M On-Trail Route Finding: When the Trail is Hard to Follow

by David Chenault

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Article Summary:

Getting lost is not a black and white affair. I can't recall ever being fully lost, in the sense of having little idea where I was, but there have been plenty of times where I could only pinpoint my location to within a kilometer of a given point, and even more occasions when I knew exactly where I was, exactly where I wanted to go, but couldn't get between the two due to unforeseen cliffs, swollen rivers, and so forth. On one occasion years ago, two partners and I stood at midnight, the soft contours of the San Rafael Swell illuminated by all the earth's stars and a new moon, watching the passing, silent headlights of semi trucks on I-70 five miles to the north. We could see a fuzzy dirt road almost within spitting distance leading back to camp, but spent three hours finding a way down the 100 meter cliff to it. Did that count as being lost? On another occasion Chris Plesko and I hiked off our map (on purpose) and rather than picking up the human trail out of sight across a huge meadow, followed the bison-made highway deep into the head of an unknown valley. It took until noon the next day, a camp still off the map, some GPS extrapolation, and a bushwhack down a big hill covered in blowdown to find a human trail again. Many might consider that lost.

Neither of these misadventures were planned, and neither led to anything worse than sore feet and a good story, but both could have had far greater consequences. Descending a Windgate sandstone cliff system is dangerous enough in daylight, and when you know there's a route. Doing it in the dark, after a 60-kilometer day, and with one functioning headlamp for three is begging for a fall and broken bones. And had Chris or I slipped on the countless rain-snotted logs, rescuers would have been looking in the wrong place for days. Getting lost, in all its gradations, is thus something to be avoided. Or at the very least, entered into willingly and with proper preparations.

There are endless ways to make route finding on faint trails, both human and animal, easier and more predictable, and thus safer. What follows are a few of them. I'll discuss each idea in introductory form, before examining them in the context of both human and animal created trails. There will be occasions in the wilderness when you'll be forced to route find based on no established path of any kind, but those times are more rare than you might think. Most of the time in the wilderness, someone has gone there before, and finding and following the established trail is the most efficient way to go. A bonus section dealing with winter-travel on snow-covered trails is included as well.

Disclaimer: these are some ideas for route finding on human and animal trails. There are many more. I also take no responsibility herein for instructing on map and compass use. If you can’t adjust for declination or lack an intimate understanding of contour intervals, stop now. Learn that stuff and come back later.

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