Thursday, November 14, 2013

Getting Lost in the Adirondack Backcountry

Lost in the Five Ponds WildernessA pleasant hike in the Adirondack backcountry suddenly turns into a disaster. The heart quickens in the chest, the echo of the frequent beats drowning out the surrounding natural sounds. A thin sheen of sweat covers the skin, producing a clammy feeling and chills. Breathing becomes labored as if just summiting a faraway peak. A frantic feeling overcomes you, as if mortal danger is imminent.

What is going on? Is it a heart attack? A panic attack? Aliens?

Nope. It just means you made a terrifying discovery, as everything around you looks unfamiliar, and you no longer know where you are. You are lost. All the physical indications are there, the racing heart, the profuse sweating, the difficulty breathing, and the sense of impending doom. Every rock, tree, bird and chipmunk looks threatening. What choice do you have but panic, right?


Being lost in the backcountry usually means not knowing one’s whereabouts. This can easily occur when one carelessly neglects to keep track of their location, does not carry the proper equipment, or has the equipment but never learned how to use it properly. Although there are sometimes other contributing factors, in most cases getting lost is easily prevented.

Although there is a physical component to getting lost, it remains mostly a state of mind. Typically, it unfolds slowly over time until the evidence finally builds up to the point where it is undeniable. How is it possible to go from knowing where you are one moment to being totally disoriented the next? In most cases this is an unlikely scenario, unless a kidnapping, sudden blow to the head or a case of sleep walking is involved.

The terms “getting lost” or “being lost” have a notion of finality that has always bothered me. Unless map-less and possessing a complete lack of knowledge of the area, one should always have a general idea where they are located, at least within a square mile or so. For that reason, I prefer the term “momentarily displaced” as a replacement for the more traditional terminology.

Getting lost is much easier for traditional hikers, since any straying from the trail is a prime opportunity to get into trouble. On the other hand, a competent bushwhacker is almost continuously focused on their location, and by their very nature much more skilled with route finding.

Many years ago, in my earlier years as a trail hiker, I once found myself lost while hiking back from the Five Ponds after taking an old side trail near the Oswegatchie River. When the old trail started to peter out, I continued on following what I thought was the trail remnant, although it could have been all in my head. After continuing in this fashion until reaching a large downed tree, I found myself not sure of the way forward or how to get back whence I came. In every direction, a river stymied my progress, as if I somehow found myself on an island. In the end, it turned out I journeyed out onto a peninsula, and after keeping my head and returning to the downed tree, I found my way back along the old trail and I safely returned home no worse for the situation.

Forest south of Lower South PondsAlthough getting lost at least a couple times is probably inevitable during a hiking career, and potentially a good thing, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the number of incidents. Always carry a compass and map, and know how to use them. Every member of a hiking party should have these essentials, and all should be involved in the navigation, whether sticking to the trails, or going beyond them.

In no circumstances should you be without your compass in the backcountry. It should be the first thing you put on in the morning, even before your underwear, and the last thing you take off in the evening. And do not forget to take it with you when taking an emergency midnight dump too.

Despite all the concern about getting lost, it is becoming more difficult than ever to do so. Modern technology has shrunk the world to such a degree, that actually finding yourself lost or momentarily displaced is getting exceedingly difficult. With global positioning units, personal locator beacons and satellite phones, anyone with the monetary resources and the wherewithal can easily find their position at just the push of a button or two. Perhaps at some point in the future it will be impossible to get lost, as everyone will be equipped with an internal GPS chip that monitors your whereabouts at all time. Thank of the Facebook and smart phone apps!

If it is so hard to get lost in the backcountry, then why do people do so every year, with some losing their lives in the process? Getting lost is not directly responsible for their demise, panic is.

Panic is a typical reaction when suddenly finding oneself in totally unfamiliar surroundings, often followed by frantic wandering about, suggesting the reaction of a chicken after an encounter with an axe. This reaction is the result of the body’s natural defense system, commonly called the “flight or fight” response. Without any physical threat, flight becomes the only logical alternative and your brain screams “RUN.” It would not lie to you, would it?

Unfortunately, our natural physical reactions are not always the best course of action. This is just one of many examples where the natural response is not only dangerous, but could actually get you killed. Fleeing from you initial position can simply lead to getting even farther away from your last known position, which can get you REALLY lost, plus uselessly depleting any energy reserves that just might come in handy while trying to stay warm under a tree.

The most obvious take home message about getting lost in the backcountry is “Do not panic.” This can be easier said than done sometimes. I always remember the old fire safety technique taught in school whenever I find myself feeling the initial panic of finding myself momentarily displaced.

Just stop, drop and roll.

Carpet Spruce Swamp north of Middle Branch Oswegatchie RiverIn the case of being lost, “stop, drop and roll” has a totally different meaning than when applying it to fire safety. Immediately stopping upon realizing you are not where you think you ought to be is the most important thing you can do to make sure that a bad situation does not get worse. This leaves you as close as to the last point where you were not lost, giving you the best chance of retracing your steps.

After stopping, the second thing to do is drop your backpack and sit down. Take time to reflect on your predicament. Look at your map. Think. This is often the most difficult step, especially these days since we live in a culture where always doing something is the norm. Between driving everywhere, reading email, texting and surfing the computer (hopefully not all at the same time), today’s culture rewards people on the go, where thinking is frowned on as being unproductive. When you think you might be lost, doing nothing but thinking may just make the difference between getting where you want to go and spending the night curled up under a log with toads crawling up your pants.

