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Mapless in the Woods

What to do when you get lost on that hike or that bike trail
By Jeff Nachtigal - August 2nd, 2000

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Whoever came up with the ubiquitous 10 essentials didn't include the 11th most important skill every cyclist should be equipped with: enough common sense to take the essentials along, every damn time you head into the woods. Without them you're flying on your good looks and a prayer.

The plan was to shuttle by car to the top of a ski area and bomb down 10 miles of twisting single-track called the Windsor Trail. We'd pop out at the base of the hill and do the easy six-mile ride home. Easy enough, I thought, for a Sunday afternoon.

Looking back, signs of disaster were everywhere, begging me to pay them half a blink of attention. A new ride paired with a new riding partner and a hurried start was enough to distract me from anything other than getting out the door. We were running late, way past our appointed 3:00 o'clock start time.

That was where I went wrong - before I even walked out the door. Nothing new should ever be treated as "easy." I've mountain-biked for 10 years, and I guess it was my turn for overconfidence to tempt trouble, but I wasn't paying attention.

At 4:00 p.m., as we unlocked the roof rack skewers, the sky was turning an ominous shade of murky. I grabbed a plastic grocery bag out of the back seat and stuffed it down my jersey, tugging my arm warmers up. A breeze made a few goose bumps rise on my bare knees. Every ride starts a little cool, I thought, assuaging the tick I felt at the back of my neck.

Joe and I freewheeled toward the trailhead, where a big brown Forest Service board outlined the trails and their numbers.

I hesitated for a moment, straining to snap a mental picture of the big map and all its lines. Well, it's all downhill from here, I thought, and pushed past the Windsor Trail 254 sign.

After 30 minutes of long, swooping single-track through aspen stands and lush mountain meadows, the trail hit an elaborately built detour. A left-turn arrow pointed to trail #160. We went up and then down the new trail, but things didn't feel right; too narrow, not a bike trail. Backtracking, we skirted the barrier but realized that the main line trail petered out after a few hundred yards. I closed my eyes, trying to picture the map from the trailhead. Where would the new line take us?

"We've got to keep going down," Joe snapped, unwilling to consider retreat.

It was the first on-trail mistake (taking a spur we didn't know), the second mistake of the day (leaving without a map in the first place), but nowhere near the end of our bad decisions.

Trail #160 ran into an intersection for trail #150. Another 30 minutes took us through junctions #150 and #163. We crossed a creek, and then faced another signboard with more trail options. I was fighting to keep the numbers straight. Just keep riding down, and you'll hit a road, I tried to convince myself. Gravity was calling the shots.

By 6:30 we were thumping along trail #179, still headed down, when the trail reared uphill. Alarm bells finally went off. Short on food and water, staring at my bare knees, I clenched my teeth. It was time to make a call: Walk up an unknown trail and hope it turned back downhill, or backtrack on the trails we knew would eventually get us out. It would take at least two hours to push our bikes back up the trail. We had to make the right decision or face a night of spooning in the woods.

We turned around. As the last sliver of daylight faded to black, the single-track popped us out on the road. After one very long descent down a washboard mountain road, mouths dry from cursing over empty water bottles, we finally rolled into civilization. It was 10 p.m.

You're saying I told you so. But you're too late. I already told myself that.

The reality was that we weren't really lost. We were just down the wrong trail too late in the day, too full of ourselves to think we needed any essentials. The one thing that would have made everything okay on that ride also happens to be very lightweight and easy to carry - a map.

Bring the 10 essentials, or at least think about the few essentials - such as a map - that will make the difference between uncomfortable and catastrophe.

Therein lies the moral of this story as told by two stupid mountain bikers: Always be prepared. It just isn't worth the consequences.

And if you're not? The next time you're down a wrong trail:

  • Stay calm and rational, getting mad won't get you out of the woods; thinking sensibly will.
  • Draw your own map in the dirt and plot your whole route - any map is better than plotting turns in your head.
  • For navigation, remember that the sun sets in the west.
  • Be attentive of daylight, and how much time there is before night falls.
  • Ration food and water so it lasts as long as possible.

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