People get lost in the woods. That’s a fact. Whether it’s from stepping off the beaten path and losing your bearings, leaving your tent at night and not knowing how to find it again, or simply wandering into the woods with the confidence you can find your way with your tools and no trail, and discovering you were wrong.
Do you know the basics for finding your way? People my age learned them as kids, whether from their parents, in school, or from Scouting. Orienting yourself in your surroundings is an invaluable skill, especially if you think you might be lost.
Know Your Bearings
I was taught to get my compass bearings – whether I had a compass with me or not – by knowing whether it was morning or afternoon and where the sun was in the sky. Easy on clear days, tricky in cloudy ones or under dense tree cover.
Knowing that, I could approximate directions and navigate accordingly. And yes, I rambled through the woods all the time as a kid, without a map.
I earned the trail name Navigator on the Appalachian Trail nearly 20 years ago thanks to my attention to detail. I notice changes in trail elevation and slope, the habitat around me, landmarks like crooked trees and bare spots.
I got myself and a friend out of a jam that day by finding the trail again after we’d drifted from it in search of views on a cliff edge, and found the Pennsylvania DNR boundary blazes were dead ringers for AT blazes.
Neither of us had a map, but I did have a compass and a clue. I knew the ridge ran southwest to northeast and we were on the south side of the trail.
It took some careful navigating across boulder fields by feel of the landscape to find the AT again.
Understanding Florida Landscapes
Florida’s relative flatness may seem like there are few clues to landscape to navigate by, but in fact there are many.
Scrub and sandhill habitats are always on higher ground; floodplain forests and bayheads on low ground.
Don’t believe the old saw about where moss grows thickest on the side of trees because moss grows anywhere it can get a foothold.
Surface streams still flow towards lowlands. And yes, there are ridges and ravines and other landforms like sinkholes to notice and navigate by.
When Bearings Matter
I’ve been lost in Florida’s woods more than once. In my early days of exploring, I always carried a map and compass and had a clue of how to find the trail again.
When I started using a GPS to make maps, I got lazy about bringing the compass but still carried the maps.
After a season on the Appalachian Trail with no maps, I got lazy about carrying those, too. We did have a tiny compass with us that helped us back on track twice when we got off trail in bad weather.
March 1: my mother’s birthday. She didn’t want us to bother to make a special trip to see her, so my sister and I plotted to have a surprise birthday lunch with her.
I’m glad we did, since it was the last meal we shared together at a restaurant. To stall for time after our two hour drive, John and I went to visit the Shangri-La campground on the Cross Florida Greenway.
A friend had said it was now open to all trail users, not just equestrians anymore, and that turned out to be true. She thought there might be a way to build a side trail directly over to it from the Florida Trail.
When I think “direct,” I don’t think “parallel.” So I ignored the advice of the friendly caretaker to follow the buggy road and instead got out my app.
Oh, look, a beaten path went in that direction. I told John I was going to bushwhack. And I vanished down an unblazed trail.
Having helped build the Florida Trail on the Greenway, I knew I had to cross the horse trail zone to get to the Florida Trail. What I’d forgotten about was how rugged the terrain was here.
Massive excavations to create the Cross Florida Barge Canal left a legacy of steep slopes, deep ravines, and giant boulders.
I crossed the first horse trail and left the safety of the familiar for a scramble up through a ravine to the next terrace. I saw more steep uphill in front of me. Certainly it couldn’t be far?
When I reached another equestrian trail instead of the Florida Trail, my heart sank. I knew these trails meandered.
I started following it west. I let John know that while I knew kinda sorta where I was, I didn’t really, and if my phone died I’d keep following the horse trail until it reached the crossing on SR 484. Otherwise I’d try to find the FT.
The horse trail rambled as expected, so I pulled out the app to figure out where the Florida Trail was. North, and uphill. This climb was a mean one and I was not prepared for how it taxed me. I sat down and hydrated.
One more climb, and I’d topped the ridge. Here was an orange blaze, and I knew exactly where to go. As I went to tell John the good news, a man walked by with a dog and said how much he loved this piece of trail.
I hadn’t hiked it in six years, so it was a delight to enjoy the elevation changes at a far more sensible grade. And I was utterly relieved to see John hike in to meet me.
I was very fortunate that my phone didn’t fail and that the app got me out of a tight spot. Could I have found my way out?
Yes, just knowing that all the trails in that area are east-west, but we wouldn’t have met Mom for her birthday lunch and I’d be upset with myself about that.
It could have taken me far longer to get out of there and I didn’t have enough water to spend hours in the heat.
It used to be that you (and I) never went off trail on purpose without a map and compass. Now digital tools have become the norm. That’s why Outside magazine recently ran this article on the dangers of more people heading outdoors with just a smartphone or GPS to guide their way, without schooling in how to find your way without them.
So, my cautionary tale: if you get lost, common sense, a basic orientation of yourself to how and where you left the trail, of where you are relative to the sun to find your way, and a map and compass.
Knowledge of habitat and landscape. A sense of direction. These things can guide you. Electronics can and do fail. Do not rely on them. I was lucky.
We see The Florida Trail Guide app as just that – a virtual, spatially oriented edition of our guidebook with lots of room for more photos and points of interest, and a way for you to leave feedback on trail issues like reroutes, closures, flooding, damaged bridges, and the like.
Although it has built-in GPS and offline maps, it should not be what you rely on for keeping yourself on track. Always have a paper map – the Florida Trail Association makes an excellent set of them – and a compass.