(c) 1995, Willis Lamm, TrailBlazer Magazine


By Willis Lamm

Reprinted with permission of TrailBlazer Magazine for non-commercial use.

Any time you venture far out on the trail, you or someone in your group runs the risk of getting lost. Your customary route may be blocked. A water crossing may be unseasonably rough. An emergency or breakdown may require someone to ride off for help. A lame horse or sudden weather change may require you to find a shortcut back to "home base". Trail markers may be missing or someone may have deliberately altered them.

People get lost all the time, even in territories that are ordinarily familiar to them. Even the most experienced veteran may be faced with a situation which requires taking an unknown trail. Depending upon where you are, getting lost can range from a mere inconvenience to a problem of survival. The purpose of this article is to provide some prevention tips and solutions if you do find yourself in an unfamiliar predicament.


Carry a Map

This suggestion sounds simple enough, but countless groups start out on trail without any map because "someone knows the way". Others have some hand drawn map that made sense to whomever sketched it, but is ambiguous and misleading to the person or group who is attempting to use it. I've found riders miles off-course in nearby recreation areas for both such reasons, and discovered that most of them road past several "Visitor Information" signs which contained boxes of free park maps which they never thought of obtaining.

In addition to carrying a map, someone in the group needs to know how to read it! Go over it before the ride. Make sure it is the correct map for the area, is current and shows all of the trails, roads and streams which you will encounter. Work out the relationship between the various trails and landmarks so in the event you do become disoriented, there won't erupt a prolonged debate over what the map means and where you are on it. Even if you are a trail expert, go over the map with the group and encourage the other riders to use it. Help develop good outdoor navigation skills in others.

I could sketch a couple of parks we regularly ride from memory, however we still carry maps when we ride there. If someone in our party has to break off from the group, they have a map to follow. When we run across other riders and hikers looking for directions, we can pull out a map rather than give verbal directions which might confuse them even more. If we have an emergency, we can mark on a map where we are and give it to any riders who have to go for help.

We consider maps to be like any other riding gear; something we should have in the saddle bag alongside our hoof pick and other trail supplies.

Carry a Bright Jacket

A bright orange or yellow or red nylon shell can be easily be rolled up and tied to the saddle cantle. Bright, solid colored clothing can be more readily spotted by searchers. It can be easily waved at aircraft searching for you or it can be laid out on the ground in an open area if you have to take cover. During unstable weather, it will prove useful to shed rain or to help you keep warm.

Check Weather and Trail Conditions

Depending upon where you are riding, weather and trail conditions can become significant factors in completing your ride safely. During seasons of unsteady weather, check weather forecasts before starting out. When heading into unfamiliar territory, find someone who knows the local weather. Some areas might have significant hot winds every afternoon which can be hard on tired, overheated horses. Other seaside areas might experience afternoon fog, which is great for horses but miserable for underdressed humans. You should know what weather changes to expect during the course of your ride and adjust your itinerary, route and equipment carried accordingly.

Try to ascertain the condition of trails and water crossings. Trails may be listed as open, but may not be suitable to your horse's condition and ability at the time of the ride. Deep mud on trails and swift water crossings can be hard on any horse and pose a risk of serious injury to less fit and less experienced mounts.

Avoid narrow canyons and washes during thunderstorm watches or warnings. I question going out during such weather at all, however on multi-day excursions you may have no choice. The weather where you are riding may not seem extreme, however conditions may be quite different "upstream". Creeks and crossings can rise suddenly and without warning. With a good map, you can usually find a safe place to stage until conditions stabilize or perhaps determine a more suitable route.

Have proper conditioning and proper gear

Is your horse up for the ride? Horses conditioned in flat country often experience some trouble in hills. If the weather turns warm and humid, your horse's stamina will definitely be challenged. You are generally safest staying with a group, but if your horse can't keep up, you may be faced with turning back or the group will have to split into fractions, with someone staying back with you.

Your horse needs a saddle which fits properly, correct shoes, and you need proper and comfortable attire. All of your gear needs to be in good condition, with all components securely fastened and in working order. Many trail delays and some accidents result from equipment failure. Weak gear that holds up in the arena might not withstand the additional pressures of hill riding. Poorly set shoes can work loose in mud. Make sure you won't be the cause of a trail breakdown.

Take responsibility for yourself

Don't always count on the group leader to make good decisions. Sometimes a macho attitude takes over and you could find yourself in a dangerous situation.

We used to enjoy a spring charity ride and picnic in our area on a local mountain. The ride traversed wonderful streams and canyons and included a variety of riders from novices to pretty solid trail riders. One year a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for the morning of the ride. Clouds were heavy and there were constant thunder claps. The ride course extended up the mountain into the thunderhead level.

The ride organizers refused to postpone the ride as it would be too inconvenient. We advised the riders from our barn to forget it and come home, which they did. The other riders who went out were lucky. The storm did not fully intensify until it passed a few miles north of the mountain, where it ended up becoming the most severe storm of that year. With the number of inexperienced riders and horses present, the ride could have turned out to be a disaster.

We often assume that ride organizers have some sense of responsibility. Most do, but some don't. If their advice doesn't make good sense to you, stay out of the activity. In the final analysis, you are responsible for your own safety and well being. Do not abdicate this responsibility to others unless you are certain of their expertise.

Maintain good group manners

A good trail group will have designated lead and drag riders. This arrangement may be formal in a large group, or informal in the instance where a handful of familiar riders go out together. The leader should have final say over making course decisions and the drag rider should account for all of the riders and horses, making sure no one gets separated and calling for rest stops for weaker mounts in the group.

Persons who wish to do some speed riding when the rest of the group isn't up for it should do so in designated areas while the others are resting, or coordinate alternate routes and activities so that everyone can regroup at a predetermined location. Undisciplined riders who break off on their own without notice are risks to themselves and to the group. They stand a greater risk of getting lost or stranded, and the group often has to concern itself with the mavericks' whereabouts and may have to split up to find them.

Let someone know where you are

In our barn we ask anyone who goes out on trail to put their location, time out and estimated time back on the message board. If someone doesn't make it back in a reasonable time, we can start looking for them before dark. Some parks and recreation areas lock perimeter gates at sunset unless they are advised that a rider may be trying to get out.

If you go out for the day, leaving information as to where you are going will give your friends a chance to locate your trailer, and if it is still at the staging area and you aren't, organize some kind of search for you. If you ride directly out from your barn, people will know to look for you if your horse isn't back in its stall.

If you go out on a multi-day trip, potential rescuers will at least have a location for your base camp, where they can more efficiently determine if a problem truly exists and organize a search.

These things don't sound so important until it is you who is in trouble and you wish to God someone knew where you were. In a worst case scenario, a simple message as to your whereabouts could mean the difference between life and death for you or your horse.

One final thing to consider: As a result of government budget cuts, some agencies are charging lost riders and hikers for search and rescue costs if those who are rescued were irresponsibe or showed careless disregard for their own or their group's safety. Proper preparation may not only keep you from getting in trouble, but might save you thousands of dollars in the event something does happen beyond your control and you have to be rescued!

In Part Two we will cover how to best handle the situation if you do get lost or have a trail ride breakdown.

Continue to Part 2

Our thanks to TrailBlazer Magazine for permission to post this series on our web page.
You can visit the TrailBlazer website at www.horsetrails.com.

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