Late last week buzzed with the haunting details of a backpacker who lost her way and died on the Appalachian Trail in 2013. While acknowledging the tragedy of her ordeal, some people who walk in the woods shared another reaction:
It couldn’t happen to me.
News accounts have noted that hiker Geraldine Largay, whose body lay undiscovered in her tent only two miles off the trail in Maine for more than 26 months, lacked a good sense of direction, was prone to anxiety, and may not have even known how to use a compass.
Somehow, though, before the Tennessee woman walked off the trail and was lost, she had managed to make it nearly 1,000 miles — the equivalent of three complete circuits of the Superior Hiking Trail, the closest equivalent Minnesota has to the iconic footpath that runs from Georgia to Maine.
Largay, 66, appeared to know some things about hiking, so wilderness experts said questioning her skill set doesn’t do anything to improve your own. Bottom line: No one is immune from trouble in the woods.
Prepare for anything
Going into the woods presents a level of risk. When you hit the trail, the only thing worse than not being prepared for an emergency is fooling yourself into thinking you don’t need to be.
The Superior Trail, like the Appalachian, has attributes that belie its inherent risks. The trail is well-marked, frequently crosses roads and carries more than 20,000 hikers a year along its 310 miles. But, at its heart, the Superior Trail travels through rugged wilderness. Besides the possibility of getting lost, injuries and medical emergencies can occur that make travel difficult if not impossible, and they can happen far from a vehicle.
So on a trail such as the Superior, how do you prepare for a possible emergency, and then react if one occurs?
To start, realize that problems can occur no matter whether you are a day hiker, a backpacker or a thru-hiker. That is the advice of Gayle Coyer, executive director of the Superior Hiking Trail Association. She recommended essentials to carry no matter the trip, whether it’s an hour or a month.
Essentials include plenty of water (and gear to filter it if you need more), a first-aid kit, map, compass, rain gear (with extra insulated clothing during the colder months), lighter or matches, flashlight, extra food, and a pack to put it all in.
Cellphones are valuable tools for contacting friends or family in an emergency. But a trail changes things. Because you can’t get a signal everywhere on the trail, and phones lose battery life, Coyer said it’s best not to rely on them.
Alison Heebsh of New Brighton, who recently completed a yearlong effort to hike the entire Superior Trail, carries a sheet of paper with her itinerary and contact numbers. Heebsh said she gives a copy to a family member and a designated “check-in buddy” who is instructed what to do if she fails to return when she says she will. Her sheet also has photos of the clothes she will be wearing and her tent.
“I want the phone numbers printed in case I can’t use my phone and have to borrow one,” she said.
Hikers may think more about becoming lost than about getting hurt or sick, probably because nearly everyone who has ever hiked has had some such experience — if not officially lost, at least unsure of their location or dealing with taking a wrong turn. It can happen as quickly as taking a lunch break at a trail campsite and going the wrong direction on the way out. (Hint: Determine “go left” or “go right” before you even sit down to eat.)
It’s getting off the trail that causes the most problems, said those in the know. In woods as dense as Superior’s, getting lost can be quick when deviating from the designated path, said Cary J. Griffith of Rosemount. Griffith is an experienced Superior Trail hiker and author of “Lost in the Wild,” a book that chronicled the stories of two men — one a hiker, one a canoeist — who barely survived getting lost in the North Woods. “The trail is well-marked, but it can still happen in an instant,” he said. A game trail, for example, may look more traveled than the real route.
People may go off the trail intentionally, too — often for bathroom breaks, but sometimes to look for flowers, mushrooms or antler sheds.
During a hike this spring near the end of the Superior Trail north of Hovland, Minn., Heebsh twice found herself off the route, in areas where numerous saplings had bent over from a winter ice storm and obscured the path. “I stopped as soon as the trail wasn’t well-worn and didn’t seem right,” she said. “I took a minute to look around and make sure I was calm and levelheaded. I took off my pack once as a signal to myself to be calm while I thought it through. Then I backtracked through the brush that I had broken until I found what was clearly the right path.”
Heebsh said she also makes sure she knows her maps. “Part of my map study includes knowing the bounds of the area I’m in,” she said. “What are the highways and streams I will hit if I go straight in each direction?”
Coyer carries non-adhesive flagging tape used for marking areas to make visible her route when she is uncertain about her direction. Then, she removes the tape when she is sure. “You can also look back to see how the trees will look on the way back, or break small branches so you can find your way back to the trail,” she said.
Coyer said hikers on the Superior Trail should look for the blue blazes on trees marking its way. If you haven’t seen one for more than a few minutes, it’s time to assess your situation and consider turning back until you find the previous marker and are sure you’re on the right trail.
If you do become lost and can’t make contact with the outside world, what to do? Hunker down and wait for help? Try to find your way out?
While a common recommendation is to stay put,Coyer called a hiker’s response a “situational decision.”
Elect to try to find your way out, Coyer said, if you are convinced you have the tools and proper mind-set to navigate to a familiar spot. There’s no sense in making a bad situation worse.
If you anticipate someone will be looking for you (and the person will if you’ve planned well), it can be a good idea to wait for help, she said, especially if you are carrying the essentials and have an injury or medical condition that makes moving difficult.
If you are off the trail and decide to stay where you are, make sure you do everything you can to be seen. While the Maine Warden Service said one of its dog search crews came within 100 yards of Largay’s location, she apparently did little to attract attention. According to Coyer, even something as simple as carrying a brightly colored bandanna and hanging it from a tree can be the difference between being found and staying lost — or as in Largay’s situation, the difference between life and death.
Jeff Moravec is an outdoors writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.