social media, as well as a photo of yourself and what you’re wearing. Sign the register before you enter the park or the trail, to let rangers and rescuers know where you entered and at what time.

Get the Lay of the Land

Before you head out on the trail, take a photo of the trail map on your phone, in addition to trying to have a paper map, in case it gets wet. 

While hiking, look at the map continuously, matching your map to what’s surrounding you. If you’re uncertain that you’re on the trail or going the right way, then stop, go back, and retrace your steps instead of going deeper into the wild. If you hit a “Y” juncture that’s unmarked, do a Hansel and Gretel, and mark it with a cairn of stones or pile of sticks so that you can find your way back. Don’t go off-trail.

Take note of the trail you take, even sketching a path along in your notebook as you go or assigning that duty to a fellow hiker. Take note of how long it takes to traverse various areas, from hillsides to ravines to particular trails to groves of trees. Take note of surroundings, incline, conditions, and flora. Look behind you frequently, taking photos at each trail juncture on your camera. Being able to zoom in later on a particular tree marking or mountain may help you find your way back.

Stay Humble

Do not rely solely on your phone, which may die or lose signal, or depend solely on Google Maps, outdated paper maps, or strangers’ instructions. What may look like a road to you on a map may be a forestry logging road or dead end that doesn’t circle back. Strangers’ instructions may be wrong.

Don’t get arrogant. Don’t overestimate your hiking knowhow, physical or mental strength, or knowledge of the terrain. Anyone can get lost, and weather conditions can change so suddenly that your body and mind can easily be overwhelmed. You can get lost in a park you’ve been hiking in for years. 

Yes, wind, sun, and moss patterns can be helpful if you know how to read them, but they aren’t consistent markers throughout the year, and in dense forest, moss can cover both sides of trees, not just the shady side. 

Caves can particularly tricky, with the lack of sunlight or wind. If you’re spelunking, carry a cave map or consult with the local caving club for tricky areas.

Be Your Own Best Advocate

If you do get lost, you’ll need a few survival techniques. Read our article on “How to Survive if You Get Lost Hiking” to have options top of mind.