It seems like it would be impossible to get lost on a trail marked with white blazes, but it happens to everyone at some point. Most of the time it’s not a big deal. Here’s how it happens and what to do when it does.
You miss a major turn in the trail
Missing a turn off is very common. It can happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes they are not clearly marked. Typically, major turns are marked with a double-blaze or a cairn. If you see a double-blaze or cairn, look for the turn soon after.
If you miss a turn, you will no longer see white blazes. If this happens, simply turn around and go back to the last white blaze you saw. When you get to that white blaze, look around for a cairn or a double-blaze that indicates a turn.
You follow a major trail when the AT veers off
This usually happens near popular spots along the trail where there are lots of visitors. The AT will run along with another trail for awhile then veer off into another direction. It is most always marked, but if you aren’t alert you will just take the more popular trail to another destination like a parking lot. Again, go back to the last white blaze and look for the turn.
You follow a false trail
At times, the trail doesn’t logically go where your mind thinks it should and you follow a false trail. The false trail doesn’t go very far before it peters out and then you realize your mistake. Many others have done this same thing or else the well-worn false trail would not exist. By going down this false trail, you contribute to its maintenance. Just back track and you should see where the actual trail goes.
You hit a road crossing or a river crossing and don’t know which way to go
Usually, the trail is just on the other side of a road crossing or a river crossing. Before crossing, see if you can spot where the trail picks up again. Take a look at this example of a straight forward road crossing. The trail crosses over this stile and then the road. Use the cursor to swivel around and see if you can see where the trail picks up again.
Sometimes the trail is not directly across the road and you have to look for it. First, look for white blazes across the street to indicate which direction you should turn. If you can’t find any, look for other clues. The first clue you should look for is the white blaze on the tree at the road crossing. Turn around and look for the white blaze from the perspective of a Southbounder. Which way is the white blaze oriented on the tree? Does it indicate a left or right turn?
If the Southbounder’s white blaze doesn’t give you a clue as to which direction to go, look on the ground for signs from other hikers such as sticks in a formation of an arrow, a cairn, or just plain old footprints. Of course, if you carry a map, you can look it up. Sometimes the guide book might have this information. Other times, you might have to make a choice. If you have to pick a direction to walk, visually keep track of your starting place just in case you have to double back.
You go through a town and lose the blazes while in town
When you go through a town, you have to look for the white blazes on bridges, telephone poles, and on the back of signs. Know that if you get lost, you can always ask a local. Additionally, guidebooks usually have a small map of major hiker towns that make navigation easier.
Take a look at this map and follow the trail North along the road by clicking the white arrow on the map. The AT briefly runs along the right side of this road. Do you see the tiny white blaze on the stone of the bridge? Look for the white blazes on the bridges, a wooden post, and a rock before it continues uphill into the woods.
You get disoriented in the woods
Disorientation in the woods can be the most dangerous for a hiker simply because panic can set in quickly which can lead to irrational actions. Dark conditions or going over rocky terrain can cause you to lose sight of the white blazes and can contribute to disorientation. The important thing is not to panic and keep these things in mind:
- The trail will most likely keep a logical path. Stay on a steady course and avoid making erratic turns.
- In places like Maine, some sections might become overgrown and the trail will be difficult to see. Again, keep a steady course.
- Turn around and look for white blazes going South (or North for southbounders). Sometimes blazes might be worn making it difficult to see.
- Go back to the last blaze as a starting base and look around to see if you missed a turn.
- If you are disoriented around your camp, call out to other hikers. If you are camping alone, mark areas with obvious markers to keep from veering farther away.
- When you go into the woods to use the restroom, keep a visual on your return point. Sometimes the trail is difficult to see after you walk several feet into the woods.
If you are prone to getting lost, consider hiking with another person, taking a wilderness survival training course, and/or carrying the AT maps with you. There’s no such thing as being over-prepared on the trail.