Lost and Alone: A Solo Thru-Hiker’s Perspective

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26 days lost, alone, and starving. Inchworm (Geraldine Largay) had gotten lost while backpacking along the Appalachian Trail and had survived for at least 26 days before perishing in the backwoods of Maine. I didn’t want to imagine it, but as I read the heart-wrenching words in her journal, imploring whoever found her body to let her loved ones know that she was dead and where to find her, I couldn’t help it. It’s the kind of thing that both tragic heroes and horror stories are made of.

I’d had similar thoughts in far less dire circumstances on my solo PCT thru-hike in 2014. Deep in the high sierra, alone, exhausted, hungry, and trudging through the snow with no trail in sight, no people in sight, and surrounded by nameless white peaks I was was overwhelmed by the realization that if I was truly lost, I might die out there and my body might never be found. I’d thought that I’d come terms with the risks and solitude of solo backpacking, but the thought that if something happened to me my family and the people I cared about might not even find my body… it haunted me as I doggedly plunged through the snow, postholing along the route where I imagined the trail to be.

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As it turns out, I wasn’t lost. I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Sure, I’d like to imagine that my experience, my GPS, my map, and my compass, would prevent me from ending up in a situation like Inchworm’s, but I have enough experience to know that sh** happens, the mountains are unforgiving, and nobody is perfect.

Instead of second guessing Inchworm’s decisions and her personal character (read this article in the New York Times and this one in the Portland Press Herald if you want to reassure yourself that this could never happen to you because you’re a better outdoors-person than Inchworm was), let’s take a more objective look at how prepared she was.

Bushwhacking through the dense forest in Maine a couple of miles away from where Inchworm was found.

Did she have the “10 essential” pieces of gear every hiker should carry?

She had at least 9/10 of the essentials listed on the HikeSafe website:

  1. Map (yes)
  2. Compass (yes)
  3. Warm Clothing (yes)
  4. Extra Food and Water (yes)
  5. Flashlight or Headlamp (yes)
  6. Matches/Firestarters (yes)
  7. First Aid Kit/Repair Kit (yes)
  8. Whistle (yes)
  9. Rain/Wind Jacket & Pants (yes)
  10. Pocket Knife (unknown to me)

It looks to me like she was fairly well prepared (in terms of gear). Besides, she had enough stuff so that she was able to survive for 26 days after getting lost, which is pretty damn impressive if you ask me.

FYI: Many thru-hikers I know skimp on this list (especially the map, compass, and whistle). I didn’t carry an emergency whistle on my AT thru-hike until I was gifted one by the folks at the Mt. Washington Observatory on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. I’ve carried it ever since.

Did she share her travel plan?

According to the HikeSafe website you should “tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you will return and your emergency plans.”

Inchworm shared her travel plan. Her husband knew her planned 3-day itinerary, saw her off, and planned to meet her at the next trail intersection.

Graphic: James Abundis/Globe Staff (Note that peak labeled Redington Mountain is not the 4000 footer; Redington Mt. is unlabeled)

Did she S.T.O.P.? (Stop, think, observe, plan)

If you get lost on an outdoor adventure, the general advice is that you should stop (or sit), think, observe, and plan (STOP). All of the evidence suggests that Inchworm did stop, think, observe, and plan, although it can be argued that she should have stopped sooner. The more detailed advice provided by Hike Safe says, “if the last known location is within a reasonable distance, try to go back to it. If you can’t find any recognizable landmarks by backtracking, stay put,” and further elaborates, “you may need to be on higher ground in order to identify landmarks such as streams and ridges.”

The evidence suggests that Inchworm followed this advice, perhaps to a fault. After realizing she was lost she headed to higher ground to try to get her bearings (and to try to get cell phone service) and then she stayed put. With 20/20 hindsight it’s easy to criticize her decision to stay put, but “staying put” and “charging on” are both considered reasonable actions after a few days of waiting for rescue according to some sources.

Did she do the “5 things” you should do if you can’t rescue yourself?

According to hike safe the 5 things you should do if you can’t rescue yourself are:

  1. Stay warm and protect yourself from the elements. If possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.
  2. Try to remain hydrated.
  3. Put bright clothing on, or put out something that’s bright to attract attention.
  4. Continue to blow your whistle at regular intervals
  5. Don’t lie on bare ground. Use the equipment you brought to protect yourself from the elements.

