Navigating is a use-it-or-lose-it skill and one that few hikers, cyclists or walkers employ anymore because of their increased dependence on GPS units, Garmin computers, Google Earth and similar technologies.
According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, nine of 10 smartphone owners use their device to get directions or for other location-based services, up from 74 percent in 2013. That heavy reliance on devices can give people a false sense of security.
In October 2015, a surveyor found the remains of Geraldine Largay, 66, who was hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail alone in the summer of 2013, stepped off the path and apparently became disoriented.
She tried to use her cellphone to text for help, possibly causing further disorientation, especially if she was moving around while looking at her device instead of her surroundings. But she was in the dense woods of Maine, and she couldn't get a signal. She survived almost a month before dying of exposure and starvation.
Nobody knows how many U.S. hikers get lost each year, according to Robert J. Koester, an instructor for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the chief executive of dbS Productions, which conducts search-and-rescue training and publishes related information.
While a database that Koester created shows 24,000 formal search-and-rescue efforts a year, it's imprecise, he said, given that many hikers get lost for only a short time. "Many are able to eventually reorient themselves, or are lucky enough to stumble across someone else," he said. But for some hikers, the wrong turn proves deadly.
Preventing such tragedies is one reason that Stacy Boone teaches land navigation classes through her company, Step Outdoors, which works in southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico.
Boone, who says she is a relative by marriage of the 18th-century explorer Daniel Boone, organises wilderness trips to teach inexperienced hikers and backpackers how to use a map and compass.
She has earned the Triple Crown of Hiking, an award given to people who have completed the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.
She says that knowing how to follow a map while traversing a trail, how to orient a map north and how to set a bearing are critical skills that have helped her in forests, mountains, canyons, fields and deserts, no matter how many twists and turns she has taken.
People tend to panic when they're lost or think they're lost, Boone said. And panic leads to irrational behavior. Her first rule? Just stop. Drink water. Eat a snack. Doing so will help you calm down. It will also help you slow down.
"The classic behavior when you get lost is to speed up," said Jamie O'Donnell, a field instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School, a nonprofit based in Wyoming. "People think, 'Oh, I need to work hard to get myself out of this.' In doing that, they often make the situation worse by hiking fast. They quit paying attention to terrain features."
Once you've stopped and replenished your body, you can think more clearly.
"Then and only then, pull out your map," Boone said.
Topographic maps, which hikers use, typically show major highways, trails, waterways, vegetation (such as forests and meadows) and contour lines that depict elevation. It's a low-tech version of what so many have come to depend on electronically.
Although many trail users frequently rely on electronic prompts to provide a sense of direction, a GPS device is not a magic box, O'Donnell said. It's important to understand its limitations.
Also, "turn-by-turn GPS [navigation] in which you see only one route and are always going straight ahead" doesn't teach people to situate themselves on a route, said Nora Newcombe, a cognitive psychologist at Temple University.
Newcombe and her team of researchers are studying why some individuals are more directionally challenged than others.
To become a better navigator, pay attention to clues. Is the ground flat or sloped? Note the position of the sun in the sky. Keep an eye out for "handrails," landmarks that parallel your course, such as a creek to one side. And remember: "Everything looks different when you spin your body and look backward," O'Donnell said. "If you step off a rail to use the bathroom, turn back around and pick out some identifying markers, like a big oak tree that splits near the bottom." You'll know you need to pass it on the way back.
And hikers should always make a plan. "Let someone know you're going out and when you'll be back," said Brian Schachter, an instructor at the Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School. "If you're not back by that time, they know to contact authorities."
The Washington Post.