Getting Lost When You Least Expect it

The trailhead for my morning pick-up was a four-mile walk from where I made camp for the night. Getting lost wasn’t on my mind—the Oregon woods were home to me, and I found a small open space 50 feet from the PCT. I felt proud and smug that I still had the skill to chase the mosquitos away and make hot grub the old-fashioned way: over a campfire. I had stopped making fires years ago thanks to high fire danger in Oregon. But this was early in the season, and the melting snow was leaving damp marshes everywhere… hence the swarms of mosquitoes. I didn’t want to test my luck more than necessary, so I doused the fire after the dinner cleanup and had retreated to my hammock’s mosquito netting to escape the buzzing swarms.


Sleep came soon enough, after hiking 15 miles during the day. Snug as a bug I swayed in my down sleeping bag, alone in the woods. I could see the top of Mt. McLoughlin rise above the stand of new trees on the other side of my little clearing. There was no moon, just the evening star to wink goodnight at me.

Hours later, I woke from a deep sleep with the pressure of a full bladder. My watch showed 1:30am. Time for my midnight trip to the “bathroom.” I swung out of my warm bag, with bare legs, wearing just a shirt and underwear, shoved my bare feet in my hiking shoes and turned on my headlamp. “Hmm, I thought, “dim… needs new batteries. Enough light to do my business.”

When I was done, I turned around and shone my light to where I thought my hammock was. All I could see were the dark shapes of trees. I took a few steps to see if I could find the clearing where I’d hung my hammock. I stepped over some downed logs and scraped my bare legs. I could feel the blood trickling down my leg. I stepped over another log, shone my fading flashlight around to get my bearings. Nothing but trees, tall ones and short ones. Then I bumped into a low stand of firs and thought they must be the little trees near my campsite. I knew not to enter the thicket of trees where I would surely lose direction. I looked to the left and to the right, and wondered, where was my campsite? When I looked up at the stars, I couldn’t see Mt McLoughlin and realized I had no idea which way my hammock was. I had lost my hammock and my warm bed. My mouth was dry, but my water bottle was with my hammock. The night chill felt cold on my bare legs. Oh, what I wouldn’t do for my down bag.

My mind went in overdrive trying to figure out a way to find my camp. I wasn’t lost, but then I again I was. Camp was somewhere nearby. The words, when you’re lost, stay in one place, floated through my head. I realized that if I kept wandering around, I might wander even farther away from my campsite. I walked 20 steps in four directions and back, shone my light everywhere, but no hammock. The hammock was dark green and black, blending in with the woods. When I sat down on a log and looked at my watch, it was 2:15am, four more hours before daylight. Like Hansel and Gretel in the fairy tale, I tried curling up on the forest floor. It was cold and prickly. To stay warm I had to keep moving. And so started my 3.5-hour small step-shuffle in the clearing, my arms tucked into my armpits for warmth. My shuffle felt like a dance—it didn’t take much energy but kept my blood flowing.

Then the inner voice started: “How can you be so stupid to lose your hammock?” Two and a half hours of moving in a circle seemed like an eternity, so I told myself, “don’t look at your watch too often, the time won’t pass.” A memory came up, about how my paternal grandfather, at 74 years old, had spent a night alone in the forest in Germany. I’m almost his age now. He had been on a touring vacation with other seniors and he’d gone for a walk. It got dark and he couldn’t find his way back. It was a family tale told many times, how he survived because it was summer. I told myself, I’ll survive this, but it sure isn’t fun. Why do I go on these solo hikes? Am I getting too old for these adventures? And so my mind turned round and round as I shuffled in a circle, with cold legs, blood dried up on my skin.

Dawn came, starting around 5:30am. Little by little the trees took on their form. What had looked like one mass of black, became individual shapes, dark shapes on the ground became logs. The tree shapes took on color and the sky turned from black to gray to lighter gray. I could see around me again! Where was the hammock? Ten feet to the east I bumped into the trees I thought were near my camp clearing, and just on the other side of the trees my hammock swayed. My home away from home. So close, yet so inaccessible in the dark.

After taking a long drink I slid into my sleeping bag and started shaking uncontrollably. The shaking wouldn’t stop and I knew I was suffering from mild hypothermia. I shook and dozed and eventually slept. When I woke, the sun was up; I was warm. Relieved that my getting lost adventure had ended so well, I thought about how I had handled the situation. I hadn’t panicked. I kept a clear head and remembered the rule about what to do when you are lost. That was good to know about myself. My body had handled the discomfort better than my mind even though I was lucky it wasn’t any colder than it had been.

I got up, ate and drank and packed up camp to hike out to where I would meet my ride later that morning. It embarrassed me that such a thing could have happened. Here I was, the experienced hiker, and I got lost in the middle of the night ten feet from my hammock! When I told the story to my friend, she showed understanding and didn’t see me as stupid. “You’ll go again,” she said, “you can only learn from your mistakes.” My hammock now has reflectors all over it, my headlamp has new batteries. I had an experience I will not forget.

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Comments 5

  • Avatar
    Kate : Sep 6th

    LIFE-HIKING LESSONS FOR THE WOODS OR THE CITY

    Thanx for taking that journey and sharing it with us. We each enter our woods physically and symbolically, often finding ourselves lost at different points on our path, finding our way back to our “trailheads” throughout each hour, each day, each year, each season. I know your learned advice of ‘don’t panic, don’t wander’ is key to any ‘hike’.
    No matter the terrain, no matter the mountain, always tie a rope, a string from one’s safe spot to the ‘poop’ spot where you have already dug a hole with your small shovel cuz holding on to that rope you will find your way back in the dark to the safe spot. And remember: Bury your business and cover it using your small shovel! Planning is the key to any successful hike. Keep a shovel in that hind pocket. Ropes make for a great Plan B.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Dami Roelse : Sep 7th

      The rope idea has floated through my mind. Enhanced awareness is the real key though, I never anticipated getting lost under these circumstances. Now I know. We learn from living, don’t we?

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Betsy "Ziptie" Hagen : Sep 9th

    I did exactly this same thing at a shelter in a forest on the AT in NY. 3 am bathroom call, dying headlight, tall trees, and I could not find the shelter again. I managed to stumble across the AT though, and for three hours, I walked from one white blaze to the next and back again, back and forth, to stay warm. Once it was light enough, I was able to get back to the shelter, but it took a few hours inside my sleeping bag with extra clothing on to warm up enough to stop shaking.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Dami : Sep 9th

    Thanks for sharing! Makes it all more human to know that others have had similar experiences.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    john : Sep 15th

    The full bladder at midnight might be avoided by less consumption of liquids before going to bed. Thanks for sharing your misfortunate night. This sure made me more aware of the after 50 curves in the road. No more weak batteries for me.

    Reply

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