Lost and Found: Lessons from Wrong Turns in the Outdoors

by Shawn O'Neal

A late spring weather system had brought high winds to the Santa Fe Mountains, muffling all other noise under the turbulence. It took me some time to convince myself that the sounds I heard were from a person and not my imagination. Deciding that I needed to be certain, and with darkness approaching outdoors, I grabbed my pack and headed up the trail.  

As I climbed to a more sheltered location, I was soon able to confirm that I was hearing cries of “help me!” Pulling out my mobile phone, I called 911, learning that a missing hiker had already been reported in the area. I put on my headlamp and moved uphill, trying to hone in on the voice as dusk turned toward night.  

I called out as I moved in the direction of his frequent shouts for help, but received no reassurance that I was being heard. When I finally reached the disoriented man, I learned why. He normally wore hearing aids, but did not bring them on this hike. He was out of water and growing cold so I offered him a jacket and some fluids to help rehydrate. We checked back with 911 and stayed on the line while we waited for the alerted rescue party to make their way to us.  

Fortunately, this day-hiker was unharmed and made it home that night, tired but wiser. Getting turned around in the woods is a common occurrence, often happening to people just planning a quick stroll. It has happened to me more than once. There are important lessons we can learn from an experience like this one. Consequences can be more severe- an April storm dropped several inches of snow that night.  

Prepare and Pack

Hikers intending a short, day trip are often the ones who get in trouble. This might be due to their experience or fitness levels. It can also be caused by inadequate gear. That New Mexico hiker was simply acting on his intention to do more hiking. However, he neglected to bring extra warm layers or enough water to a dry, high-elevation area. He had a phone with him and had called a housemate who alerted authorities. Unfortunately, the phone wasn’t charged and died during the call. He had also left valuable personal medical items behind- his hearing aids.  

It is always wise to plan for the unexpected when adventuring. Take extra supplies, rain gear, flashlight, and first aid/survival items on even short outings. Know when and how to use your gear. Also, know that nothing you can carry can completely insulate you from poor decisions.  

Situational Awareness

That hiker had been following a well-established, heavily-used trail on the outskirts of Santa Fe. Once he reached the top, he had turned to head back down. That’s when he unintentionally headed off the trail and onto a dry stream bed. By the time he realized his mistake, he was lost and it was getting dark.  

Maintain an awareness of your surroundings and what you are doing. Mistakes happen. By being aware you can catch mistakes sooner and make corrections. Keep track of time and distance while hiking with an active mind. Should you have arrived at the trailhead by now? Does this meadow seem unfamiliar? Is the water in the creek moving in the “wrong” direction? Answering yes to questions like this should prompt you to stop and think. You might need to retrace your steps to get back on track. It might be time to call for help or build a fire to stay warm. Situational awareness will help you stay on track and make better decisions when you get off.  

Don’t Go It Alone Outdoors

It’s important to have other people as a safety net when going into the backcountry. Traveling with others is safer and recommended for novice hikers. This is especially true for situations that can be more dangerous, like hikes in bear country or at high elevations. More people can mean more resources and, hopefully, better decision making. I have certainly been helped by hiking partners noticing when I’ve taken a wrong turn.  

Additionally, always let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. A detailed itinerary is even better for longer outings. This might be your only lifeline in the event of injury or lack of electronic communication on the trail. Be sure to check back in when you arrive home safely.  

Before your next adventure, spend some time setting up a safer experience. Prepare yourself and your gear, stay aware, and inform others of your plans. It can be easier to enjoy your time in the outdoors knowing that you’ve taken these considerations into account.  

[H/T Go-Backpacking.com]

Outsider.com