Travel Tuesdays: What to do when you’re lost in the backcountry

Ian Carroll

I hadn’t prepared for snow. That was my first mistake. I was slowly trudging up the trail. With each step, it felt like my feet sank deeper and deeper. The path had grown insanely steep and seemed like steps up rocky terrain, covered by the early autumn snowfall. I knew I was cutting it close to winter when I planned this trip. But hey, it’s better late than never, right?

Well, not exactly.

You see, I was on day two of a five-day trek across the Northern Cascades of Washington State. My route wound through the sharp range over three mountain passes before popping out at Ross Lake, deep within the mountains. Although I grew up in these mountains and had done lots of multi-day backpacking, this was going to be the longest solo trek I’d ever undertaken. I planned my route carefully, packed my gear frugally, and set off late in the season. The first snow had already fallen on the higher elevations of my route. But after a couple of days of sun, I figured it was now or never. Unfortunately, now that meant my boots had soaked through, and my breath was frosting up in front of my face. This trail was serious.

The trail just kept climbing, climbing, climbing

Alone in the high alpine.
Alone in the high alpine.

Finally, after at least an hour of steep, snowy ascent, I reached the doming summit of Hannegan Pass. Or at least, that was the plan. But from where I stood, it sure didn’t look like I was at a mountain pass, it looked a lot more like a mountain top. There were no obvious signs of the trail, nor features to guide me to where I might find it. Just a smooth white blanket stretching out across the sloping arm of the upper reaches of the range. All around me, The Cascades stretched out in early winter splendor. In the lowlands, bright greens and blazing oranges burst through the crisp air. Up high, the white of winter shone brightly under the light of the late afternoon.

Now, I may have been at the ripe young age of 17, but I wasn’t stupid, and I knew that now was no time to panic. It certainly wasn’t time to go running off looking for the trail. Iinstead, I pulled out my map, caught my breath, and inspected the topo. I tried to get a sense of what was going on. My ‘Spidey’ senses were tingling all over my skin, something was definitely wrong.

It took several minutes, but I became increasingly certain that where I stood didn’t match any of the topography of my route. In fact, it looked more like the upper reaches of the arm of Hannegan peak, at least a half mile to the south-east of where my trail was supposed to start dropping down into the next valley.

The higher you go, the worse the weather can get.
The higher you go, the worse the weather can get.

That’s when I spotted the trail

Way on the other side of the valley from where I stood. It became pretty clear to me. Under the cover of snow, my trail had run alongside a small stream and then hooked left towards the descent. I had missed that turn and continued upstream, thinking it to be the trail. The snow had been enough to make the stream appear like a steep, stepped trail, and I had followed it for over an hour up and far away from where I was supposed to be. Behind me, the sun was already eyeing the horizon. Definitely not good.

Now, even at that age, I had faced some pretty serious situations in the backcountry before. I knew what it’s like to face danger and feel your heart race. But I’d never been alone, never this far from help, and never with a cold night quickly coming in on me. I felt the overwhelming need to make a decision, quickly.

As I saw it, I had two options, and neither looked good

My primary concern was making it down to a lower elevation. I didn’t have the equipment to spend the night in this kind of cold weather. I certainly couldn’t make a fire up here above the treeline with snow covering everything in sight.

So, on the one hand, I could backtrack downstream, and try to find the turnoff I had missed. However, it would still be covered in snow, and still just as hard to find as it had been before. That didn’t sound appealing, and it would definitely waste a lot of time. On the other hand, I could try to bushwhack a path downhill to the stream at the bottom of the valley where I could see the trail’s parallel path. While that offered the option of saving a lot of time, it would be far from safe. In fact, it would more than likely be extremely dangerous.

Not the place to build a fire
Not the place to build a fire

For one, I would be moving even farther off route and could get even more lost. Secondly, the chances of injury while bushwhacking down an unknown route under partial snow cover were undeniably serious. When you’re out on your own like this, even a minor injury can be deadly. If I were to take a fall, twist an ankle, or break a limb, I could be looking at a situation far worse than the one I currently found myself in.

I had to make a decision

I definitely couldn’t afford to waste time, and I definitely had to get down, preferably to the trail and to the next camp. As I saw it, even if I backtracked, I wouldn’t find the missed trail head until it was nearly dark. Then, I would still have three miles of trails to navigate in the dark before I would be down to a safe altitude and my next camp. However, if I couldn’t find the trail, or worse, got off track again, I’d be in far worse trouble than I already was.

Bushwhacking in bad weather and unfamiliar terrain is very dangerous.
Bushwhacking in bad weather and unfamiliar terrain is very dangerous.

