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How to get Un-lost

At a recent MCSA presentation a member of the audience asked Hilton Davies, one of South Africa’s legendary climbers, how he justifies the risk of taking his son climbing in the Alps (where crevasses, avalanches, frequent free-thaw rock falls, etc. add to all the other risks of mountain craft we South Africans are more familiar with). His answer included “Good decision making comes from experience. And experience comes from bad decision making. Some people have been unlucky!”

I feel a little melodramatic using this for an article on getting lost when hiking or trail running but I’m going to roll with it. Finding your way in mountains or other wilderness areas is mostly about confidence and experience.  You need to make mistakes, to get lost, to practice thinking your way out of your problem, to be less likely to get lost again and to make better decisions next time. For me personally, the rewards of the process far out-weigh the risks. Herewith my top-6 tips on getting un-lost.

Before you leave home

  1. Go armchair exploring– get lost in maps on your couch, on cold winter work-day evenings for example. Here I mean actual large paper maps. I guess Google Earth and web/phone-based maps count too (with reduced points though). Imagine all the adventures you could have. Plan routes. Try to visualise the terrain from the map. If and when you physically get out there and have that adventure think about how the reality compares to your map-study version. Perhaps next time your imagination will be ever so slightly more realistic?
  2. Take (some) safety precautions.Check the weather forecast. Pack a little more food, water, sunscreen and warm clothing than you think you are going to need. Charge and waterproof your cell phone. Know what number to call in an emergency (112 works in most places). Take capable friends with you and/or tell someone where you are going. Take a GPS and or tracker device. You may choose to ignore standard good safety procedures for many reasons – that’s okay, but recognise and take ownership of that decision! (See point 3)

When heading out (before you get lost)

  1. Be aware of and accept the risks that you take. Spend some time thinking about everything that could go wrong. What are the chances? What will I do in that situation? There was a whole book written onthe positive power of negative thinking (I read a one-page synopsis) – I think it’s applicable when adventuring in the outdoors.
  2. Pay attention to your route and surroundings.Make mental notes. The term sense of direction may be a little misleading in implying that it’s just something you have or you don’t. It takes concentration and effort to navigate and keep your bearings. Keep your eyes open for distinctive features – a big white rock, or a tree or a mountain you can recognize on the skyline. Count the streams you cross, look out for path junctions, etc, etc. 

When you are lost

  1. Don’t (act in) panic.“Don’t panic” is easier said than done. To panic is normal and usually okay. Recognise your panic, take some deep breaths, give yourself a pep talk, calm down, and then act intelligently. What is the best possible thing I can do right now? 

After you are back home safely

  1. Reflect on your experienceand what you learnt. Tell your war stories with pride. Plan your next adventure.

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“You need to get lost before you can get un-lost,” says Robyn Owen when asked about Wilderness Navigation and her experiences on the mountains.

Here are six tips that she has put together for girls wanting to start exploring a little more, experimenting with reading maps and basically extending your adventure time in the mountains.

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“To panic is normal and usually okay. Recognise your panic, take some deep breaths, give yourself a pep talk, calm down, and then act intelligently.” 

Probably the best advice you can get on what-to-do-when-I-am-lost-in-the-mountains, and when we consider that it’s been given by top Adventure Racer, multi-discipline sports woman, Skyrunner, competitive paddler and all round badass, Robyn Owen, you’d probably do well to listen to it!