We were in Colorado Bend State Park in Bend, Texas. It was a mid-day hike, about five miles in, and I said to my mom, “I don’t think we’re going in the right direction.”
She was not surprised. I’m her child who ended up in Memphis on my way to Chicago from Murray, Kentucky. This is also not the first trail I’ve gotten us lost on.
We consulted my trail map and my Google Tracks. They confirmed my suspicion.
“Let’s ask these people,” I said, pointing to a family group approaching us on the gravel road.
I walked up to the woman. “Do you know where you’re going?”
She replied positively with a slight sneer as if to insinuate that I should also know where I’m going.
Well, I don’t, lady. Not all of us are so lucky.
They were no help, but they pointed to a pick-up truck that had passed them and was now backing up to us. “Maybe he can help.”
I asked him a lot of questions.
Like, “Where are we?” And “How do we get to where we want to be?”
He did not sneer or scoff at our misfortune. He offered us fresh water and told us where to go, which was back the way we’d come about two miles. On a gravel road. In the afternoon sun.
My poor mother.
She’s a rambunctious one. She goes to the gym, does her barefoot running, competes in mini-triathlons, but on this day, her knee hurt and she hadn’t wanted to hike more than five miles. At the point of the turn-around, we had another four to go. Give or take. But what do I know? I can’t follow a map, or the blue arrow that is US on the GPS going farther from our ending point.
So all I could do was guess. And give her my dog’s leash and let him pull her up the big hills.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been lost in this park. The first time was with my two dogs and a shitty Blackberry with a shitty map. Not that the map would’ve helped me much, but still. One can hope.
On that July afternoon, I’d struck out on Lively Loop, which I wrongly assumed would loop me back to my car. But when I popped out on the other end, I was on the maintenance road and my car was not in sight. My inner GPS told me to turn right, which I did, but after walking a little ways and not seeing my car, I decided I’d gone the wrong way and I turned around.
By this time, we had no water, the Texas July sun was so hot and my dogs were diving into the meager amounts of shade we passed.
I stopped at a park maintenance area and thought I might find a park ranger who could give me directions or a ride back to my car. Instead, there was no one. Upon further investigation, I found the workmen’s bathroom and while I filled my water bottle in their shower, the dogs drank ferociously out of the toilet.
I went back the way we had come, back to the point where I’d popped out of Lively Loop, back to the point where we’d turned around and I pushed just a little bit more around that bend and there was my car.
Sometimes I wonder why I’m ever allowed in the wilderness alone.
If you’re anything like me, you might find the following tips useful in blending a love for hiking with an ineptitude for directions.
10 Tips for Directionally Challenged Hikers (Like Me)
Download an app
There’s a joke between my hiking partner and I: “Thank goodness we downloaded that app, or we’d still be out there.” And it’s true. I use Google Tracks, which allows me to export all of my hikes to my laptop, but the map quality is excellent. With the technology that’s available to us, there’s no reason for people like me to wander around too long before finding our way.
Hike with a fully charged device
You need to run the app. And have enough battery to do so for several hours. Plus if you need to call for help, a dead cellphone will do nothing for you.
If you pass someone on the trail, chances are they’re coming from the direction you’re going. Talk to them.
Bring a trail map
Or take a picture of the map at the trailhead. That’s what I do.
Research new trails
The night before I embark on a hike on an unfamiliar trail, I spend a lot of time researching it and poring over the maps available to me on the Internet. Again, we have resources to keep us on the right path, so we should use them.
Rely on the old ones
I have a repertoire of old faithfuls. These are the trails I know very well and can navigate without the use of a map. If I don’t feel like stressing over the complexity of a new trail, I lean on my old friends.
Talk to people who have gone before you
When I was preparing to visit Big Bend National Park, I got the details from a colleague who’s spent a lot of time there. He was able to give me specific trail names, lengths and levels of difficulty. This pre-planning helped me once I arrived and didn’t have Wifi.
If I’m unfamiliar with a trail, I’ll hike in to the distance I want and then walk out the way I came in. Deciphering loops and adjoining trails is not easy for me, so I don’t rely on my map-reading skills to get me home safely.
Tell someone where you’re going
This is a big no-brainer, but seriously. Tell someone where you’re going. And if you know what trail you’re going to be wandering around on, tell someone that too. This is vital information if a search party has to be launched.
Bring enough water
I fill my backpack bladder and then I stuff a couple extra bottles in there too. If I know there are no natural water sources for the dogs, I make sure I have enough to keep them hydrated.
What are some tools of the trade you use to keep yourself on point?