Monday, December 2, 2013

Tips on How to (Not) Get Lost in the Woods

My first few strides down a redwood duff-strewn trail in Fall Creek State Park one day last week felt amazing. I only had two thoughts in my head: "why don't I run here more often?" and "how do so many hikers get lost here?"

See, a few years back when I was the crime reporter at the local paper, I wrote more than a few articles about hikers who had gone missing in the park. Each time I was astounded at how sane adults could get lost in the sliver of redwoods and creeks. Sure, there's 20 miles of trails in the park, but it's narrow, hemmed in by ridges and located on a main road. Walk in any one direction for awhile and you'll hit the road, the creek or the neighborhood by the high school.

And then I got lost. 

Don't worry. No one had to call 9-1-1. I found my way out of the park, it just took longer — both time and distance — than I intended. 

During all that extra time on the trail, I worked through how I had ended up in this slightly embarrassing conundrum and what I should have done differently. I'm sharing the tips I came up with to remind other runner- and hiker-types how to behave in the woods and, since I'm escaped unscathed, because it's a bit funny. 

Trail map.

Although I intently studied the trail map to chart my course: Ridge Trail to Truck Trail, then down a connector to Fall Creek Trail and then I would be back at the trailhead,  I had little familiarity with the park. The map doesn't show distances; I estimated the whole adventure will be 5 to 6 miles. It also wasn't a topo map, so I'm not aware of the massive climb I selected.

Lesson 1: Know where you're going and how long you'll be gone.

I only got half of this right. My guess on how long I'd be running, oh, an hour or so. Which rolls right into into ... 

Lesson 2: Nutrition planning should be done based on time, not distance. 

Makes sense, right? Six mile run is easy-breezy but a steep climb could drag down your mile pace and leave you out on the trail longer than expected. I didn't bring water or snacks with me. Thank goodness I've been snacking so much on Fakesgiving leftovers; despite having just coffee for breakfast, I didn't feel any twinges of hunger until after mile 6. Weather also is an important factor here. Obviously, you need more hydration when it's hot, possibly additional energy supplements if it's cold. And this goes for hikers also — packing water and snacks should be non-negotiable.

So the trails at Fall Creek are rad and hard core. The climbs on Ridge Trail — straight-up steep very few switchbacks — likely melt into sloppy streams when it rains. I saw very few other hikers out and zero runners. Like most California State Parks, waist-high brown 2X2s indicate trails at Fall Creek. While I never understood why something as important as a trail marker would be disguised as a leafless sapling, I know what I'm looking for.

The singletrack of Ridge Trail feeds to Truck Trail, a logging road, after about two miles. I used my Garmin watch so I know when this is coming, and was pleasantly surprised when the trail distances on the signs matched up with my GPS mileage. I had about 1.3 miles to go until a connecting trail would take me down from the ridge to the creekbed and back to the parking lot, so I did the math and figured my watch should hit 3.5 miles at that intersection.

Floating along on the forest path, my watch clicked past 3.5 miles, then 3.8 and beeped at 4 without any trail marker. Convinced either my watch or the sign was wrong, I kept running. The fire road felt pleasant under my feet and I had finally hit a nice clip on the ridgeline, so the last thing I wanted to do was ruin that pace by frantically looking for the trail. Surely, it was just ahead.

Lesson 3: Trust your gut and (to some extent) your technology.

I would later discover my watch mileage was within a tenth of a mile of the connector trail I was searching for. Whoops. Also, a little voice in my head told me something was wrong long before I ran up on an active logging operation.

Yeah, that. Thankfully a large cattle gate marked with alarming red tape separated Truck Trail from the felling redwoods just around the bend. This was the end of the road and I'd run a full mile past the trail I had wanted. At this point, more than 50 minutes had passed since I set out and I'd covered 4.5 miles (I'm not that slow; chalk up a few minutes to attempts at trail-finding and stretching breaks). 

Lesson 4: Set a time limit for running in new places.