As risky as it seemed, I do have excellent directional sense and am good at reading the land. I knew that I could find a waterway leading downhill and it would take me to the stream at the center of the valley. Assuming I didn’t wind up stuck above any cliffs, I could make it down safely, at least to below the snowline where the going would ease up considerably.

At the time I had been a backcountry snowboarder for several years and had spent a lot of time in the mountains. I felt more comfortable saving time and taking the risk, than spending extra time going back. I will never know if I chose the right odds or not. But I carefully set out along the ridge-line to find the best view of the terrain to come and assess exactly how dangerous this decision was about to be.

Make a plan before taking action

When you’re lost, getting a good view of the surrounding area can be one of the most valuable advantages to give yourself. Knowledge is power, and in some cases, it’s the only thing separating a deadly and hopeless attempt from a well-calculated route. In this case, it probably saved my life.

From where I stood at the end of the ridge, it became apparent that had I started immediately down, I would have encountered a steep cliff band. However, further east, it tapered out to what appeared to be a more manageable aspect. I could even see the seam of an apparent stream snaking down the mountainside towards the valley floor. All the way to safety.

So rather than heading straight down, I began zig-zagging down and to the right to where the terrain was mellower, and hopes were higher. It wasn’t dark yet, but I knew I only had an hour, maybe two, left before steep terrain could get deadly serious.


Usually, sunsets in the mountains are beautiful. Sometimes, they are deadly.
Usually, sunsets in the mountains are beautiful. Sometimes, they are deadly.

Now, when you make a decision like this in the backcountry, you are bound to experience a lot of fear and a lot of doubt. I certainly felt myself nearly overcome by both. Even at that age, I wasn’t stupid, and I knew this was really bad. I had made a decision from which there was no turning back. Yet, although this decision to bushwhack down the mountain seemed a higher risk on the surface, I also felt it was actually the safer route given my skill set and the circumstances.

No turning back

No matter what I saw in hindsight, I knew that I had committed to my downwards course and in doing so, I turned all of my attention to one glaring truth. I absolutely could not get injured off route. With a cold night on its way and weather in the Cascades being unpredictable at best, an injury out here could easily mean death.

So, I chose every step carefully, took every turn slowly, and reminded myself constantly that ‘slow is smooth and smooth is fast.’ At this point, I had chosen the fastest, and apparently safest route down. Rushing would only increase the risk of an accident and injury. As I descended below the treeline and the last comforting view of my planned route, I began to hear the stream. Thank god.

I knew that the sound of water meant my path to safety.
I knew that the sound of water meant my path to safety.

However, the vegetation and undergrowth immediately presented new problems. Here the ground was much steeper and more uneven. From above, these hazards had been hidden by the dense evergreens. I found myself clutching to branches and slipping down wet, dead leaves. Every inch became a test of balance, and each step was either wet or slippery or both.

However, I kept my wits about me. I didn’t make any rash moves. On two occasions I backed off of steep sections and found a way around. It must have been forty-five minutes before I found the stream. It was already dusk. That’s when I faced my next serious dilemma.

In an emergency, always take time to think

Although the stream bed did offer a sure route to the bottom of the valley, it was also immediately apparent that the walls were too steep to climb out of in some places and the stream itself might go down falls and drops too high to climb down safely. If I went down to the stream, I might get trapped in a really bad spot. By my estimate, I was at least halfway down the valley, which was good. However, I was also soaking wet from head to toe and was in no shape to spend a night here.

If you haven’t already noticed, an intimate understanding of the Cascade mountains was absolutely essential to my success up to this point. Had I not been reading the lay of the land from above, judging the incline by the type of vegetation, and assessing the most likely route down from the twisting forms of the mountainside, I likely would have wound up in a really bad spot. Bushwhacking in your home mountain range is dangerous enough. Had I been in a foreign environment, I likely would have made a different decision from the top of the ridge.

A mellow stream can quickly turn into a deadly drop-off.
A mellow stream can quickly turn into a deadly drop-off.

It was when I finally found the stream that this intimate understanding of the terrain in the Cascades saved me again. I knew that out here, the way can get steep quickly. Cliffs can develop in an instant, and streams are a likely place to find them. So, I decided that rather than immediately descending to the stream proper, I would parallel it from above for as long as possible.

Again, I’d made the wise choice

Less than five minutes later, the stream dropped steeply down a narrow waterfall, at least fifteen feet tall. I silently praised any higher powers watching over me as I carefully picked my way down a tree-rooted slope nearby. It brought me down to the bottom of the falls. I knew I had dodged a bullet. However, now I was committed to the stream bed.

