What does it mean to be lost outdoors? I’m sure we all know how it feels, but how does it happen? How do we actually “get lost,” and what can we do to avoid it?
The Oxford dictionary defines lost as ‘unable to find one’s way; not knowing one’s whereabouts’. So being lost is when you can’t find where you are trying to go, or when you can’t find where you are. Is it a future problem (where do I go?), or is it a present issue (where am I?). In his book, Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales defines lost in a way that combines both the present and the future dilemma of being lost – he defines it as “Bending the map”.
What does “bending the map” mean? When we are in an unfamiliar place, especially outdoors, claims Gonzales, we create a mental map of our surroundings to place our selves in, which allows us to evaluate distance to objects and places around us. The problem, or how we are get lost, is when we are in unfamiliar places and not updating our mental map quickly enough. Our minds insist we are somewhere we are not, even if the map, compass and the environment are telling us differently. That state of not accepting our true location, and trying to force our surroundings to match our mental map, is what Gonzales means when he refers to bending the map.
Let’s look at an example: you have a map, a compass and a pre-set route on the map. You have been walking/running/cycling or whatever for a few hours, passing a few places you are positive you can identify on the map. After a couple of hills, you look at the map and you know exactly where you are – you don’t even need to look around you. An hour later you are not so sure where you are, and when looking at the map, you are sure you are at that ridge, or is it the one next to it? So you look around, you are pretty sure the tree line is that on the map, and the hill over there is right here on the map. In fact, you are actually just bending the map instead of properly taking the time to find the map location based on the surroundings, and so getting yourself lost outdoors.
I used to do this a lot – tell myself the area fit the map, instead of looking around, see what is around me, measuring properly, and then going to the map to find that location. We have all done that, and so we all have gotten lost outdoors, many times. Usually it is not a serious matter – a couple of hours more outside, a detour on the trail or just reaching camp late. But when outdoors, getting it seriously wrong needs to happen only once, and it is usually deadly.
So how can we avoid getting lost? The first point is to have good navigation skills, mainly map reading and compass using (which we will cover later on). Second, and just as important if not more so, is having the right mind set.
I know what your reaction will probably be – mind set? I’ve heard it all before, but give me a couple of sentences to explain. In my opinion, the most important thing when going outdoors is leaving your ego at home. Yes, good old humility is all that is needed to be able to navigate securely outdoors – accept that you might be wrong, be ready to go back, question your location assumptions and check again (and again). Self confidence in navigation is important, otherwise you won’t go any where, but make sure to really double check yourself when you look around – don’t bend your map!
I’ll finish this with my worst “bending the map” experience:
When hiking trough the Huayhuash range in Peru, I went down a wrong valley path at a fork in the trail, sure I was at the right place and telling myself that the range to my right is just that one on the map with a perfect pass to cross tomorrow. I camped in the valley, and woke up the day after to go through the pass that was marked comfortably with a trail at 5700 meters (above sea level) – 1500 meters climb, not easy, but not hard. As I climbed, I less and less believed that I was climbing in the right place, but in my ego driven certainty (I’m not going back!) I kept on climbing, scrambling on hands and knees, with a 30kg pack. I was by myself, in an area that was very sparsely populated and with no safety gear at all. If I had slipped I would have died, simple as that. When I reached the top I was terrified and exhilarated, jut to learn that the way down was just as bad! I ended up slipping and didn’t die thanks to my pack: it got caught on a rock a stopped me from taking a 15 meter fall off the edge of a cliff. It was stupid, very stupid. Since then I’ve learned that if it seems too dangerous, it probably is, so go back and do it in another way.
Do yo have any examples of extreme “map bending”? Let’s see if you can top my foolishness, leave me a comment with your story.