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Following a Poorly Blazed Trail

I’ve hiked a lot of trails in New England where the trail blazing is erratic. Sometimes this is due to a shortage of tail maintainers and sometimes it’s deliberate, in order to create a greater sense of wilderness. Regardless of the cause, it can be unnerving, particularly when bad weather or nightfall is approaching.

Here are some tricks that I use to stay on a trail when the blazes disappear. They require good observation skills and map reading vigilance, but they seem to work for me pretty well.

  1. This should go without saying, but make sure you bring a map with contour intervals and that you know how to find north using a compass or a watch. As you walk, refer to your map every 15 or 20 minutes to figure out where you are at the current moment so you can backtrack to a known location if you need to.
  2. Bring a watch. You can accurately figure out where you are on a trail by dividing the time you’ve been hiking by your miles per hour rate.
  3. Pay close attention to the contour lines on your map. They provide good clues about where you are and what you should expect. If the trail blazes disappear, for example, it’s useful to know if you should be heading uphill or downhill. Remember, that contour lines that are in a frown (as you approach them) mean down.
  4. Look for a heavily trodden path. The picture above is from the Long Trail in Vermont where it crosses a ski slope. These trail breaks are never blazed very well and you need to be on your best game to find out where the trail picks up again. Following a heavily trodden trail in the grass is a pretty reliable technique. Many hikers also build little rock cairns to mark the route so that people following them can find the trail. These are also helpful trail markers.
  5. Look for boot prints or game tracks. If you see other peoples’ footprints and animal tracks, chances are pretty good that you’re actually on a trail.
  6. Look for signs of trail maintenance. The best signs are chain sawed or axe-trimmed tree blow downs, water bars and punchions. Water bars are shin-high rock or wooden barriers in a trail designed to catch rain and divert it off the trail.  Punchions are short wooden bridges designed to span muddy trail sections or to protect fragile vegetation. All of these trail maintenance artifacts are a sure sign that you are walking on a trail and that it has been maintained in the past.

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7 comments

  1. Good recommendations. Point 1 especially – I learnt the hard way that getting your map out after you are lost is too late!

    If I could add a couple more (the results of lessons painfully learned):

    – learn how to take bearings properly. This means a good compass (one with a bearing-mirror), a knowledge of what declination means and how to adjust for it, and careful study of the map beforehand to get an idea of what landmarks might be readily visible.

    – if there is the chance of low cloud, mist or whiteout, mark on the map, (or on a tracing of the map) the trail bearings and approximate distances – do this *before setting out*. It's easier and safer to have this information ahead of time, rather than trying to calculate it once visibility drops and panic sets in.

    – if you do get lost, stop, don't plough on. Have some glucose, get the blood back to the brain, and calm down. After a couple of minutes take a slow look around you – it's amazing the frequency with which the way back to the path appears quite clearly after a short rest.

    – resist the temptation to "bend the map". If the map shows a lake or a boulder, and you can't see it, then you're not where you think you are. Avoid falling into the trap of thinking "that lake could have dried up" or "that boulder might have rolled away" – they haven't.

    – this may be a personal preference (I've never seen it written anywhere) but if I am lost then I try not to lose altitude. It's often safer, gives you better visibility, and avoids the moral-sapping climb back up when you realize the path was above you all the time.

    – finally, if you decide to follow animal tracks then be aware that deer can, and often will, jump from heights, cross rivers and decend slopes that humans cannot – follow, but keep your eyes open!

  2. All true. I've been jaded(blinded) by hiking with very good maps that have segment mileages marked on them, where elevation is relatively low (under 5000 ft) and risk level is also comparatively low. It's a completely different story in the mountains of Japan. Thanks for the different perspective!

  3. On trails that are blazed, like the AT, I find that turning around can help. This spring, hiking north from Salisbury to Lee, even if the trail was poorly blazed and hard to follow, there were always Southbound blazes visible when I turned around.

  4. Two things have kept me found as I make my way along the Long Trail. First, I am hiking in a group. The additional sets of experienced eyes are making it difficult to miss a blaze or other trail marker. Second, I am using a GPS receiver as a supplement to my map and guidebook. It is well worth the extra weight.

  5. I don't trust batteries or electronics, just maps and a compass.

  6. Map and compass are good, but of limited utility when visibility is restricted and useless in untrained hands. Sadly, the same is true with a sextant. Limited visibility is a common condition on most of the Long Trail, even when it is not raining.

    I usually carry a map, compass, the GPS receiver and two extra lithium batteries. I used two sets of lithium batteries on a week-long canoe trip that covered over 100 miles. (Of course, that was after I determined that lithium is different than the librium that I used to look forward to on my trips to detox.)

  7. I am a luddite when it comes to technology in the woods and freely admit it. I am surrounded by it at work and don't want it to dilute my experience when I'm on the trail. To each his own – I'm not preaching GPS abstinence and can see its utility in the circumstances you describe. I used to sea kayak and it was an off shore essential in bad weather. However, I can picture GPS neophytes who walk off cliffs in white outs because they are so absorbed with their GPS options….it's like that recent story on NPR about a person who walked into the street and got hit by a car because they were absorbed in texting messages on their cell phone. Apparently, this type of accident is increasing.

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