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Hiking and Backpacking: Getting Lost and Getting Found by Al Dragon

Avalanche and Gorilla Jim
Avalanche and Gorilla Jim
[quote] I was rattled out of sleepiness by a screaming, penetrating uproar that filled me with a terror of the most frightening horror movie. The monstrous sound echoed back and forth through the blackness and turned my blood cold. It was as though the voice of Death, deafening, was bellowing the incomprehensible cadence: ‘Who cooks, for youoo! Who cooks, for youoo!’ At first, I was afraid to move. Like a sudden cold steel hand locked around my throat, fear gripped me. It blared again, yelling in the darkness with the force of a shattering bullhorn, riding back and forth on the forest gusts. It was enough to turn your blood to ice. This was no ordinary beast. It was the Jersey Devil for sure. I hoped it wouldn’t notice my little tent in the vast pine darkness. It ignored me, but shouted again and again

That was me the first time I went backpacking alone.You don’t have to feel that way! The woods have their scary moments only because we don’t know what is making the horrendous noise. In this case it was a Barred Owl, a large owl who seeks a mate by blaring a nerve shattering call throughout the backwoods. Now you know that he is no more scary than Sesame Street’s Big Bird. Whippoorwills sound romantic when their calls are linked to songs, but in a tree above your head in the middle of the night when they are screaming their thousandth whipoorwill, you will not be as charmed as when Randy Travis sings about them. Try knocking a rock against the tree trunk or shove your ear plugs deeper into your ears.

One fear new hikers (and old timers honest enough to admit it) have is getting lost in the woods. This is the time to stop the blood rushing-to-head anxiety, open your jar of calm, and evaluate the situation. We have all been there and have survived. You’re not lost, say the experts, you are disoriented.

Here is what I’ve learned from the pros about being lost, finding your way out and avoiding getting lost:

  • Take a good look around for something familiar like a blaze, or landmark. Sometimes a blaze on a tree behind you can assure that you are on the right path.
  • Backtrack to the last thing that looks familiar.
  • Don’t roam around aimlessly.
  • Sit and rest while you have a snack and think about what to do.
  • If you are separated from your group, three short blasts on a whistle is the international distress signal, and blowing a whistle is easier than shouting your lungs out.
  • Tip: On a small carabiner I keep a little pen knife, a whistle and a key chain light. These things are always in a zipped pocket of my pants so they will be handy if needed.
  • Stay hydrated–keep drinking (I mean water).
  • If it is getting dark and you can avoid traveling by night, stay put. Night travel may get you further disoriented.

To avoid getting lost:

  • Stay on established trails; leave bushwhacking to those highly experienced in navigation.
  • Take the map and guidebook pages with you. Some of us cut the relevant pages out of the guidebook and put them in a ziplock bag along with the map.
  • Regularly check your map and constantly look for blazes, guideposts and signs.
  • Always sign shelter registers so people will have an idea of where you are.
  • Leave details of your route, marked on a map, with a reliable person. Check in with them by phone at regular intervals. Tell your contact person that if they haven’t heard from you at a preset check in time, for them to alert the authorities. Check in regularly so the authorities don’t start an unneeded search for you.

This list is by no means complete. Read about preventing getting lost and getting found on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s website and in publications by well known authorities on backpacking and hiking.

When asked if he ever got lost in the wilderness, Daniel Boone replied, “I can’t say I was ever lost, but I was once bewildered for about 3 days.”

 About Al Dragon

Albert Dragon hiked the A.T. from Georgia to Vermont. He is the author of newly released Avalanche and Gorilla Jim, Appalachian Trail Adventures and Other Tales, a lighthearted memoir filled with adventure, belly laughs and surprises as two guys hike the mountainous Appalachian Trail.  For more information about this entertaining book visit www.albertdragon.com



  1. What great advice. I have to buy your book to read up on your adventures. That Daniel Boone quote is priceless!

  2. Nice article. I would add just one thing. When unsure of where you’ve gotten yourself, STOP (Stop, Think, Observe, Plan)

    The Boone quote has long given myself and friends a classic question for the day’s group navigator (we say naviguesser) … “Are you feeling bewildered?”

  3. Great post Al ! Thanks for reminding us all that most things that go bump in the night out there usually don’t pose threat to life or limb. And great advice on getting lost and found. Thanks again for the great post!

  4. Thanks for the comments. The STOP (Stop, Think, Observe, Plan) is great. As to the Daniel Boone quote, I’ve been “bewildered” on more than one occasion. Hope to see you all out on the trail some time.

  5. I loved this article and lighthearted humor. If this is an indication of your writing style, I must rush to read you book.

    I had a hoot owl land on my tent…sounded like a freight train was coming down upon me. That surely caught my attention in the most frightful way.

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