I could already feel the hillside leveling out around me. My nostrils could feel the heavy, moist air of the valley. I knew I was almost to the bottom, even though my pounding heart could hardly let myself believe it.  It took me about twenty more minutes of walking slowly down stream. My feet were soaked, my boots were heavy. On more than one occasion I had to climb down steeper sections. At one point I even took my pack off and tossed it down a cliff where it’s heavy weight would have made decent too dangerous.

The sun had just set

And at last, I heard it, then I saw it. Then finally, I walked straight through the bigger stream at the bottom of the valley. I had made it. I climbed up a short slope on the other side. To my massive relief, the trail was right there, less than ten yards from the stream. I pulled myself up onto it like a wet sloth, rolled over onto my back and screamed at the top of my lungs from the very bottom of my heart.

Finding the trail never felt so good- Author: EncMstr – CC BY-SA 3.0
Finding the trail never felt so good- Author: EncMstr – CC BY-SA 3.0

Only then did I let myself admit just how dangerous that had been, just how lucky I was, and how relentlessly my muscles were aching. I had hiked more than twelve miles total so far, most of them up and down steep terrain. I knew I still had a little more than one to go. But I was safe. I was on the trail. And I was still going to make it to my intended camp for the night.

That night I slept the sleep of the dead. For the rest of the trip, I did not lose the trail. When I finally made it out the other side of the mountains, I was not the same kid who had walked into them. When my mom pulled up to our intended pickup point on the fifth day I had already decided that this was a story she didn’t need to know. To this day, she still doesn’t.

So, what did I learn?

Well hopefully, you’ve already picked up a couple of key lessons from this story. First, always double check your map. Then, once you feel sure you know the way, check it again. Checking your map takes a minute, getting lost in the mountains could take an hour, a day, or even your life.

Double check your map every fifteen to twenty minutes.
Double check your map every fifteen to twenty minutes.

Second, don’t force a trip to go when the weather isn’t in your favor. Had I decided, like almost every other hiker in the Northwest, that the season was over now that snow had fallen, I wouldn’t have been in such a [crummy] situation. Then again, I wouldn’t have this story either.

Third, never panic. Had I lost my cool, rushed my descent, or not taken the time to plan my route down, I could have wound up in a far worse situation. Usually, in an emergency, the best way you can spend your first five minutes is stopping, calming down, and thinking about what your smartest course of action is. Unless a bear is charging you, in which case I’m pretty sure you’re screwed no matter what (whatever you do, don’t run away).

Fourth, acknowledge your strengths and your weaknesses. Make a decision that takes them into account and trust your decision once it’s made. I was well equipped to read steep, mountainous terrain, to pick an effective route downhill, and to carefully execute my descent. Had I not spent the previous four years in the mountains over a hundred days a winter, I likely wouldn’t have made the attempt.

Lastly, never get hurt. It wouldn’t have mattered what I decided to do on top of the ridge. If I had gotten hurt while rushing down or scrambling to find the trail in the increasing darkness, I would have been facing a far more serious emergency.

I avoided them, but the risks were real

Hypothermia is absolutely deadly in the mountains, not to mention the immediate risks that serious injuries can pose. In my five days of walking, I only passed one party. Had I gotten hurt, help was not on the way, and I had no way to signal it.

When you’re in the mountains alone, you’ve got to rely on yourself.
When you’re in the mountains alone, you’ve got to rely on yourself.

I knew before I left what that means. That means that you don’t get hurt under any circumstances. Even if that means you spend five minutes taking each careful step downhill, you do it. That mentality is the only reason I was able to safely descend to the trail, and it has kept me from harm in the backcountry countless times since.

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

Looking back now, nearly ten years later, I’m still not sure if I made the right decision or the rash decision that day. I’ll never know if I succeeded because of wisdom or luck. Probably a bit of both. One thing I know for sure though is I hope you never find yourself in such a situation. If you do, I also hope you don’t take my story to mean bushwhacking will always or ever be the right call. Every emergency situation is entirely unique and one story should never be taken as gospel.

If you get lost in the backcountry

So, if you ever face such a dilemma, I hope this story can inform your head space. Hopefully, it helps you to accurately assess the risks you face and keeps you from making a rash mistake. However, always remember to make your own decisions for your own reasons.

Backpacking solo is exhilarating, but also risky.
Backpacking solo is exhilarating, but also risky.

No matter whether you’re hiking, biking, or boarding in the backcountry this season, be careful and don’t take unnecessary risks. If you do find yourself lost in the backcountry, remember what I did right, and remember what I did wrong. Assess the situation carefully and don’t panic. If you trust yourself, and take careful steps towards safety, you’ll make it out the other side like I did.

But hopefully, you never have to.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival