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Staying found this winter

A map and compass are critical backcountry tools for all times of the year. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

By the time I heard about the ongoing search operation on Allen Mountain last week, the subject had been lost for the better part of three days. With nighttime temperatures in the valleys sitting in the low 20s Fahrenheit, it seemed fairly likely that those searching for the lost hiker were probably not going to find them alive.

It came as quite a joyful shock to see the news that rangers had located the hiker on the shoulder of Allen and extracted the person, more or less without incident. The question I am left with is whether this hiker had appropriately prepared for the adventure and whether the hiker had the skills to remedy being lost in the backcountry. The duration of the search would indicate that this person perhaps did not. While it concluded happily, this incident certainly highlights the importance of knowing how to stay “found” in the backcountry.

The full details of this rescue have yet to be revealed, so I could be entirely wrong, but an early story from New York Upstate quoted the Department of Environmental Conservation as saying the hiker wasn’t adequately prepared for the conditions and lacked “the proper equipment.” Allen is a remote and challenging hike; it highlights the need to research your adventures before you head to the trailhead and to have some practice with traveling off trail. This is especially true as winter conditions start to settle in and following a herd path becomes more difficult.

If you do find yourself lost in the Adirondacks, especially in the colder months of the year, there are a few things you can do that might save your life. Often, the first advice given is, “Don’t panic,” which sounds pretty hollow when reduced to a two-word maxim. But it’s worth taking the time to understand. Panic defines the moment when we stop acting rationally and plunge headlong into fear rather than continuing to make measured decisions. Often, when we’re lost, we bend all of our focus on finding the path we came from. The ability to see more broadly and reason more clearly is clouded by an obsessive need to feel “found” again. By all means, spend some time trying to backtrack and find the trail you lost, but put a timer on it. If you can’t find it within the first 20 minutes, you should start considering other alternatives as every step you take could now be carrying you farther from your goal.

One of these alternatives is to head uphill. Often, from a vantage point or vista, we can see features that might help us figure out where we are in relation to the trail we planned to be on. Another benefit to getting higher up on a mountain is that, in the Adirondacks at least, there is frequently some cellphone service higher up. If you are truly lost and require assistance, you’re most likely to be able to call for help from points higher up. Another, if you know the area well enough, is to follow waterways downhill. It may take some time, but water generally leads toward larger bodies of water, where you are more likely to find signs of human habitation and therefore a way out of the woods.

Both of these little pointers are only useful once you’ve become lost, however. And more to the point, they’re only truly effective if you have a sense for where you are on a map to begin with. Better still is, of course, to avoid getting lost at all. The best way to do this is by being prepared with the skills, gear and research needed to make sure you have a successful trip.

As far as research is concerned, you should always take the time to diligently study a map before you set out on a hike (particularly one where you leave marked trails behind to follow herd paths or to bushwhack). By taking a broader look and identifying natural or man-made boundaries (roads, water ways, lakes, mountain ranges and other trails), you can define the parameters within which you’re adventuring. For example, if you look at a map of the area you wish to hike and notice a stream to the north of the trail, a road to the west, a large, flat swamp to the east of your destination, and a pocket of lakes to the south, you can use any of those features to reorient yourself in the event that you lose the trail. This is especially important in densely forested woodlands, like the Adirondacks, where using handrails like mountain ridges or shorelines can be more challenging.

The best thing you can do for yourself if you plan to spend a lot of time in the backcountry is to practice with a map and compass. And yes, I do mean a paper map and an analog compass. While AllTrails and other such hiking or mapping apps can be good resources during the planning phase of an adventure, they should never be relied upon on the trail. If you don’t learn how to read terrain and natural features by sight and learn how to translate those features to the image on a map, you are not only setting yourself up for trouble, but you’re also missing out on a beautiful and nuanced aspect of the wilderness experience.

With these skills in hand, you shouldn’t just look at the map once before the trip and consider that good enough. The best way to learn more about the area you’re recreating in is to study your map at every trail junction, every change in terrain, at every peak and every stream crossing. That way, you’ll not only have a sense for where you’re going but also where you are and have already been. Maps are of no use if you only pull them out once you’re lost. At that point, it’s a guessing game. If you can positively determine your location at multiple points along the way, then you can never get too lost without realizing it and being able to correct it quickly.

All of this is particularly important for winter adventures. Environmental factors during this season can severely limit the amount of time one can be reasonably expected to survive while unprepared in the backcountry. The hiker on Allen last week was incredibly fortunate. The impact of snowy, wet conditions and the onset of hypothermia can render even the best plans and deepest experience irrelevant in a matter of hours.

If you’re new to map reading, or to backcountry adventure in general, you should strongly consider trying to find a mentor or a teacher. Whether that’s a friend who has a solid base of experience, a wilderness skills school or a professional guide, learning in a wild setting is the best way to start developing these critical skills. It may sound absurd, but with good teaching, you can actually practice being lost, dealing with the feeling of disorientation, and recovering from it. Then, if it happens in real time later on, you can slow down, avoid panic, and use the skills you’ve developed to either relocate the trail you came from or chart a course to get back to civilization and safety.

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