Dumb Back Country Mistakes, Volume 1

I peruse lots of blogs and forums online.  I’ve found that I enjoy reading about others back country mistakes not so much out of schadenfreude but out of genuine interest so as not to make them on my own, even the obvious dumb ones like the one below.  Now it’s time for me to write about my own mistakes as I make them.

My latest dumb mistake was on a trip to Indian Heaven Wilderness in SW Washington.  I had planned a loop using some dead trails off of the PCT.

My first mistake was that I neglected to bring a large overview map of the whole area.  I had a more detailed zoomed in map of only the area I would be hiking in with not much buffer around it.  I had this same map loaded to my phone (GPS).  Day 1 is in red and then I take the blue part the next morning to link back with the PCT, using the same route back to the south and then west to return to my car.  Here it is:


The trail that runs E-W sucked balls on the way up. The trail was difficult to follow and involved a steep uphill section that I wasn’t keen on repeating.  Hunters were also in the area and I wasn’t wearing blaze orange.  I had plenty of energy and enough daylight (barely) so I made my second mistake by deviating from my original plan without proper navigational tools.

I erroneously believed that as the PCT continued south it would link right up with trail 171 just off my map, and that would take me on a NW track back to my car.   I didn’t really know where it was or exactly how they link up.

I went off the map both on GPS and my paper map and really limited myself stupidly in what I could know about where I was.  The two trails are connected by a cutoff trail which got me to Indian Racetrack, which is where I needed to catch the trail going back north.  I wasn’t aware of the cutoff trail and it confused me, even as it got me in the right direction.  I was met with a huge, flooded meadow.


Relieved, I found a trail sign which you can barely make out in that photo.  However, because I didn’t have a damn overview map I didn’t know which direction to go.  The trail signs made references to landmarks I couldn’t even see on my map.  I got out my compass, because at the very least I knew I needed to head NNW.  My compass did not work in this location.

At the time I thought that the compass was broken, but it wasn’t.  I learned that volcanic rock can throw your compass off.  This area is quite volcanic and there was enough interference that my compass was of no help.

However, in the fall and winter in the Northwest, the Sun is in the far southern sky.  It was completely overcast, but you can usually make out where the Sun is at.  I put the Sun at my back and took the trail that headed north, hoping it was the right one.

Eventually I reappeared on my GPS map and had some relief, while kicking myself for making such a dumb mistake.  The rest of the wet hike was fine, but lesson learned.

Here’s the route I ended up taking:


My solution for every trip is to take the following no matter what:

  1. Zoomed out overview map of the area that includes recognizable landscape features either with Caltopo or buying big overview maps from the bookstore.
  2. Zoomed in detail maps where all map details are nice and legible using Caltopo
  3. All of these maps loaded onto my phone GPS app.
  4. Compass
  5. Personal Locator Beacon

Dumb, preventable mistakes can lead to more serious problems.  My inconsequential error of neglecting to bring an overview map combined with my impulsivity in the field resulted in me being briefly off map and lost.  Things were fine, obviously, but could’ve resulted in an embarrassing situation at the very least.

Don’t rely too heavily on your phone GPS app, always take along  some real maps.  Make sure you don’t limit the scope of those maps however.  If you make your own maps don’t paint yourself in a corner!

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