Get Real Gone

Being lost may be the truest course to finding your way

Apr 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
I get my TV news from Denver. Some of the anchors are less androidlike than others, but they all recite the same headlines. A recurring topic: an ill-prepared adventurer vanishing in the Colorado wilderness. The man was last seen wearing only cut-off jeans and a T-shirt. Authorities fear he might not have survived freezing temperatures and a mountain storm that dropped hail the size of Anjou pears.

My first reaction is to envy the exciting perils of these men in T-shirts. Then I read something in the furrowed brows of the TV anchors: the chilling truth that newsworthy outdoorsfolk rarely make it back to check their Nielsens.

OK, you can die out there. Usually, though, misplacing yourself is neither so public nor so tragic. I, for one, get lost on a regular basis. Yet I always manage to find my way out before friends and family can agree which of my organs to donate and which to keep for themselves. Being prepared for getting lost is a skill like any other. The trick is to keep a cool head. The rational mind knows that fat reserves can keep you alive in the wild for weeks. Even better, the rational mind can think your butt back to safety.

The most obvious strategy is to turn back the way you came. My brother tells a story of being lost with his wife in Southern California's Los Padres National Forest. Relying on an outdated guidebook, they set off on a Saturday morning to spend the weekend hiking a long loop—not knowing that the Forest Service stopped maintaining the trail in the late eighties. They struggled for a day and a half through a maddening overgrowth of chaparral, manzanita, and poison oak before totally losing the trail in a place jovially known as the Devil's Potrero, or "pasture." They turned back late Sunday, but not in time to avoid an unplanned night in the woods. On Monday, when my sister-in-law didn't show up for work, concerned coworkers asked the Highway Patrol to check accident records for any sign of the missing couple. Their humiliating retreat didn't end until late that night, when they hitched a ride with a random band of beekeepers dressed, as my brother said, "all in white, like angels."

How painful is it to retrace your path when you planned a loop? Well, five years after this misadventure, my brother still rants at length about Forest Service budget cuts and their effect on trail maintenance. He forgets to mention that, while they were lost in the Los Padres, he and his wife conceived their first child.

For most of us, getting lost is little more than an inconvenience. The 21st century, however, has declared a holy war on inconvenience. With cell phones and GPS receivers, we can keep ourselves present and accounted for at all times. What a bunch of weenies we are. If you do get lost, take the opportunity to tap into the better human qualities, i.e. our powers of deduction and animalistic instinct for self-preservation. Bring water, food, and an extra layer of clothes. Don't just look for landmarks and terrain features, take their measure, too. If a pretty, snowy mountain slope is tilted steeply and bereft of trees, it's an avalanche zone. Hiking amongst big, dead trees on a windy day is wilderness Jenga. So think, dammit, think.

A few years ago I took a solo tour of the Tatoosh Range in Rainier National Park. I ambled aimlessly, and tangled myself in thick underbrush on the wrong side of a ridge. The skies wept and my fingers grew numb. It seemed I had two choices: to brainstorm my way out or to fashion a nice deathbed pillow from D.B. Cooper's wormy skull. I figured that parallel valleys all drained to the same place, so I tramped downstream along a creek until it emptied into a river adjacent to an unfamiliar trail. My sense of direction urged me to go right, and eventually I made a grotesque circle back to my original trailhead.

If you have the good sense to get lost in the daytime, use the sun. Even overcast skies glow a little brighter in one direction. Consider it east or west, depending on the time of day. Factor in the time of year, also—that brighter shade of pale in the sky will trend southward around the winter solstice and northward in June and July. The sun is the only star I trust. Some say you can navigate by the south-pointing triangle of Deneb, Vega, and Altair, but it's hard enough to find one star, let alone three.

The way I see it, getting lost provides unexpected relief from the sometimes tedious "eat-recreate-eat-sleep" routine of a camping trip. Veer off-trail and you might stumble upon a bulbous porcini, a 500-year-old Incan mummy, or the Treasure of the Sierra Madre. You camp in order to reconnect with the wild, right? So go ahead and ramble. Remember, the beaten path, by its very nature, is beat.

Ineptitude has an antidote, and its name is education. But education can be a colossal bore. So I prefer an antidote that's cozy and puffy and never lectures me: a Kelty Pulsar down sleeping bag ($190; 800-423-2320). Rated to 15 degrees, the three-pound Pulsar is a three-season bag, which means it takes up significantly less room than a bin of caramel corn. More like a dachshund. No, young campers, there's no substitute for brains. But when you're stumbling through a forest at midnight, you can roll out a Pulsar on a random patch of ground and act like you meant to sleep there all along. Which is way more comforting than knowing where the hell you are. —R.S.

Porter Products Big Sky Bistro Coffee Press ($16; 888-327-9908)
Leatherman PST multi-purpose tool ($57; 800-847-8665)
PUR Explorer Water Purifier ($130; 800-787-5463)
The North Face Packable Pant ($78; 800-362-4963)

Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado: The region's 470 miles of hikeable routes include an 80-mile leg of the Continental Divide Trail, plus three fourteeners you can climb in the summer and backcountry ski in the spring. Contact: Rio Grande National Forest, 719-852-5941.

Zion National Park, Utah: Dis-appear for days into remote slot canyons where ferns cling to 300-foot-high sandstone walls. Contact: Zion National Park, 435-772-3256.

San Bernardino National Forest, California: Massive granite escarpments, crenulated peaks, and 538 miles of trails. The smog of Los Angeles, 60 miles to the southwest, makes for impressive Technicolor sunsets. Contact: San Bernardino National Forest, 909-383-5588.

Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Nevada and California: The largest forest in the Lower 48, with 22 mountain ranges and 72 peaks over 10,000 feet. Prepare for solitude. Contact: Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, 775-331-6444.

Ozark Trail, Missouri: A shady 307 miles of trails. Cool off and get all transcendental in countless limestone caverns along the way. Contact: Mark Twain National Forest, 573-364-4621.

"Your circadian rhythm becomes skewed, personal hygiene is a challenge, and after a week anybody will start to miss the sun and wide open spaces."

Outside correspondent Rob Story profiled the ski-filmmeisters of Teton Gravity Research in the November 1999 issue.

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