How To Find The Trail

You are hiking down a path and the trail runs out. Where by washout or poor trail maintenance, you can’t find the trail. While you may think that this is a rare occurrence this is something that happened to me just this last month. Trails do get washed out and trees do fall. So, when that happens, what are you to do?

When you lose the trail, consideration should be first given to going backwards. While none of us want to earn the same real estate twice, the safest recourse is to head back to where you were able to find the trail. This will at the very least, give you a safe point of reference to conduct your search of the trail.

Once you have gotten back to the trail, you now have a decision to make. This can be a tough one and it is a decision that most of us, myself included, do not make correctly a lot of times. You are faced with continuing to find the trail or turning back to the trailhead. Again, most of us do not like having to retreat, and I am no different. Which is why most of us spend too much time trying the former.

What I want to go over today are some tips and tricks on how to find the trail, and if you can’t, how to swallow your pride and turn back. These are the steps that I use when trying to find a trail.

✓ Take your time
✓ Consult your navigation
✓ Do a quick search
✓ Try a route
✓ Be willing to turn back

Take Your Time

This is a great time for a break. You have already gotten back to the spot where you know the trail is and are ready to find your route. Before you go out however, blazing a trail into the great unknown, sit down and drink some water, and eat some food. This will help to do two very important things:

1) It will give you some rest before you go out and start your search
2) It will start the search with a calmer head. When we are hiking, we get into “the zone”. We are knocking out miles, getting to that next destination. The last thing that we want to do is slow down, much less turn back like we already have. We have thoughts of getting to that next campsite by “this time” and trying to improve on even that.

Before we can do a good, through search, we need to change our mindset. This is no longer about mileage and time. This is about safety and exploration. It is very difficult to make a fast pace while you are busy searching for a route, looking at your maps, checking your surroundings, etc. All of this takes time, and you need to afford yourself the time needed to perform these actions. It is much better to get to your destination late, then never at all. As you are eating your snack and drinking your water, just remind yourself that you need to slow down at this point and be willing to change your goals for the day. This is also where I perform the next step.

Consult Your Navigation

Look at your maps, GPS, whatever you use and try to see if this was a problem of simple error, or if there is actually a problem with the route. Hopefully, you just took that wrong turn at Albuquerque, and will be able to get back on the route. If, however, you are correct on where the trail should be, and it is simply not there, now this becomes a problem.

Consulting your navigation is important here, but confidence in what you are reading is even more important. Whatever you are using, make sure that you are confident in its use and accuracy. Making a mistake here can be fatal, especially if you continue onward. This is why taking your time here (taking a break), and seriously looking at your navigation is so important.

Do a Quick Search

After you have taken your break, and you have ascertained that the route is to blame for you losing your way, now do a quick search of the immediate area. I leave my pack off and take a leisurely walk for about 50-100 paces. Terrain will heavily dictate how you perform this search, but I like to make it into a loop back to my pack as much as I can. I will start either to my left or my right, the direction will be dependent on whichever I feel holds the most promise of success after consulting my navigation and will walk to either 50-100 paces. Once out to this distance, I turn and make a large loop that will get me back to my gear.

Hopefully you find the trail by the time that you get back to your original position. If you have not, I suggest that you turn back. It has been my experience that little is gained by still blazing ahead at this point and in all my attempts, I have yet to actually find the trail if this step has failed. If you do find the trail you can now gather up your gear and move onto the next step of this process.

Try a Route

Before you set off, I suggest that you mark your current location within your navigation. If this trail turns out to still not work, you will want to get back to the last part of trail that can still get you home. Once this is done, you may set off into your great adventure once again. I still advise a slower pace and caution still at this point. The trail has already show itself to be easily lost, blazing ahead at full speed will buy you little until you are on a sure path once again.

I like to walk only a few hundred yards and consult my navigation regularly at this time, making sure that I am on a path that will lead to my desired destination. I am also looking for blazes, although these are rare in my area, and any other marking that may again give me confidence that this is indeed the route. Hopefully this is the last step that you will need to follow. The path that you have chosen will be the trail that you desire, and you will still be able to make your destination with little delay.

If, however, the trail doesn’t play out, and you are once again without a path in front of you. That is where the last step comes in…

Be Willing to Turn Back

There can be little room for pride in this decision. Unfortunately, not all of our trips go as planned. At the beginning of this post I mentioned that I had one of these incidents happen to me earlier this month. I actually had to turn back. The trail had been washed out right passed the bridge. Once I had acquired it again, the trail was found to have waist to chest high bushes covering it. I attempted to follow it, for longer than I should have, and eventually had to turn back.

There were no good camping sites between me, and the trailhead and I was forced to hike the entire distance back to the beginning. Getting back to the trailhead, at 11:00 at night, I ate a quick supper and crashed for the night. My two-night/three-day camping trip was ruined.

This can be tough to handle, especially when you have limited time to enjoy your hobby between a job, family, and other demands on your time. When you plan a trip, you almost need it to work out. This is why you have to remind yourself that safety is important. I mentioned that I should have turned back sooner. I spent two hours looking for the trail, in an area that I knew has no suitable camping sites between me and the trailhead. I did this because my destination was only a few miles away. This was an error on my part, I wound up meeting a cliff and was unable to get to my destination because of it and was forced to turn around.

I let my pride demand my time for those two hours and instead of turning back sooner, and being able to enjoy a campsite, albeit at the trailhead, for the night. I instead tramped around in brush that impeded my every move. Once I did turn around, I was already exhausted, and had hike ahead of me that was exclusively uphill and miles long. This is how people get hurt, lost, and dead. I did eventually make the right choice, but I should have made it hours before.

Losing the trail can be a very scary and dangerous situation. There are steps that you can do to find the trail and get back on your way. But you also need to be willing to head back and be willing to put safety before your goals. If you follow these steps they can help to either find the trail, or at least stay safe while out there on the trail.