The day before "Superstorm Sandy" came calling, I delivered some camping stuff to a site about a mile into the woods. Instead of taking the usual path, which I could almost follow by feel, I decided to wander in by a different route, just to see what might have happened since I was there last.
This is familiar, but largely featureless country. One spot often looks a lot like another, and it's criss-crossed with old skidder tracks that look like roads for while, but disappear just when you think they shouldn't. You can't really get lost ... but you sure can get twisted around. From the high ground, you can sometimes see a mountain and a pond to orient yourself, but in the woods it's all rocks and trees and swamps and hillsides, which seem to slope every which way.
I loaded my pack and took off into a cloudy and drizzly afternoon with a swirling wind generally out of the southwest. I had two compasses with me, as usual, but I wasn't in any hurry and decided to see if I could get where I wanted to go without using one. I also had a GPS with me, but the reception was so bad under the trees and heavy cloud cover that you couldn't count on it.
I had no problem the first half mile or so, but then I somehow drifted off course. Stopping to gauge the overall wind direction helped, but it still took a bit of deliberate wandering before I found a familiar spot and could orient myself and make it to camp.
Coming back by a longer loop provided the same challenge. Once I found a familiar spot, oriented myself and struck off resolutely in the direction I needed to go. Ten minutes later, I found myself in another familiar spot traveling at almost 90 degrees to the course I wanted. The wind and that familiar landmark set me right again. If the sun had been visible or the wind steadier, I don't think I'd have had any problems either way, but without any reliable aids, it was tough. Of course, I always had the compasses for backup if I really needed help.
The lessons: First of all, I'm an experienced woodsman, I was traveling in very familiar country and I still got very twisted around at least twice. In country you know extremely well, you can probably find your way on a sunny day. But clouds, and especially mist and fog or darkness, can make it really, really tough.
But in unfamiliar country, you absolutely need to have a map (at least in your head) and a compass and the know-how to use them. GPS technology is wonderful, but it doesn't always work. In my experience, the people who tell you they don't need a compass or have one inside their heads are lying to themselves. I've never met anyone who couldn't get lost in fog, rain and snow. So carry a compass, know how to use it, and practice your woodland navigation skills when you don't need them.
Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
(Not for long, anyway ... )
It's easy to lose things -- including yourself -- at this time of year. You can be out on a familiar trail and still get lost for any number of reasons: Falling leaves have obscured the treadway. A windstorm (like Sandy) has blown down enough trees and branches to make following the path difficult. Fog or mist rolls in. Or any of the above (or something else unforeseen) slows you down and early darkness catches up with you.
There are degrees of being lost, a progression with each step offering you the chance to make things better or worse. The trick is to use your head and not make things worse, to move in the direction you want to go, not in one you don't.
If, for example, you have been walking on a trail, and suddenly aren't sure if you are still on it, the first thing to do is stop, take a deep breath and look around. This is the first point where you can get yourself more lost, or less, and less is good.
If you have a companion, one of you stays put while the other retraces your steps until he or she is sure the trail has been found. If you are alone, take a moment to think about what might have happened, mark the spot, then slowly and deliberately try to retrace your steps. Usually, you aren't far off the path and usually, the route you followed looked like a trail but wasn't, so following it backward will lead you back to where you want to be. However, if you panic and move too quickly, you can miss the trail -- especially if it's covered with leaves. Mist or fog -- which can roll in quickly -- can make things even trickier.
If you are bushwhacking and have no trail to find, always try to have a baseline -- road, a stream or a lake shore, for example -- that you can be sure of hitting in an emergency. Where I was wandering, for example, traveling south or southwest would always bring me to a road. Might not be easy or fun, but I'd get there. Of course with no sun, I'd have needed the compass to be sure where south was.
The worst thing you can do is panic and plunge blindly in any direction hoping to find safety. I've been involved in a search where the lost person actually crossed a dirt road without seeing it, so great was their panic. That's a perfect example of making things worse, not better.