There’s a well-known saying about exploration: “If you’re not lost, you’re not much of an explorer.” Yet there I was, disoriented, in the middle of a boulder field with no signal, no visible sign of a trail, nobody else in sight—I didn’t feel like much of an explorer.
I was an experienced solo-hiker, hiking on a heavily trafficked trail in Jasper National Park. It was next to impossible to get lost. I had just spent the past several weeks hiking much harder and very remote mountains in the Yukon. This was a national park, with some of the best groomed and marked trails, but I had taken a wrong turn and followed the climber’s route up into the bowl of the mountain until there was no longer a trail to follow.
I had the necessary supplies to hunker down for the night if needed, but I was missing the most important part: the ability to navigate. My smartphone navigation app, the one I had used without cell service numerous times before, wasn’t opening, and without cell service I couldn’t do anything to locate myself. Frustrated, I cursed at myself for not forking out the nominal yearly fee to be able to download maps offline with peace of mind and for getting myself into this situation in the first place.
“I think I’m lost,” I finally admitted to myself. I knew I was fine, but the pit in my stomach grew into knots of unease.
I went through my mental checklist and slowly formulated a plan. I strategically began picking my way through the boulders (some of which were taller than me) to get to higher ground so that I could locate any sign of a trail, or at least another person. I took my time, ‘sighting my line’ using reference points as I went, until I finally spotted three tiny dots in the distance up on a glacier.
It was a group of climbers coming down from a summit attempt. When they got closer, they were clearly confused to see me, an ordinary hiker, on a technical climber’s route. After some brief chit-chat, they pointed me in the right direction and I eventually spilled back onto the trail, now populated with dozens of hikers happily taking pictures of the beautiful peaks surrounding us, completely oblivious to my recent ordeal and embarrassment. Upon my return, I shared a TikTok video about the experience and it went viral.
It was an amateur video, just a few clips tied together to explain the sequence of events, but overnight, the video was viewed by over ninety thousand people. Viral may be a slight overstatement, but for me, nothing I had ever shared before had been viewed by so many strangers.
The comment’s section was a compelling wake-up call. It contained acknowledgment and encouragement, but also harsh judgment and criticism:
“This happened to me in a slot canyon, it was the scariest feeling”
“I feel this, I have never been so happy to see another person when I got lost.”
“I know that trail, how could anyone get lost on that trail?!”
“Why were you even hiking alone? You should never hike alone!”
The one thing I couldn’t deny was my lack of navigational preparedness.
What can you do ahead of time to make sure you are adequately prepared to navigate? Here are four key steps to consider:
Test Your Offline App Capabilities
Navigation apps are only helpful when they can open. Verify that you can still use them offline, and make sure to download and review your maps ahead of time. Turning off your Wi-Fi and enabling Airplane Mode means that you can run test scenarios in the safety of your own environment to make sure you are comfortable using them. Apps such as AllTrails, Gaia GPS and Avenza Maps all have built in trail functions and offline capabilities, and yes, it is worth paying an annual membership to be able to download maps directly to your phone.
Pack Extra Batteries or a Portable Charger
If you are relying on electronic devices such as smartphones or handheld GPS devices, remember to bring a spare portable charger and/or batteries with you. Mine is lightweight, waterproof and doubles as a flashlight/emergency light beacon and easily provides an extra one or two charges of my phone.
Learn to Use a Paper Map and Compass
Electronic devices do fail. Consider learning to use a paper map and a magnetized compass as a backup. While they cannot show your exact location, map reading is a fundamental outdoor skill that can help orient yourself in even the most difficult terrain when you don’t have access to an electronic device.
If You Do Get Disoriented, S.T.O.P.
If you do begin to feel that pit in your stomach and sense that you may have taken a misstep, immediately follow the AdventureSmart STOP Strategy (Stop, Think, Observe, Plan and then Act). Take stock of your surroundings before you do anything else. Fear impacts good judgment and inhibits decision-making abilities, and there is an emerging field of study of lost persons to help understand typical thought patterns of behaviour (ex: “wood shock”).
Taking some time to prepare will increase your confidence in the outdoors and reduce the burden on our precious search and rescue resources. Make sure you are prepared to navigate even on the easiest trails. It's an important lesson to learn!