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Johnson: Lost and alone in the wilderness
Hiking Arizona

Hiking through the wild and wooly Mazatzal Wilderness in January involved a number of challenges, not the least of which was route finding. When you hike off the beaten path, it comes as no surprise, really, when you lose the trail.

I started up the primitive path in Davenport Wash near Horseshoe Lake on my way to Strawberry. I knew that I would have to be careful to watch for the point where the trail left the wash. Sure enough, I missed it and continued up the relatively open route formed by the dry streambed until it became choked with brush. It was decision time.

Should I retrace my steps in an attempt to find the trail or take out my topographic map and orienteering compass to determine my current position and plot a direct route forward to where the trail was supposed to be, as described on the map? The most important issue is not to do this or that but to stop and assess the situation.

Reason is better than reaction. Reason slows you down, forcing you to think rationally. Reaction speeds things up to the point of panic, which almost always ends badly. The decision was based on having the appropriate tools on hand and the requisite skill to use them to solve my immediate problem. I looked around for land features I could identify on the map and in a few minutes I had a relatively accurate picture of where I was. Problem one was solved. I was no longer lost.

Hiking in Arizona generally has the advantage of having a clear view of your surroundings, unlike more forested locals in places like Michigan. Additionally, unlike places where the terrain is more gentle, like Michigan, Arizona is chopped up into relatively recognizable configurations on topographic maps. It’s not necessarily easy or obvious to recognize these features but it’s doable with practice. Can you read a topo map with understanding like you read a book? Next, I needed to get where I wanted to be. Going back to the map and compass, I plotted a direct route over a ridge less than a mile ahead. Problem two was solved. I was back on the trail.

Getting lost is OK, that is it’s understandable. Stuff happens. It doesn’t mean you’re incompetent. Just deal with it.

There was additional trail confusion over the next few days due to poor signage but I never lost the trail again. Seems as though the Forest Service does not execute very well the task of matching trails with signs with maps. Be that as it may, it is contingent upon every hiker to be landscape literate. This includes reading the land in an accurate scale that matches your map. Bottom line: you should have the tools (map and compass) you need to travel competently anywhere in the more remote areas across the Southwest. A GPS unit is no substitute for a map or being landscape literate.

Many people put these tools in their pack. They have made the wrong investment, however. You must know how to use them too. That is the best investment. Reading the terrain is a lost art in our high tech age. Only experience will help you do this with competence, hence confidence. So, get lost. Then you can experience finding your way back to where you want to be. There is no substitute for experiential knowledge.

Next: Setting the pace in 2019.

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at


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