Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to get lost. I bring a trail map with me when hiking. I always have my phone in my back pocket ready to take pictures but also to use the map function if I need to find my way.

However, I have gotten lost several times from my initial planned trek. I must have made a wrong turn or the trails weren’t well-maintained. I have found that getting a bit lost can be good.

The Challenge

When I realize I am lost, my first response is bewilderment and a bit of fear. What if I can’t find my way back to the campsite? What if I’m lost for days without food or water?

The reality is that I tend to hike in state parks or areas where I only need to travel a few miles in any direction to find a road. Plus, there is always the option of back tracking the trail. ‘

Many times I have a general idea of my location and the best direction to go so I continue onward (sometimes bushwhacking to go the right direction). When I do get back to the campsite, I find a sense of accomplishment of overcoming the challenge of finding my way.

On one hike, I swear the path took me to the edge of a slight cliff overlooking a river. I could see where others had climbed down the banks of river and moved upriver. Soon, I was climbing over large boulders along the river when I realized that this was NOT part of the trail.

At several points I figured (wrongly) going back was more difficult than going forward. When the cliff moved closer to the river, I ended up taking off my shoes and socks to walk through the riverbed and then climbed small waterfalls to return to the real trail. When I eventually returned to the campsite, I had an interesting story to tell and a sense of accomplishment I wouldn’t have had with the planned 0.6-mile trail.

The Unexpected Find

Trails can take you to great places, but getting turned around can allow you to find the unexpected. At one park, I made a wrong turn and suddenly found a cave coming out of the mist. The cave showed on the trail map, but it didn’t show as being connected to the trail I was hiking. The find was more magical when it was unexpected.

Donaldson Cave at Spring Mill State Park in Indiana.

On other hikes I’ve seen animals like opossum or deer on the “alternative route” that I might not have seen had I followed the standard path. On a hike wandering trails near Tucson, I found a small old mining site that wasn’t on the maps.

Live in the Moment

I know that many times when I’ve lost the trail, it’s because I’ve been thinking about other things rather than watching the trail.

It’s good to contemplate the meaning of life or just to plan what I want to do that day, but as Yoda would say, “Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing.” There is nothing like getting lost to totally focus on where I am and just maybe notice the sun and light of the area (so I at least know where east is!).

Morning hike somewhere in Coopers Rock State Forest, West Virginia.

At Patagonia Lake State Park, I combined all these benefits when hiking the area. The trails in this particular park are limited. Given that cattle graze throughout the park, I figured hiking off the trail was acceptable.

I wasn’t exactly lost bushwhacking around the area, but there were times I just hoped that I was going in the right direction. Hiking was challenging with trying to get around or through brambles in places or to find a way to cross a water-filled canyon.

The unexpected was when I saw a coatimundi. I had never heard of this animal before so I was very surprised. I lived in the moment, making sure I didn’t step in cow pies that were everywhere. I especially lived in the moment when I climbed a large hill. The view from that hill is outstanding and one of my favorite views of all-time.

Hilltop view in Patagonia Lake State Park in Arizona.

The U.S. Forest Service recommends that you pack food, water, a compass, maps, a foil blanket, flashlight, matches, and an extra pair of socks even when hiking just a few hours. Follow the STOP plan by:

  • Stop — Stop and stay calm.
  • Think — Consider how you got here and what landmarks you might see to determine your location
  • Observe — Look around. Use your compass, paper or phone map, or walking short distances to determine where you are.
  • Plan — Plan your next steps. This can include a route out or just staying in place if you are totally lost, injured, or near exhaustion.

I still don’t want to get lost, but I’ve embraced the challenge when I lose my way during a hike. Perhaps getting lost is a metaphor for life in an RV. Things don’t always go right but we can accept the unexpected and live in the moment of all the challenges of life on the road.

Do you have a story to tell about getting lost?