How Not To Get Lost in the Woods

Each year, a handful of people get really lost in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In this 1.1 million acre wilderness area lacking both navigational signs and cell phone service, the odds of getting horribly lost are extremely low. Of the 250,000 annual BWCAW visitors, only a dozen or so require Search and Rescue assistance each year. Still, you can make your odds of “staying found” even lower by following these tips.

In the Boundary Waters (and in life) practicing good situational awareness is the best way to avoid emergencies such as bodily harm or getting lost. Simply keeping your map in front of you at all time and actively identifying landmarks on the map as you pass by them is usually all that is needed to successfully navigate in the Boundary Waters. We often tell our guests to imagine themselves in a little canoe icon that’s moving across the map, just like you can follow that blue location dot on your phone’s map app. Another things that really seems to help people navigate in the Boundary Waters is to turn the map so it’s always pointed the way you’re going.

Beginning of a Boundary Waters trip
It seems like a high percentage of BWCAW visitors are “map people,” who really enjoy studying maps and are pretty geographically savvy. But whether or not you feel you have an innately good sense of direction, we believe everyone has the ability to be a good wilderness navigator. In this day and age where we have GPS units built into our phones and vehicles, we can become pretty passive navigators, so it’s not a bad idea to “practice being found” when you’re traveling on unknown route or navigating through a new city by being a more active navigator. Look at the full route so you picture it in your mind as you drive before you hit the “get directions” button. When you feel turned around in a city, find a landmark that will help you figure which direction you’re pointed. When you hone these skills in your everyday life, you’ll make it that much easier to navigate with a paper map in the Boundary Waters.

Even if you’re not the primary navigator on your trip, always have a general idea of where you are on the map. On the off chance that your primary navigator becomes incapacitated, you need to be a position where you can pick up the navigation “slack” for your group.

McKenzie Boundary Waters navigation map

You might consider yourself pretty good with directions, but if you’ve been on a particular canoe route countless times, you still shouldn’t solely rely on your memory. Trees fall down, beavers build dams, hillsides erode. Take a gander at the map every 10 minutes or so to avoid any nasty surprises.

Although there are a lot of great GPS devices that can make navigating in the Boundary Waters infinitely easier, we still strongly recommend that every group has at least one complete set of paper maps that covers your entire route. You can still plan to exclusively use your GPS device during your trip, but a good back-up map is a must in case you run out of battery or drop your device in the lake or on a rock. You can’t go wrong investing in a set of Fisher, McKenzie, or Voyageur maps and they make a great trip souvenir.

No one sets out on their trip planning to get lost in the woods, but it’s good to remember that it’s a fate that could befall any Boundary Waters visitor, regardless of age or experience. When you getting that niggling feeling that something’s not right and you’re not exactly sure where you are, stop at that very moment, study your maps, and figure it out. If you can’t, backtrack to a point where you’re sure you know where you are. If possible, flag down another group and ask for directions. Most people are more than happy to help.
Tuscarora - Trip Planning

Remember, getting lost on a lake is not a big deal. Sure, it’s not a pleasant experience and you might lose some time, but when you’re lost on a lake, you’re in a self contained area and the likelihood of bumping into other people who can point you in the right direction is pretty high. Eventually, you will figure out where you are and can get on with your trip. However, getting lost in the woods is a big deal, so practice extra careful situational awareness if you ever find yourself off the beaten path in the Boundary Waters forest. Stick to establish portages and trails to make it easy to back track.

Have you ever gotten lost in the woods? How to you get “found”? What advice do you have for navigating in the Boundary Waters?

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