At first glance the evidence suggests that Inchworm did all 5 things. However, there’s that second sentence in step 1, “if possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.” Inchworm’s camp was in a warm and protected space, but it wasn’t readily visible from the air and ground. It seems likely that she looked for an open space and didn’t find one, so opted for higher ground not knowing that there was a nearby ATV road. There is evidence that she tried to increase here visibility by hanging her mylar blanket in the trees and there’s eveidence that she tried to light signal fires.

A campsite in an open area near the Appalachian Trail in Vermont

FYI: Open spaces can be hard to come by in New England’s backcountry, and most of us are used to pitching our tents under the cover of trees. This is especially true since we know that the fields are full of ticks (Lyme Disease is endemic), and camping is strictly prohibited in most other open areas along the trails in the Northeast. “If you can’t see them, they can’t see you” is a helpful reminder if you’re only hope is a helicopter rescue. It’s also important to know that most searches on the ground never get more than 1/2 a days hike from the nearest road, so if you’re backpacking in a remote area you’re best hope is probably going to be getting sighted by someone in the air.

Conclusion

Based on the Hike Safe Hiker Responsibility code developed by the White Mountains National Forest and New Hampshire Fish and Game, I’d have to declare Inchworm a responsible (and prepared) hiker. In TV survival shows like Naked and Afraid they drop people into the wilds and see if they can survive for 21 days. Inchworm survived for at least 26 days in the wild, and in my opinion that deserves a heck of a lot of respect. Misfortune, tragedy, and death should not be mistaken lack of preparedness, lack of moral fiber, or irresponsibility. Were there things that she could have done differently? Undoubtedly. Does the evidence suggest that she was ill-prepared, or incompetent? No.

Our Role: The Hiking Community

Although there has been lots of discussion about what Inchworm did wrong, and a lot of second-guessing of her actions, I haven’t seen much reflection on what we, as a hiking community, could have done better, or things that search and rescue could have done differently. Take a look at the reduced search area where efforts were focused after the first 7 days.

Map of the narrowed search area for Inchworm

Now take a look at the location where Inchworm was found.

Though earlier searches had come very close to her actual location, later searches focused on a different section of the trail. Why? How did they end up focusing on the wrong stretch of trail? I’m sure that there are a lot of reasons, but one contributing factor could be “a tip the warden service received about a hiker who reportedly stayed with Largay at the Spaulding Mountain lean-to the night before she was reported missing.” Certainly when I hiked through the area in late September the prevailing opinion was that she had gotten lost somewhere between the summit of Lone Mountain and the Carrabassett River (and I’d thought that the river might have done her in). We were all wrong.

She’d made a wrong turn at Orbeton Stream, and was found  much closer to the Poplar Ridge Lean-to than anyone expected (GPS Coordinates of her final location: N44 59.011 W70 24.099). When you look at the time, effort, and heart that went into the search for her by both search and rescue and the hiking community it’s impossible to find fault, but it is a reminder that we should be careful when trusting our memories, and with our reporting of events.

This map shows the tracks of searchers and the location where the remains of Geraldine Largay were found.

Heartbreaking map of the search areas, with a yellow dot showing Inchworm’s final location.

Yeah, but what did she do wrong?

Let’s take a look at the things people say that Inchworm did wrong.

Inchworm hiked alone. Inchworm started out with a hiking partner, but when her hiking partner got off of the trail due to a family emergency she decided to continue on. Although there is no guarantee that hiking with others will keep you safe, there is also no doubt that there is “safety in numbers,” and Inchworm was hiking alone when she got lost.  There are lots of reasons why people hike alone. I always invite other people to join me on my adventures, but when I can’t find people to join me, I frequently make the decision to hike alone. I love hiking and backpacking, and I have no intention of letting the fact that I’m solo deter me from following my dreams. For me, the benefit is worth the risk. That said, I try to minimize that risk as much as I can… lost, alone, and starving to death is not my idea of a good time!

Inchworm may not have known how to use her compass. Inchworm’s friend Jane Lee said that even though Inchworm carried a compass she didn’t know how to use it. Regardless of whether or not this assertion is true, it serves as an important reminder that your safety gear is useless if you don’t know how to use it. If you are a hiker that carries a compass, when is the last time that you used it? Chances are pretty good that a little practice and review with a map and compass would do you good. I think that it is also worth noting that most of the “concerning evidence” reported about Inchworm’s incompetence comes from the hiking partner who had to leave Inchworm and the trail because of a family emergency. As her hiking partner is human, it is incredibly likely that Inchworm’s disappearance was traumatic for her and that she was struggling to understand her friend’s disappearance and trying to bridge the gap between knowing that her friend’s disappearance was not her fault, and feeling like Inchworm wouldn’t have gotten lost if she had still been there hiking with her… Coming to terms with those feeling in the immediate aftermath of Inchworm’s disappearance may have caused her to overemphasize her concerns.

