You’d think that a seasoned travel professional [ed. note: not technically true] like myself would be beyond certain amateur mistakes. But Saturday proved otherwise, as I was almost eaten by wolves and zombies and zombie wolves [ed. note: also not true] while hiking through Swallow Cliff Woods and Cap Sauers Holdings Nature Preserve in the Cook County Forest Preserve south of Chicago. (Highly recommended, by the way, if you’re in the area. Once you get into the woods, you don’t feel like you’re near the city at all. Amazing that it’s such a short drive away.) As a public service announcement, here’s how not to get lost in the woods.
Step 1: Bring a map.
Who’d have thought? Not us, because a) we thought we knew where we were going and b) we have phones and thus assume we have instant access to all knowledge ever. But a) proved to be essentially false, and b) was sort of true, in that my phone’s GPS did a good enough job to eventually help us get home, but one phone with faulty GPS and another phone with a dying battery are not as useful as one real permanent paper map. If we’d had a map, we would have likely checked it when we came to forks in the trail, instead of just assuming we knew which way to go. At the very least, we should have had a compass with us, because on an overcast day we had nothing to help us orient ourselves.
Step 2: Start at a decent hour.
We started what should have been an eight-mile hike at 2:30 p.m. on one of the shortest days of the year, when sunset was 4:19 p.m. We’re fast-ish walkers, but not that fast, and it left us no latitude for getting lost. However, the upside of this is that we got to see a really beautiful sunset through the woods, with no one else running or galloping or screaming through to disturb it.
Step 3: Tell someone where you’re going.
This seems much less important for a couple-hour suburban forest preserve hike than for a multi-day backpacking trip into the Rockies, but the principle holds true. I don’t think anyone knew where we were or when we were planning to be back, so if something bad had actually happened to us, like the aforementioned zombie wolf attack, no one would have known when to get worried or where to look.
Step 4: Bring snacks and water.
This is one of my mantras for all trips, and I completely failed to do it this time. While this wouldn’t have kept us from getting lost, it would have made me feel a little better about the period of time while we were lost. I wasn’t scared that we would never make it home or anything, but I was scared of how long it might take us to get home, and given the way we devoured a couple of steaks once we got back to civilization, some trail mix or granola bars would have been a smart thing to pack.
In all, by the time we realized we’d gone wrong, we were probably a mile or so off course, so it wasn’t a tragedy. It wound up just being part of the story of the day. But in general, it’s probably better to be not-lost than lost-lost, and following the above steps should keep you on the right course.