Author: Tina Eckerlin
When it comes to backpacking I have my gear pretty dialed in. I have everything I need and what works for me to stay warm, safe and dry.
Before a backpacking trip, I check and double check that I have all my gear. I have my route planned, and my itinerary with someone at home with a plan if I don't check in by a certain day. I have many years of backcountry experience and do mostly solo-trips. I attribute my experience, knowledge, and most importantly preparedness for so many successful trips.
A couple of years ago I came home from a weeklong fall trip. It was a glorious last trip of the year before the snow. When I arrived home I cleaned and stored all of my gear so it would be ready for Spring.
After a few days of being home the high from my recent trip started to dissipate. If you have ever been on a backpacking trip you know what I mean. You start to get the itch for adventure. I decided to get out for a big day hike. I wanted a new trail that I hadn't hiked and could spend all day on. Perhaps, even with some great views.
So one morning, I searched through my hiking app and found what looked like a great series of connected trails only about 45 minutes away.
I downloaded the maps, grabbed my daypack, told my partner I was going out for a hike and went on my way.
I hiked all day! The leaves and rocks were still coated with the mornings frost and slowly melted away as the sun finally touched them. There were running streams, and hilltop lakes. I walked and savoured every minute.
I had grabbed a handful of snacks and my water bottles. I sat on top of the viewpoint and enjoyed a late lunch.
I kept going, the trail was difficult to find in some places, I was climbing up and down, weaving across a huge escarpment. It was late afternoon, and I only had a couple of hours of light left. I checked the map I had downloaded on my phone to estimate how much further until I reached my vehicle. My phone was dead. The cool weather drained the battery.
I opened up my daypack and realized I had not packed my battery bank. To be honest, I didn't really pack much except for my down puffy, a couple of snacks and 2 litres of water. I didn't even have my water filter.
I kept following the trail until it was lost again. I tried to double back to the last location of the trail. It was no where in sight. I stopped and found a clearing on the escarpment to find my bearings. I could see the general direction that I knew I was parked.
I had two choices. I could backtrack the way I had come. It would take me at least 6-7 hours to go back via the series of trails I had done, if I could find the trail again. It was getting darker, and I had not packed a headlamp.
The second option was to keep going in the direction of my vehicle. I could still see the setting sun and gauge my direction. I estimated 1-2 hours distance.
I also noted to myself that I had been an idiot. I not told my partner where I was going. They probably thought I had gone to one of my usual trails close to home. I had no map, food, shelter, headlamp or anyway to let them know I had lost my way. No one would be looking here for me.
I chose to continue in the direction of my vehicle. I was weaving my way back and forth down the escarpment. It was heavily treed and hard to see further than 15 feet between rocks and trees.
I was carefully making my way across a smooth steeply sloped stone area covered with wet moss. My feet started to slide out from under me. I quickly dropped my body down to keep my feet going down first and not my head. I managed to grab onto a sapling to stop myself.
My heart was pounding. So many thoughts were running through my head. Mainly, I kept repeating to myself 'You f*&King idiot! You know better than to put yourself in this position!'
I took a deep breath and tried to figure out my next move. I had slid down 20 feet from where I was. I was at the edge of a 10-12 foot drop down to a wooded area. If I would have gone done head first it could have been really bad. I tested the stone face, it was too slick to make it back up. On either side the stone face and drop continued as far as I could see.
I calculated my options. The drop was only 10-12 feet, which doesn't seem that high, but at the time it appeared a lot more intimidating. I figured I could drop down. There were leaves to help soften the fall and I am nearly 6 foot, so really with would only be a 6 foot drop, right? I couldn't make it back up, and I couldn't stay here. I slid down and dropped, hoping there were no hidden rocks under the leaves. I landed like a cat on all fours and rolled down the hill a few feet. Thankfully, no harm done!
I hiked for another hour checking the setting sun every couple of minutes to keep my bearings. I emerged from the forest onto a backroad. When I saw my vehicle I felt so much relief.
My leg, elbow and butt were sore from falling while I was sliding. My clothes were wet and my pants were torn. I was disappointed that I had put myself in this position. I had gone against quite a few Leave No Trace and AdventureSmart basic practices that I advocate for and teach. I had gone off trail (not on purpose mind you), but I had trampled through an environmentally sensitive area trying to find my way.
I was relieved and embarrassed. Most of all, I was angry at myself. I was angry that I had been so unprepared and stupid. I teach preparedness! I travel the backcountry often on long solo-trips. How could I have made this mistake. Was it over-confidence or cockiness?