This, perhaps, is the most important rule and one I should have stuck to. I wanted to run for an hour, tops. D'oh. That went out the window when I was still heading away from the parking area after 30 minutes of running time had elapsed. If I had been smart about it, I would have turned back at my halfway time point. Then I could have simply back-tracked and likely wouldn't have gotten lost. I also would argue this technique could help most hikers lost in Fall Creek. Maybe it's a less-exciting outdoor adventure to do an out-and-back hike, but it's much easier to follow a path you've walked at least once rather than way-find in a wholly new environment.

For me, doubling back made it fairly easy to find the turn. I monitored the mileage on my GPS watch and slowed to  walk when I knew I was close to the connector trail. It wasn't much more than a game trail, half-covered in dusty foliage and marked not with a post but orange ribbon lashed around a tree, much like how trail crews indicate a tree set for removal. 

Lesson 5: Don't freak out. 

The return trip was logical, but not easy, from that point. There were no trail markers for miles (not even orange ribbon) leaving a couple trail choices to common sense. I followed the creek back to the trailhead, logging about 8.5 miles in more than 90 minutes. While it was longer and farther than I had planned, the run was enjoyable. 

But in those last  few miles, especially the downhill, I devoted more attention to foot placement and slowed through a couple slightly treacherous sections. If I had known the trail or at least knew how far I had left in the run, I may have gone faster. The trail, until the final mile, was essentially deserted and I was concerned I might twist an ankle or fall while far from help. With plenty of daylight to finish, taking my time to avoid injury was an easy concession to make. Next time I'll go for a course PR.

The best sign in the park (photo:

Other tips that I know you know but I'm reminding myself of: 
  • Explore new trails with friends who know the way. Half of my running group frequents Fall Creek State Park. I probably should have invited someone along or just waited on those trails until we had a run planned there.
  • Tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back. Give that person a non-emergency phone number to call (park office, sheriff's department, etc) if you don't check in within a reasonable amount of time.
  • Dress in layers. If you get hurt, have to walk or encounter foul weather, you'll want that long-sleeve you thought of ditching at the car. I also like bright colors and, if lost in the woods, this could help for search parties.
A final lesson for Park Rangers: Install some effing trail markers! 

I love unblemished forestland as much as the next outdoors enthusiast, but it's downright irresponsible of State Parks to list trails on a map that are not well-signed. I believe signed trails are a reasonable expectation for a publicly administered park. And no, orange ribbon doesn't count unless there's a addendum at the trailhead map that people should be watching for that particular marker. 

This is the generic State Parks trail marker. (Photo:

Simple trail markers can't be that expensive or difficult to install. Signs would give park users peace of mind so they can better enjoy their outdoor adventure, and the markers could reduce the number of Search and Rescue Team call-outs in the park. If State Parks can't take this on, perhaps a nonprofit that supports local parks or trails could manage to build a few trail markers.


  1. Thankfully all worked out, you even got this great post out of your SLV trailer hunt. There are quite a few other trails up there with some nice loops, hope you'll be back.

  2. People sometimes take out the trail makers or flip them around. I assume getting others lost is funny for some folks.

    You can contact SP folks to let them know the trail marker is gone (they probably already know). If you call the Henry Cowell number they'll probably be able to route you to a person or voicemail with the maintenance crew.

    At least one of the people who got lost in Fall Creek were not on official trails when they slipped off the side (which is one of the reasons it took so long to get that person back to safety).

    Risk management is key when heading out on your own, glad it turned out fine with some lessons along the way. :)

  3. Great read! - nowadays I just hike, but I loved your comment about floating down the trails...made me reminisce about running. Despite a great sense of direction, we got lost up in the Sierras for a couple of hours this summer. Apparently the rangers have higher priorities besides posting good trail markers, so ALL of your recommendations are spot-on.

  4. Thanks for the positive feedback. I definitely expected more "don't be so dumb" comments!


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