The Trail Less Traveled: Preparing for Unmarked Trails

By Meg Farrell, Girls Who Hike New York Ambassador

Have you ever refrained from a beautiful hiking experience because it warns of unmarked trails? It is obviously the correct thing to do to err on the side of caution, but if you prepare yourself and your pack ahead of time, those unmarked trails might be more within reach than you realize. 

Taking the trail less traveled can be an exhilarating experience, but it can also be a very scary experience if you aren’t prepared. I am writing this blog on personal experiences. We live and we learn — and I would never wish the tears-in-your-eyes-heart-in-your-throat feeling on anyone. Trust me when I say that there is no such thing as being over-prepared.

 In my element and unaware of the fact that the mist in the distance would cause panic hours later, or that one of those many rivers would be the end of my iPhone 5c.

In my element and unaware of the fact that the mist in the distance would cause panic hours later, or that one of those many rivers would be the end of my iPhone 5c.

I haven’t come across a remote, unmarked trail in New York (yet), but that’s not to say it won’t happen eventually. My (two) experiences of getting lost while hiking unmarked trails were during my time living in Ireland. That is… if you can even call them trails. Has anyone gone hiking in Ireland? Show me those hands! In light of my experiences, I’ve decided to write a quick post highlighting some key tips and tricks for making sure you minimize your chance of getting lost.

Before I get into the physical items to throw in your pack, one of the most important intangible tips I can give is to ensure you give yourself enough time. Part of my issue with getting lost on Hungry Hill on the Beara Peninsula in Ireland was that we started a bit too late. I looked at my iPhone and knew 11:54am was quite a late start for the month of February and a 4.5 hour unmarked hike. But against my better judgement, we trekked away through the rain and mist. I had my guidebook on hand, fully charged phone, and my ten essentials. Little did I know, the Irish Times had recently written a piece on this monster of a “hill”. The author writes, “In West Co Cork, the rocky mass of Hungry Hill looms in front of you. On a sunny day, when the cooms are in shadow, it looks like some prehistoric monster waiting to devour you. I once asked a local why it was called Hungry Hill. He leered and said: “Because it’s hungry for bodies.”’ I wonder if I would have hiked Hungry Hill had I read that article beforehand!

 The largest cairn I've ever had the pleasure of summiting! This is the second and last photo I have of Hungry Hill. As mentioned before, my iPhone and all of my lovely captures were devoured by the water within this beast.

The largest cairn I've ever had the pleasure of summiting! This is the second and last photo I have of Hungry Hill. As mentioned before, my iPhone and all of my lovely captures were devoured by the water within this beast.

You must keep in mind that the average hiker takes about one hour to hike two miles, and that’s assuming few stops and a moderate trail. Before getting into the tangible bag of tips and tricks, know that if you decide to hit the snooze button one times too many, move your hike to another day or choose a shorter climb.

Okay, so first and foremost, it goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway), to always bring your ten essentials on every single hike. We can prepare time and time again to not get lost, but we do take the risk of getting lost every time we step into the backcountry. You hear it all the time, but we can’t say it enough. You’d rather be over-prepared every single time than find yourself gasping for water, hungry, or exposed to the elements. My hopes for you here, are that you’ll learn from my experiences, and ensure you keep the following five preventative measures (in addition to the ten essentials) in your pack on every hike.

1. Compass

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One of my best gal pals bought me a compass/whistle combo for my birthday a couple of years ago, and I’ve permanently attached it to my pack. When I got lost on Hungry Hill in West Cork, this compass was actually the device which saved us from having to spend the night on the mountain. The fog rolled in, the painted markings on the rocks disappeared, and before we knew it, we were walking past lakes that we did not recognize from when we had originally planned our route. We were disoriented, we began second-guessing everything, and we all tried to keep our panic to ourselves as we realized we went far too far on this completely remote unmarked trail. I pulled out my guidebook and we tried to remain calm as we compared my compass to the route description.

2. Topographic/OS Map

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Have a topographic map of the area you’ll be hiking in. Study the map ahead of time to know your route, and be sure to bring the map with you. Be extra prepared, and get the maps laminated. If you want more information on how to use these maps, check our your local REI, as they’re always offering classes on navigation skills.

3. Trail Guidebook

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If you’re planning to hike an unmarked trail, try to find a detailed guide book and print out all of the articles you can find which give you the clearest play-by-play of the trail. The more detail the better! Also be sure the articles/books you use are the most recent! If an author mentions a fence they traveled along ten years ago, there’s a good chance that fence is no longer there. I’ve often used a writer’s visual representation of several elements of a mountain to get me from A to B.

4. GPS

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Okay, you’re lost. It may take a lot of might, but don’t freak out. Remember your yoga breaths and tell yourself it’ll be okay. Shake off the initial fright, and stay calm. Remember you have your GPS, turn that baby on and check your surroundings against your topo map. Ideally, you’ve had your GPS on from the start and you can backtrack your steps to the trailhead. The moment you find yourself lost, stay where you are and calmly look at your resources to decide where you went wrong. Once you feel confident enough that you know which direction to head, take those first steps and check again and again until you know you can confidently head in the correct direction. Check out this awesome article from REI on How to Choose and Use a GPS.

5. Smartphone/Portable charger

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Part of the reason I may have slightly (and silently) freaked out on Hungry Hill is because my phone battery was down to 15% and the other members of my party had dead phones… damn gorgeous scenery stole my battery. First of all, before you leave, you should always let someone know exactly where you’re going, when you plan to get home, and how many people are in your group. No one wants a 127 Hours thing to happen to them. However, if you do find yourself lost, send your hike details and exact location again to a close friend or family member. I love the location sharing option on my iPhone. When we were on Hungry Hill with darkness closing in, the first thing I did before taking out my book and compass was text my husband. I did not tell him I was lost because I didn’t want to cause alarm just yet, but I told him exactly what time it was, the fact that we had an hour until sunset, and I shared my exact location via location services. Fortunately, we found our way, nearly cried with happiness, and started our car just as darkness surrounded us. Since that experience, my portable charger has become a pack essential for me! It adds so much comfort knowing that I can charge up my phone if need be while on the hills.

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Meg is the Ambassador for our New York chapter. You can join her local meetups and discussions through the New York chapter by clicking here. To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.