Upon reflection, it was being overly excited to get out and not being prepared. I had just come off a backcountry trip. I am normally extremely prepared even for a day hike, but not this time. This was a scary reminder of why we need to prepare. It could have been a lot worse.
I go over the decisions I made that day frequently. In that situation, I don't know that I would have made different choices based on the gear I had with me, or rather the lack of it. I know that if I would have stayed put, search and rescue would have not even known the region I was in. If I had turned around and tried to find the trail I had been on I could have become even more lost deeper in the park system.
All I know, is that I will never make this mistake again. Take my advice, and be prepared.
Bonus Tips: 10 Essential Items You Should Never Hike Without!
Beside packing along the following 10 Essential Items, make sure to leave your plan with someone at home, including: where you are going, and time to expect you to check in by.
Many GPS and trail apps have a check-in feature. AdventureSmart app also has some great tips and trip planning features, plus you are able to email your plans to someone at home!
1. Illumination & Power Source
- Flashlight &/or headlamp
- Spare batteries or battery bank and charging cord
- Spare bulb if required
You never know if you may need to hike in the dark or spend the night in the woods. Many headlamps also have flash/strobe settings which make a great signal if you are hurt or lost in the dark.
2. Navigation & Communication Aids
- Topographical map and compass
- Downloaded map on phone or GPS device
- SOS device or personal locator
- Extra batteries or battery bank and charging cords
Before heading out, know your route, how to use a map and compass &/or your GPS device. Electronic devices fail and sometimes get lost. A map and compass are essential for route finding.
3. Signaling Device
- Whistle &/or a mirror
- Brightly coloured clothing
A whistle will last longer than your voice. Many packs have an included whistle. Make sure it works before heading out.
Mirrors are the primary signal device for aircrafts in search and rescue.
Brightly coloured clothing can help signal both ground and ariel searchers. It can be waved around or help locate you if you are injured and can't move.
4. Fire Making Kit
- Waterproof matches, lighter, &/or fire starter and a candle
Having a fire if you have an unplanned stay in the backcountry over night can not only provide warmth, dry clothes, keep animals away, cooking and boiling water. It can also be a signal device at night and a smokey fire can be a great daytime signal during the day.
5. First Aid Supplies
- Standard first aid supplies
- Blister care
- Bug spray
- Medication (plus extra just in case)
The most important aspect of first aid is knowing how to use it! Take a standard or wilderness first aid course and know how to use the items in your kit!
If hiking in a group, ensure that each person has their own kit or a kit large enough for the group. Share any medical issues with group incase of emergency and emergency contacts.
6. Food & Water
- 1-2 litres of water per person
- Water filter &/or water treatment tablets, and knowledge of distances between water sources
- Electrolytes or water additives
- Food and enough calories for trip, plus extra in case
Depending on the physical demands and the weather, you may require more water and burn more calories than expected. It is always best to pack extra food like protein bars in your pack.
Water filters can fail or freeze! It is always handy to have some water purification tablets as a back up.
7. Extra Clothing - Insulation
- Thermal layer
- Rain gear
- Extras like: hat, gloves and socks
Temperatures and weather can change quickly from morning to afternoon to evening. These can also change rapidly at different elevations.
Rain gear can make the difference between staying warm and hypothermia.
8. Emergency Shelter & Blanket
- Emergency orange bivvy bag
- Emergency reflective blanket & large orange plastic bag
If you are backpacking, chances are that you will have a shelter and sleeping bag. But for day trips, these are essential! They can be the difference between becoming hypothermic and staying warm. The orange makes a great signaling device.
An emergency blanket is still a great idea to pack into your first aid kit for backpacking trips. They are lightweight and can help you if the temperatures suddenly drop or if you encounter someone who needs help on the trail.
9. Pocket Knife & Repair Kit
- Pocket knife
- Repair kit for your gear, including duct tape, cable ties...
A knife is always handy. It can be used for repairs and in your first aid kit. Repair kits can save you in a pinch whether on a day hike or backpacking trip and assist in making a shelter if needed.
10. Sun Protection
- Wide brimmed hat
- Sunscreen &/or technical sun protection clothing
- Lip balm
Most of us think about sun protection in the summer, but you can still get sunburnt in the winter and even snow blindness!
Sun exposure can hypothermia, burns and dehydration throughout the year.
Have you ever been lost? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments!