Life Lessons from Being (Not) Lost in the Woods

The Trail is Life
My grandfather used to say, “I’ve never been lost in the woods. I was confused for a couple of days, once – but never lost.”

Anyone who knows me well knows I have an uncanny sense of direction. Maybe I got it from him. I’ve been jokingly referred to as a human homing pigeon. I was on a recent hike, surveying a large tract of woods with two friends, when we decided to leave the main trail and plot out an area where a new trail might be constructed. After roaming around well off the established trail for some time, I could tell my partners were getting itchy to turn back. They clearly had no familiarity with this particular piece of woods, and would have rather not taken a chance on getting lost on a cold Sunday morning. However, I felt confident in pressing on, knowing we were considerably closer to the trail than if we doubled back. I explained my rationale, showed them a map, and suggested that we continue, ensuring them I knew exactly where we were, and exactly where the trail was. While I had never ventured off the trail in this particular parcel of land before, my newness to the physical landscape wasn’t a handicap. My reassurances were, in fact, based in truth.

After a few minutes of working our way through thick brush, and quasi frozen marsh, I not only brought us back to the trail, but did so completing our loop, landing us exactly at the trailhead where we had parked our cars.

Let me be clear, in the wilderness there is no such thing as dumb luck. Life isn’t any different. Anyone who takes a basic trail map and tosses it in their backpack without giving it a close study, then saunters into the woods for a day hike is inviting trouble. Sure, many people have no problem staying on the trail, in the designated area, following rock cairns, and managing to find their way home just fine. But what happens when you get off the trail? When you lose your way? Planning in life, and in the wilderness isn’t only essential. It’s a lifesaver.

Here are a few lessons in how to not get lost when navigating the often unpredictable nature of life and the wilderness:

1. Know where you’re going. Culture has taught us that planning and spontaneity are two different things. Planning gets a bad rap because it locks us into a rigid format – something unbreakable, unbendable. Sadly, this isn’t further from the truth. Good planning can invite spontaneity. On a similar hike I spotted a small herd of deer. I confidently deviated from the path and followed their trail into the woods, knowing that I could find my way back. Knowing where I am going enables me to be spontaneous to opportunities that arise in the moment. Next spring I’ll spend a week on the Saint John River in the wilds of northern Maine. Believe me, every moment will be filled with spontaneity. Each bend in the river will bring a new experience. However, we’re not going out there haplessly without a plan. And at the end of the day, should the worst happen, I can still follow the river downstream, knowing I’m heading north towards Allagash Village.

2. Carry a map and compass, and know how to use them. This is a valuable lesson for both your life and your life in the woods. A map and compass are those two things in which you can absolutely believe in to be true. They keep you centered. They keep you focused. They provide feedback as to where you are, and where you’re going. In life a map and compass are your values, those beliefs to which you hold true. When you are equipped with these items, and are confident in their use and purpose, the path you’re on becomes nothing more than a path. You’re able to explore the wilderness, knowing you can find your way home at any time.

3. Be mindful and aware of what’s around you. On my recent hike, to which I shared last week, I talked about a brief moment where I lost the trail. Even if those other hikers hadn’t come along I would have been just fine. Why? Because I had the sun to my back, so knew I was headed north. I could see the treeline just ahead of me, and could have easily navigated my way to the summit. Once at the summit I would have had an abundance of options for trails leading back to the base. And should that have not been the case, the trail was less than twenty paces behind me. If you know where you’re going, have a map, and if you’re paying attention to the signs around you, there’s little reason why you should ever be lost, even if you’ve lost the trail you were on.

4. Remain calm. How many times do you see someone freak out when things don’t go just the way they planned? I’ve seen it everywhere; at home, in the office, on the road, and especially at airports, where I spend far too much of my time. Heck, I’m guilty of it occasionally. In the wilderness panic is a killer. You can’t think clearly and logically when you panic. If you become lost in the wilderness your mental state of mind matters above all else. When Captain “Sully” Sullenberger’s plane hit a flock of geese mid-air, damning his plane to crash, he didn’t panic. He simply reacted to the situation and used his vast experience and knowledge, safely landing a commercial airliner onto the Hudson River, remarkably saving the lives of 155 passengers. If you’re prepared, know where you’re going, have studied a map, and have been alert and aware to your surroundings, then there’s never a need for panic. Re-evaluate, re-assess, take stock of your surroundings and act accordingly.

People might joke that I’m a human homing pigeon, but I’m going to share a secret with you. It’s just not true. The difference is that I’ve made a practice of acting mindfully, with awareness, of studying the terrain ahead, so that I am always confident and flexible enough to react swiftly to nearly any circumstance that arises.

Have a tip or experience you want to share? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment in the field below!