It began as a brief hike—an hour or two of fresh air and exercise. The hikers, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, weighted with only one small bottle of water each, picked a trail at random and started walking. A few hours later, they were lost—and it was getting dark and cold. What were their mistakes?
"The majority of day hikers who get themselves in trouble haven’t done any planning," says Bob Foster, California State Parks Public Safety Superintendent. "They just take off on a Sunday stroll... with no idea where they’re going or where they’ve come from."
Thousands of hikers get lost each summer in state and national parks. Most find their way back after a few hours, but others are unable to find their destination before nightfall.
Take the 19-year-old girl in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Part of a school group, she didn’t return to the bus at the appointed time. Park rangers searched for her until midnight, and continued the next day with helicopters and dogs.
That evening, the rangers received a call from a local sheriff—the girl had stumbled into a campsite several miles away. She had started on a loop trail, crossed a paved highway, and mistakenly got onto a different trail. She had gone without food and the only liquid she had was water found in potholes. Fortunately, the night had been mild.
"It’s a good thing it wasn’t summer," says Chief Park Ranger Larry Van Slyke. The desert heat of parks like Canyonlands can dehydrate people in a few hours, making it easy for them to get confused. Van Slyke adds, "People can get ill quickly if they’re not prepared. Heat exhaustion can incapacitate a person or, if it escalates to heat stroke, it can kill."
Along with an ample supply of food or water, rangers advise hikers to take a flashlight and extra warm clothes.
One day hiker, a young man dressed in only shorts and a T-shirt, got lost on the trails at Mt. Tamalpais State Park near San Francisco. After the park closed, a ranger noticed the man’s car in the parking lot. She ran his license plate numbers to get information, and to try to contact his family. Then, she set out on the dark trails with her flashlight and found the hiker with muddied knees and hands, dripping wet from the fog. He’d been crawling along on all fours in the pitch black in order to feel the trail.
Getting stuck in the dark is not uncommon. "Thousands of people every year would be able to find their way with a flashlight," cautions Van Slyke.
But even with a flashlight and basic provisions, what if you do get lost? Common advice rangers give kids is "Hug a tree," meaning "stay put."
A young woman out on the rocky Sunset Trail in Yosemite National Park did just that. During her hike, an autumn snowfall covered the trail and the woman got turned around. Instead of pressing on, she found a cave among the boulders, attached a piece of brightly-colored clothing to a tree branch, and spent the night in the cave. The next day, a helicopter spotted the clothing. Two smart moves—tagging the tree and staying put once she realized she was lost—helped rangers find her.
"Someone will eventually come looking for you," Foster advises hikers. "Besides, when people are disoriented, they tend to walk in circles and expend more energy."
In California state parks, over 800 people were reported missing last year. National parks generally have better-marked trails and more rangers, so there are fewer incidents. With over 30 years working in the national park system, Van Slyke says, "The search and rescue aspect of being a ranger is the most gratifying part of the job. Most searches end up OK."
Rangers all offer the same advice to day hikers: Be prepared.
- Never hike without an accurate map. Plan your route and know the predicted weather conditions.
- Tell people where you are going and when you expect to return. If a trailhead has an entry log, use it.
- Take an extra layer of clothing and rain gear in case of weather changes; carry matches for lighting a fire—to keep warm or signal helicopters.
- Always take more food and water than you’ll think you need. Drink a gallon of water per day if you’re active, and electrolytes, such as those found in Gatorade, to replenish the body. Carry water purifiers, such as iodine tablets.
- Write down the name of the parking lot or road where you left your car. This may seem obvious, but many people forget.
This article was first published in July 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.