By Molly Pinson Simoneau
I’m always looking for new local hikes to share with Blue Ridge Leader readers (and to enjoy myself!). On my most recent outing, I was exploring an area near Frederick, MD where I’d never been before. The weather was gorgeous, and I was enjoying the softly ascending trail which meandered through the woods, and passed still ponds. I arrived at a vista which provided a perfect view of the valley, where I enjoyed my peanut butter sandwich, before continuing on the second half of my trek.
Then, about a mile later, something happened to me that has never happened in all my years of hiking. I lost the trail. I was just marching along, as I always do, and then, I wasn’t sure which way to go. The trails weren’t very well marked, and the beaten path seemed to just fade away. My written guide said to look for the trail to veer off to the right. I looked for fallen leaves pulverized by dozens of footsteps, or an opening in the forest brush, but just couldn’t make out a path.
In a moment like this, many inexperienced hikers follow what they assume is a trail, they figure, if they keep pushing forward, they’ll get back on track. It is exactly the kind of mistake that will land you on the Today Show, to tell Matt Lauer how you survived three nights alone in the woods eating insects before you were rescued. If you ask me, that’s not the best way to earn your 15 minutes of fame.
In that moment where you’re not sure where you’re trail goes, here’s what you should do, and it’s what I did:
First, stop and think. I wasn’t sure which way the trail went. I searched for a trail that continued forward but didn’t see one. I knew that I still had the trail I came in on. Turning around and retracing your steps is always a safe option.
I also had a topo map, compass and a written trail guide. I sat down and got them out of my pack. Looking at the contour lines on the map, I was pretty sure I knew where I was, and I could see that there was a gravel fire road nearby which the trail had crossed earlier. I made the decision to try to make my way to that fire road. I oriented my map with the compass and began walking back towards the road, which eventually led me back to where I had parked my car. (Although, not without a second moment of panic where a missing landmark led me to believe that I wasn’t on the road I thought I was. Fortunately, I was exactly where I thought I was.)
This episode reminded me of how important it is to be prepared for the worst ever y time you hit the trail. When I’m hiking in an unfamiliar area, or on a trip longer than 5 miles or so, I always carry The Ten Essentials, many of which can be found at outdoor outfitter stores.
- Navigation: That means a map and compass. GPS units are great tools, but are useless once the battery power runs out.
- Sun protection: I usually wear a baseball cap. Sunscreen will also do the trick. It’s also important to protect your eyes with sunglasses. This becomes crucial in exposed areas like meadows or deserts.
- Insulation: Even if it’s warm outside, you’ll want to bring a sweatshirt as it can get cool at night or in the rain. As fall approaches a warm hat that covers your ears is essential.
- Illumination: A head-mounted flashlight is best.
- First Aid: Your kit should include bandages, pain reliever, antihistamine, and antiseptic ointment, and a cold compress, at the very least.
- Fire: You’ll want something to light a fire, and kindling. I always bring a simple cigarette lighter and a zip-top bag full of dryer lint.
- Nutrition: In addition to my lunch I always bring a couple energy bars for emergencies.
- Hydration: Bring more water than you think you need. I also like to carry water purification tablets that kill harmful parasites and bacteria found in stream water.
- Shelter: I carry a small emergency bivy sack which folds up to the size of a fist.
- Communication: Cell phones are great, but not always reliable in the wilderness. A small mirror that you can use to reflect sunlight, or a whistle can get the attention of a search and rescue team if you ever find yourself in need of one.
Fortunately, most of these items have remained in the bottom of my pack unused. Carrying all of them might seem like overkill in a place that’s not too far from town as are most of the hikes I recommend in this column, but in the tradition of the Boy Scouts, it’s best to always be prepared.