Practice metacognitive hiking. Think about what you’re doing, and be aware of your surroundings at all times.
As you hike, frequently ask yourself:
- Are we going in the compass direction the map indicates we should be traveling?
- Are we going uphill or downhill when expected?
- Are we passing through the type of terrain (open fields, forest) indicated on the map?
- Do trail junctions correspond with what shows on the map?
- Are we crossing roads or streams where the map shows them?
- Are visible landmarks showing up in the direction they should be?
If reality suddenly stops corresponding to what the map tells you to expect, but everything was checking out five minutes ago, then it’s easy to retrace your steps for five minutes, and see if you missed a turn. If you’ve been hiking along in the wrong direction for an hour, you’ll have a much tougher time salvaging the situation.
Don’t just rely on one hiker in front to lead the way. At least one other person in a group should always be double-checking. And really, everyone should be keeping track, for several reasons:
- You’ll be less likely to miss a turn if everyone is watching.
- If someone strays from the group, others in the group need to know where they are, and where they’re going.
- It gives everyone a chance to practice their map-reading skills, and to compare their conclusions against those of more experienced hikers.
- And finally, it’s fun. Route-finding is a puzzle; sometimes an easy one, sometimes more challenging. If you haven’t a clue how to go about solving the puzzle, it may be boring to wait for the leaders while they work on the puzzle. But once you understand the process and get involved, route-finding becomes part of the pleasure of a day of hiking.
- Read the map regularly. Sure it sounds obvious, but many hikers look at the topo only when they’re lost.
- Visualize the terrain ahead based on the topo’s contour lines. If the area doesn’t look as you imagined, verify your location on the map immediately.
- Know your pace so you can calculate the time it’ll take to get to a landmark. You’ll be tipped off if it takes unusually long. Figure out your pace by timing how long it takes you to hike a mile wearing a pack.
- Use a compass to verify your general direction and orient yourself with the map, but don’t expect it to tell you where to go. You have to study the map for that.
- Never wander when you’re lost, and always keep a level head. As soon as the landscape doesn’t jibe with your map, backtrack to a place you can clearly identify on your map and start over.
- Daydream later. Keep track of the terrain you’re traversing, as well as any changes in direction. Use familiar landmarks to maintain your orientation.
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