My husband and I spend a lot of time in the woods. There’s a large system of trails near our cabin that we have hiked many times over the years. One such trail starts about 100 yards from our cabin door. It’s an easy hike, there’s not much elevation change and it’s a relatively straight shot to the creek where we snack and play in the water. One day last summer we started down the trail, thinking that we had plenty of time to get there and back before dinner. Our son was two at the time, and we’ve been hiking with him since he was very small in our Baby Jogger stroller. Ours is an older model with large bike type tires, and it is great off road.
About 5 minutes in, I realized I left my phone, and the Gaia GPS software I have installed, at the cabin. We considered going back, but didn’t think it was necessary because we weren’t going far, and knew the trail SO WELL. We made it to the creek, stopped for snacks and let my son play. When we left, we headed back up the same trail we took down, you know the one that we KNEW SO WELL.
Over an hour later we realized that the hike was taking longer than it should. As we talked, we rounded a corner and came into a clearing that we had never seen before. Its important to note that up until this point, we had NO IDEA we were lost. Suddenly that mud puddle our dog rolled in on the way back, but had somehow missed on the way down, made much more sense.
Im sure I don’t need to explain the sense of panic I felt when first realizing we were lost in the woods, with my two year old, and without my Gaia GPS. Apps like Gaia (All Trails is another that comes to mind) will create a virtual breadcrumb trail as you hike, so you can follow it back. When you are in the woods, even familiar woods, its incredibly easy to get lost. All the trees look the same, and without any major landmarks its very easy to lose your way. What we didn’t realize is that the trail we were on crossed paths with another that forked off it at an angle. It was somewhat hidden on the way down because of the tree line, but it also had much less growth on it. So on the way back to the cabin when we hit the fork, we took the more distinct trail, which turned out not to be ours. If I had had my phone with me, and was using the app, we would have known we were on the wrong trail much sooner. As it turns out we had been hiking in the wrong direction for more than an hour.
My husband did have his cell phone with him. What he didn’t have was an additional GPS app on his phone other than the built in maps. You don’t need cell service for GPS, but you do need it to access the maps. Apps like Gaia and All Trails allow you to download offline maps, so you can access them when there’s no cell service.
We were lucky. My husband was able to get just enough service to pull up a satellite map. We could clearly see the path we were on, the original path that we should have been on, and the small lake right beside our cabin. We back tracked, found the original trail, and made it home, hours later. We had missed dinner, and were exhausted, but made it safely back to the cabin.
I read stories all the time about experienced hikers getting lost on what they thought was a short hike. Theres the story of Amber Kohnhorst, an experienced hiker who lost her way and fell off a cliff trying to find a path back down the summit she had ascended. She had a cell but couldn’t get service. Amber was eventually rescued, but the hikers in Joshua Tree National Park were not so lucky. While I don’t know the fine details of their story, I can’t help but think if they had something like Gaia or All Trails installed the tragedy could have been averted.
If you’re the type that prefers to travel off the beaten path, look into getting a GPS app for your phone. It could be the difference between life and death. (A backup battery or solar charger for your phone couldnt hurt either.)
I am not affiliated with or receiving any compensation from Gaia, All Trails, or Baby Jogger.