My impromptu backcountry campsite nestled under the trees near Mt. Abraham in Maine

Inchworm stayed in one place for too long. This criticism largely seems like a hindsight is 20/20 kind of issue. Inchworm followed conventional wisdom, sheltering in place, near water, and minimizing her hypothermia risks. I haven’t seen any guidelines that say that you should abandon your camp and move on if rescue hasn’t arrived within a day or two (please comment and share if you’ve found any). Bumbling around in the woods, especially after you’re been lost and when you have a dwindling supply of food, puts you at a high risk of injury and will cause you to burn calories and eat through your resources more quickly. I don’t think Inchworm stayed in one place for too long, it is more likely that she stayed in the wrong place for too long.

Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her. The missing person’s report states “SPOT@hotel.” Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her! Why? Why would it be listed as “SPOT@hotel”? Why didn’t she have it with her? My guess is that it’s absence from her gear and her person was 100% accidental. Why she’d taken it out of/off of her pack we may never know (perhaps to replace the batteries?), but this is the most tragic example of “your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you” that I have ever heard! Would Inchworm have been found? Would she be alive today if she’d had her locator device with her and activated it? Probably. Is there a lesson to be learned here? Yes! Your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you!

An InReach satellite messenger lent to me by my friend Root Beer Float

What would I do differently?

If I get lost, I want to get found!! When I think about what I could do differently one thing immediately comes to mind. I can carry some sort of personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger with me. Sure, it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll be found and rescued, (Kate Matrosova had a GPS, a PLB, and a sat phone with her when she perished in the White Mountains in the winter of 2015), but it certainly increases the chances.

The only question is, which device should I carry? Since I’m looking for a device/technology that my life may depend on, I’ve done a lot of research on the current SOS/locator/messenger technology and devices available. Stay tuned for my analysis, gear-review, and decision based on the three main options:

For more information on what you should do if you get lost and how to avoid getting lost, check out NOHLs “What to do when you’re lost in the woods” post.

USGS Topo Map showing the GPS Coordinates where Inchworm was found along with the AT and 4WD roads nearby.

Wild about Wild? A Thru-Hiker’s Book Review and More.

If the shoe fits?

“I am a solo female long-distance hiker, but I’m not Cheryl Strayed! Wild is not a book about me! It’s not even a book about backpacking!” was what I wanted to scream from the mountaintops every time someone on the PCT asked me if I’d read Wild.

  • Title: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Author: Cheryl Strayed
  • Publication Date: March 20, 2012
  • Print list price: $15.95
  • Weight: 5.6 oz, 315 pages
  • Kindle edition: $3.99

“Have you read Wild?”  It was always asked with the best of intentions. It was an attempt to start a conversation with the wild creature known as a thru-hiker (someone that had spent months on the trail, away from the world of small talk). Surely, as a solo female hiker on the PCT, I must have thoughts and opinions about Wild, right? There were just two problems: 1) I’d been asked that question hundreds of times before, and 2) I wanted to have a meaningful conversation about it, it’s impact on the trail, it’s impact on me, or it’s impact on the person asking,  but there were a lot of assumptions that we needed to sort out before we could get started…

Biography/Memoir Rating (9/10):

  • Wild is a book about grief, loss, addiction, and self-discovery. Wild is a memoir about Cheryl Strayed.
  • As I read Wild, I was amazed by the brutal honesty with which Cheryl Strayed described the low points in her life: her grieving process, her depression, her addiction, her marriage, and her incredibly flawed coping mechanisms. I both admired that brutal honesty and found it alienating. I didn’t want to be dragged through the ugly parts of her life, forced to watch helplessly as she self-destructed. That brutal honesty, however, is what made Cheryl Strayed’s character incredibly human, and made her story incredibly powerful. As the story transitioned from self-destruction to recovery, I found myself beginning to really care about her character. I winced at her blisters, her grief, and her inexperience. I shook my head and cringed at her bad decisions and incompetence. I understood her fearlessness and her solitude. I smiled at her bravery, her stubbornness, and her friendships. By the time the book ended, I was glad that I’d read it. Wild felt like a very honest story about one woman’s battle with grief and growing up, and I both enjoyed and respected it for what it was.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: read this book if you like memoirs and stories about personal growth and recovery.
    • Don’t: read this book if consistently poor decision making bothers you.
    • Don’t: assume that your backpacking friends will automatically love this memoir.

