Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dan Crane: Leaving Bushwhacking Breadcrumbs

Solitude and isolation are two reasons for journeying into the backcountry of the Adirondacks. Getting away from the hustle and bustle of modern life to spend some time in nature has a soothing and regenerative power unmatched by the likes of books, movies or video games. Unfortunately, the remoteness can prove a challenge if for some reason a backcountry enthusiast must be located in a timely fashion.

Although rare, situations may arise that require locating an individual in the backcountry. An emergency at home, failure to return on a given date or some other reason may require initiating a search with little information to go on. Such a search may be difficult to perform within the confines of a trail system; it may require a Herculean effort in a bushwhacking situation.

Leaving an itinerary with a trust-worthy individual is one way to prepare for such a contingency. Unfortunately, an itinerary is only helpful when it is faithfully followed and this may not always be possible in remote areas subject to blow downs, beaver-induced flooding and other natural disturbances.

Technology offers some solutions to this problem, although they may be expensive and/or impractical in a wilderness setting. Most personal locator beacons (PLBs) provide a tracking are self-activated; they are only effective when a button is pushed in response to a crisis. Some PLBs offer a tracking function (e.g. SPOT Tracker) but require a clear view of the sky and wearing the device on your back or head. Satellite phones could be used to check in with someone back in civilization but these are very expensive and intrusive to the wilderness experience.

Physically leaving some sort of trail behind is one time-tested strategy of allowing others to locate you in case of an emergency. This is called breadcrumbing, not to be confused with the same term’s use with respect to cooking, Internet navigation, GPS tracking or texting flirtatious messages to the opposite sex. All of these terms have obvious roots in the popular Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, where the siblings attempt to use small pieces of bread to mark a trail back home.

Breadcrumbing does not involve leaving a trail of literal breadcrumbs as you bushwhack through forests, around ponds and over beaver dams. The weight of all the bread alone would make such a feat totally unworkable for a multi-day trip. Plus, the temptation to devour the bread after a long day of fighting through dense forest would be overwhelming and impossible to ignore.

If it were possible to exercise enough self-control to use the bread as intended, there is still no guarantee something or someone else would not eat it. A menagerie of animals may devour the starchy morsels and thus obliterate the trail. This same predicament almost led to Hansel and Gretel’s untimely demise. Or worse, these animal beggars might follow the trail through the backcountry, turning you into a Pied Piper of sorts. This would be unhealthy for the animals and may lead you to running afoul of the law since feeding wild animals is illegal.

Instead of leaving actual breadcrumbs, just find other opportunities to temporarily mark the environment with your passing. It is important these figurative breadcrumbs be temporary in nature. Do not engrave trees, leave flagging or paint signs; these are examples of permanent markings and are generally illegal on public property.

Breadcrumbs can come in many forms, from as simple as footprints to as complicated as a message spelled out using natural materials. One characteristic they all should have in common is a form of personal identification and indication of the direction of travel. It is best to leave them in a conspicuous location where they stand out amongst their surroundings.

Footprints in mud or loose soil make ideal breadcrumbs. A dense mud or sand is preferable since these will resist erosion for a longer period of time and show greater detail. These footprints must last for the duration of your trip or they are useless in locating your position in an emergency.

My favorite form of breadcrumbs is a message constructed out of twigs, pebbles or conifer cones. A great place to leave these messages is on rock slabs located near lakes, ponds and streams as these water bodies are often used as landmarks while bushwhacking through the backcountry.

Typically, I leave the majority of my messages at my campsite just before I leave on the next leg of my trip. Even though I place my shelter in a location as devoid of vegetation as possible, there is always some impact whether it be crushed vegetation, compressed leaves or sticks vertically embedded in the forest floor (as tarp poles or stakes). This shelter footprint may capture the eye of anyone following my trail and thus draw attention to my breadcrumb message.

Any message left should include some unique identifier and a time stamp. I use my initials (which unfortunately are also the abbreviation for the last month of the year and the acronym of the New York State agency responsible for management of state-owned land) and the current date. If I am on a long trip I often leave an indication of the direction I am heading when I departed (e.g. N for north, SW for southwest, etc.).

This is enough information to identify myself (or perhaps fool them into thinking it is personally addressed to the Department of Environmental Conversation), the day I was last at the location and the direction I was heading.

The next time you venture out into the backcountry consider leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to mark your passing. This trail could be a tremendous assistance to anyone searching for you in case of an emergency, or at the very worst, retrieve your body. Also, it should allow all involved to avoid any cottages made of confectionaries and any old women living there.

Photos: Breadcrumb message at Oven Lake by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Dan Crane

Dan Crane

Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.


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  1. Pete Klein says:

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