Finally, the roll portion. This does not mean roll around in leaf litter and have a good laugh, although that might help. When lost, roll stands for the process of breaking bread. Pull some food out of your backpack and eat it. Wash it down with some water. This will definitely help with the thinking above, and it gives you a chance to do something relaxing while thinking.

So the next time you feel as you might be lost, just remember to “stop, drop and roll.” It may sound completely stupid, but that might just make it memorable enough that it will come to mind when the need arises. Plus, it helps if you ever catch on fire too.

Getting lost in the backcountry can be a terrifying experience, and probably inevitable to some degree for anyone spending enough time in the backcountry. Learning how to anticipate it and manage the natural panic can make the crucial difference between getting yourself out of a sticky situation, an embarrassing rescue, or worse.

Photo: Forest near the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River, forest south of Lower South Pond and the edge of the carpet spruce swamp north of the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River by Dan Crane.


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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.

6 Responses

  1. George says:

    Bushwacking in Five Ponds is serious business.

    Not only is it large in acreage, mostly trail-less, with numerous glacial features, a lot of water, beaver meadows, old flows, and old growth, it has what Colvin described as “the forest on the floor”, the decades of dead and down trees and the new plant life that emerges from that environment. As you know Dan, in many places it can be hard to lift one’s foot, move through the brush, avoid a boulder, or climb over a downed tree. Plus, keep track of location and direction! But the rewards are great. As the great Terry Perkins has said, to bushwack through Five Ponds, one needs to have “the right attitude”. Plus skills …

    • Bill Ott says:

      I agree. Bushwhacking is not a lark. Always know where you are. Gps can go out (everything made by man eventually breaks). Compass can be lost (always carry at least 2). When things go bad, they go bad all at once. (When you tripped and broke your ankle you also smashed your emergency beacon.) There is no way to be prepared for everything. And do not expect to be found, ever. However, once a bushwhacker, always a bushwhacker.
      Bill Ott

  2. Pete Klein says:

    You are not lost. You are just confused. Get a grip on it or you will be lost.

  3. Paul says:

    I believe that my dad gave me “the right attitude” when I was very young (long before I was allowed to carry a gun) as he taught me to hunt with him, and how he gradually set me loose on what amounted to increasing solo bushwhacks to favored watch locations. Every time, I can still hear his words: “if you get mixed up, just stop and I will come find you” (thankfully, that never happened). As primarily a solo hunter, he always impressed me with how well he knew how to precisely navigate far into the backcountry.

    Later, I self-taught myself the skill and the art in my favored wilderness areas, deep in the Five Ponds and the Pepperbox. I loved it. At first I would allow myself to be unsure of exactly where I was for long stretches, but I had always studied the map and had a substantial “backstop” and a compass direction that would assure my arrival at recognizable points of terrain. The twinges of panic that Dan describes would creep in during those unknown location gaps, particularly when a beaver dam I had not planned for or some other obstacle meant I had to unexpectedly change direction. But I let logic prevail to counter the feeling and reminded myself of my direction path and time as I increasingly observed my surroundings for clues. The more I did this, the more I realized that I could fill in the all navigation gaps everywhere.

    Eventually I found I could pretty much pinpoint my exact location by just having paid attention to all the constant terrain navigation clues that exist everywhere, with my eyes open and brain engaged as I move along. I became convinced that anyone new at the skill, with “the right attitude” and proper planning, should not fear “becoming lost”. Indeed, the times I have been somewhat confused by mistakes made have been the greatest learning experiences such that I would know to never make that same mistake again. I teach new backcountry navigators to seek and allow themselves to get “lost” in safely bounded areas, and most importantly to then take the time to figure out exactly what happened, what clues were missed, and what mistakes were made. While learning these skills, don’t “cheat” with a GPS.

    Dan is absolutely correct about the need for everyone in a group to have at least basic knowledge and equipment to extract themselves, should the worst happen. Unfortunately, if you ask many dedicated trail hikers where they are at any given moment, especially if they are not leading a group, all they may know is “someplace between here and there”, with no idea how to figure out exactly where they are. To me that is unacceptable.

    When I teach backcountry navigation I often say that discovering and following a trail that “seems to be going in the desired direction” is more dangerous than bushwhacking completely off trail. It is because, like most people when happily hiking on known well-traveled trails, they tend to not observe or pay attention to constantly changing direction, terrain, and time in any meaningful way. Many of these old trails randomly twist and turn and branch and then dissolve into nothingness. When not paying attention, very soon the hiker is in unknown territory with no trail in sight and no knowledge of where they are or how they got there.

    Contrast that to bushwhacking when knowledge of direction, terrain, and time are constantly on your mind every step of the way. As a bonus, you see and experience more of what and why you are out there in the first place.

  4. Paul K says:

    Funny you mention the stop,drop and roll, i was thinking that when i atarted reading the article, it makes good sense. i have never been lost but often think of how i would react once i found myself in that situation. Dan’s discription of what one may go through was good. Good article Dan

  5. Paul says:

    There is no lost. That is what bushwhacking or hunting is all about. Nothing should look too familiar, if it does you are not bushwhacking. As long as you know the way out just relax and enjoy. Spend some time off trail in the dark it will help you feel comfortable with being in the woods. Even if you don’t have a compass it is easy to tell what direction is what during the day. Tougher at night especially when it is cloudy so carry one (and a light).

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