Adventure/Travel Book Rating (5/10):

  • Wild is not a book about backpackers/backpacking. Wild is not a book about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
  • When I first read Wild, I was under the mistaken impression that I was picking up a book about backpacking and the PCT… As I began reading the book I was immediately disappointed. Despite the hiking boot on the cover, and the mention of the PCT in the title, Wild was shaping up to be drama, and not the adventure I’d hoped for! It wasn’t until Chapter 4 that the stage had (painstakingly) been set, and the hike was on… the story was still about Cheryl Strayed’s character development, but now she had a foil – the PCT… It was her interactions with that foil that made the book engaging and interesting to me.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: skip the first three chapters of the book if you are having trouble getting into the back story. She explains enough within the context of the hike that you probably won’t feel like you are missing anything later.
    • Don’t: expect Wild to be about backpacking and/or the PCT.

Backpacking/Wilderness/PCT Guidebook Rating (1/10):

  • Wild is not a book about how one should conduct oneself in the backcountry. Cheryl Strayed’s character in Wild is not the image of the responsible outdoorswoman and backpacker that we, as a backpacking community, would like to represent us in popular culture.
  • As I read Wild it seemed like it could be the guide for “what not to do” in the backcountry. For example, the famous scene where Cheryl throws her boot off a cliff… Is it good storytelling? Yes. Is it appropriate backcountry behavior? No. It’s a gross violation of Leave No Trace ethics… No matter how upset and/or frustrated you are with your gear, if you carry it into the Wilderness, you need to carry it back out with you. It irritated me that in the book Cheryl Strayed didn’t just own her bad decisions, she seemed to take pride in them!
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: Check out Yogi’s Guide if you’re looking for a guidebook for the PCT.
    • Do: Check out the PCTAs wilderness tips if you’re looking for some general hiking/backpacking advice.
    • Don’t throw any of your stuff off of a cliff!
    • Don’t wander aimlessly down random jeep roads in the desert! Cheryl Strayed was incredibly lucky that her forays down random jeep roads ended as well as they did… dehydration and getting lost in the desert are huge and potentially fatal issues!

Conversation Starter with the Thru-Hiker You Just Met (0/10):

  • One of the most common questions thru-hikers on the AT and on the PCT get asked is: “Have you read Wild?” This is especially true if you are a solo woman backpacking in the woods. Even though it is a well-intentioned attempt to start a conversation, it often ends up feeling awkward and complicated. After the first dozen or so Wild conversations I had, I gave up any illusion that the conversation I was entering into was going to be about the book… I was probably going to hear a vilification of Cheryl Strayed, an idolization of Cheryl Strayed, or imagined horrors about the throngs of inexperienced people (especially women) Wild was going to inspire to invade the Wilderness.
  • The biggest problem I have with Wild conversations is that they are usually laden with preformed assumptions and biases about backpacking, about the hiking community, about women, and about me.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: read Wild if you are a thru-hiker. Lots of people are going to ask you about it, and if you’re going to express an opinion about the book, you should read it first.
    • Don’t: ask the thru-hiker that you’ve just met on the trail if they’ve read Wild. Try asking them what they love about the trail instead.
    • Don’t assume that Wild is what inspired my thru-hikes.

My PCT boots

Ask a Solo Female Thru-Hiker!

  • When people say that Wild is inspirational, what do they mean?
    • They mean that Cheryl Strayed’s story is inspirational, or that her character is inspirational.
  • What goes through your head when somebody says, “Wild was so inspirational, is it what inspired your hike?”
    • Why would they assume the Wild inspired me to hike the trail? Even though Cheryl Strayed’s story is inspirational, her hiking/backpacking skills come closer to terrifying me than inspiring me.
  • Why does it bother you when they assume that Wild is what inspired you to hike?
    1. It bothers me because Wild isn’t what inspired me to hike.
    2. It bothers me because I am an experienced backpacker (I’ve been hiking and backpacking for 30 years). When people assume that Wild is what inspired me to hike, they’re assuming that I am relatively inexperienced since the book didn’t come out until 2012.
    3. It bothers me because I am a woman. Even though both men and women on the trail end up having Wild conversations, men typically don’t get asked if they’re just like Cheryl Strayed, and men typically don’t get asked if Wild is what inspired them to hike. Why? Because backpacking is culturally accepted as something that men do, whereas women backpacking and hiking (especially) solo is contrary to traditional gender roles… Both my mom and my dad were my backpacking role models, not Cheryl Strayed.
  • Do people actually say, “You must be just like Cheryl Strayed!”
    • Yes, I’ve had it happen more than once. My immediate thought is, “Not all of the women on the trail are inexperienced, incompetent, heroin addicts, looking for sex and searching for salvation! I’m not any of those things! Why would someone think that I am just like Cheryl Strayed?” But I calm myself down and answer my own question. They think that I’m just like Cheryl Strayed because I’m a woman, I’m a backpacker, and I’m alone. Both Cheryl Strayed and I are much, much more than that… It sells both of us short…
  • Why is Wild controversial in the backpacking community?
    • The backpacking community is concerned that Wild will inspire droves of inexperienced people to explore the backcountry in irresponsible ways. We were all inexperienced once (and should always leave room for learning), and goofing up is part of learning, but we want to encourage people to learn to share our love of the Wilderness and the trail as responsibly as possible… Cheryl Strayed’s character in Wild doesn’t always provide the best role model for that.
  • Are there other things that you dislike about Wild conversations?
    • Yes! I love the freedom and independence that backpacking (and doing it solo) affords me… freedom from societies rules about what I should be, what I can do, and how I should act. For many people, reading and discussing Wild allows them to experience some of that freedom. Unfortunately for me, conversations about Wild on the trail are often harsh reminders that I’m not as far away from societies biases as I think I am. Even though Wild consciously contradicts some of those biases (e.g. the idea that women shouldn’t travel alone), it accidentally reinforces others (e.g. women are incompetent and women that have sex are sluts).
  • What is your favorite thing about the Wild conversations that you’ve had?
    • I love it when people tell me stories about Wild and how it inspired and/or empowered them. Watching people grow to the love the outdoors and the sport that I love is an amazing experience. I think that it is great that Cheryl Strayed and Wild are inspiring people to get out and hike. It is one of the most amazing feelings in the world to discover that I have inspired someone to get out and hike and I appreciate anything that encourages people to share my passion for the Wilderness and the trail.
  • Did anything in the book really resonate with you as a long-distance hiker?
    • A lot of people ask me what I think about as I hike, assuming that I am thinking about the world’s problems (or at least my own), but in reality a large percentage of the time I’m hiking I have fragments of songs stuck in my head. Cheryl Strayed describes that really well when she says, “I found my mind playing and replaying scraps of songs and jingles in an eternal, nonsensical loop, as if there were a mix-tape radio station in my head.” Fragments of songs would get stuck in my head and just play over and over again as I hiked… Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose from Janis Joplin, and slight variations on The Ramones, I can’t control my fingers I can’t control my toes. Oh no no no no no were some of the most frequent offenders. Sometimes I would just re-write the lyrics to songs as I hiked, like Eye of the Tiger by Survivor, which became my hiking ballad, Heart of the Mountains or Queen’s Bicycle, which become Calories.
  • Did anything in Wild really resonant with you as a solo hiker?
    • Yes, when Cheryl Strayed wrote about one of her conversations, “You’re not alone, are you?” … “And what on earth does your mother have to say about that?”… “Aren’t you scared all by yourself?”… I found myself nodding vigorously. I’ve had even more conversations about being alone on the trail than I’ve had about Wild. I’ll have to share my thoughts and stories about that in a future post, but I will say this: I didn’t set out to do my thru-hikes alone, I set out to follow my dreams… learning to be comfortable doing that alone has been one of the greatest gifts the trails have given me.

One of my favorite quotes from Wild is, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told…” Not only did Cheryl Strayed tell herself a different story, she shared that story with the rest of the world. The fact that Wild is giving people, especially women, the courage to tell themselves new stories and to live new dreams is inspiring. Some of the backlash against Wild in the backpacking community is from fear – fear that in the aftermath of the movie the trails will be flooded with “Girls gone Wild!”, fear that new hikers/backpackers will hurt themselves, hurt the trail, and hurt the Wilderness… I think we need to stop telling ourselves those stories and start telling ourselves a different story… a story about millions of new people inspired to learn more about the wilderness, a story about people getting outside and walking, a story about renewed interest in the preservation of the PCT and other long distance trails… A story about trails where both men and women, novices and experts, old and young, can come together and explore their dreams!

Check out the Wild book review my friend Invictus (AT 2013) wrote!

Update: For different solo female thru-hikers take on Wild check out this article on Jezebel.com