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.

Swept Away (Days 134-136)

Entering the section of the Appalachian trail between Andover, Maine and Stratton, Maine was a very sobering experience for me because it is the section of the trail where a hiker, Inchworm, disappeared without a trace earlier this year.

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My first day on that section of the trail I had gorgeous weather and got stunning views from Saddleback Mountain. I thought a lot about how much I love these woods, these mountains, and the journey that I’ve been on for the last few months.

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At the next shelter there were lots of notices about Inchworm. They provided details about where she was last seen, what she was wearing, what to do if we came across any hiking equipment or evidence that might be connected to her disappearance.

Unsurprisingly, I kept thinking about her as I hiked away from that shelter and towards Lone Mountain, the last place that she had been seen. It seemed sad that she disappeared alone somewhere between Lone Mountain and the next road crossing. I wanted my thoughts to somehow reach out into the wilderness and to find her.

I thought about death, and how it impacts family and loved ones. What do you want people to do in memory of you? I decided that I’d like people to care for the people that I care about, and that I want everyone to take a vacation… for an afternoon, for a day, for a weekend, for a week. I want people to dream a dream or live a dream in memory and in honor of me. Right now taking the time to appreciate and live your dreams and to share your dreams is really important to me. I hope that hiking the AT was living out a dream for Inchworm and that by continuing to live our dreams we honor her and her memory.

As I hiked past Lone Mountain I kept scanning the woods for any sign of her or any sign of where or how someone might just vanish from the trail. The trail was incredibly well marked and easy to follow. It was hard to imagine how someone could disappear from it without a trace.

I spent the night at the next shelter along with a bunch of other thru-hikers. We talked about Inchworm and the trail we’d traversed so far and we talked about the weather. The forecast for the next day called for rain and almost exactly the same weather conditions as the day that Inchworm disappeared.

I’ve been a solo hiker for the entire trail and I feel incredibly comfortable hiking alone, but I realized that with the exact same weather conditions on the exact same stretch of trail that a solo hiker went missing on earlier this year, that I’d prefer to have company. Davy Crocket had been getting up around when I do, and hikes at a similar pace, so I asked him if he’d hike with me the next day.

When I awoke the next morning it was pouring rain. The weather forecast was right, it was going to be a wet and yucky day. We climbed up Spaulding Mountain and the trail was wet, but not really any different than the hundreds of miles of wet trail that I’d traversed solo in the past few months.

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As we approached the summit of Sugarloaf the trail flooded. Not just a little bit of water, but lots of water, enough water that you had to check and double check that you were following the trail and not one of the dozens of waterways/steams that were created as all of the rainwater tried to find the fastest way off of the mountain that it could.

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Just a little bit of rain, and I was suddenly able to envision a scenario where you could get lost in those mountains if you weren’t paying close attention, or if it was dark. I still felt like I would have been comfortable on that stretch of trail solo, but was glad to have company nonetheless.

As we continued descending Sugarloaf the roar of rushing water in the background got louder and louder until it sounded like a freight train. Beautiful waterfalls had sprung up in all of the ravines and were feeding into the river below. The river below… I suddenly remembered the one little word in parentheses from the guidebook… Ford… The other streams it had said that about I’d crossed without even getting my feet wet, but I had a feeling that that wasn’t going to be the case this time.

Finally the trail dead ended at the river. It was a muddy, rushing, roaring torrent with class IV white water rapids. How was I going to get across that?! I decided it was a good time to take a break, eat a snack, and come up with a plan.

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Davey Crocket and I discussed it and decided that if the water was more than waist deep that it wouldn’t be safe to cross given the incredibly rapid current. I took my rain pants off (I didn’t want to deal with the extra drag in the water and was going to get soaked anyway), double checked the waterproofing of the contents of my pack, made sure that the hip belt and chest strap on the pack were unclipped (you want to be able to quickly escape your pack if you fall in or submerge), and stepped into the river. Within two steps I was in rushing waist deep water. I reached out with my hiking pole to test the next step and it would have put me into even deeper water (by about two feet) and that was before getting anywhere near the middle of the river where the fastest current was. Clearly we couldn’t cross the river there.

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We bushwhacked 1/4 mile up the river and 1/4 mile down the river and attempted to find a place anywhere in between where we could cross. We spent an hour and a half waist deep in that river trying to find somewhere, anywhere, that we could safely cross. We had no luck. Cold, wet, and tired we gave up. There was no way that we were willing to endanger our lives to cross that damn river.

As we sat by the river contemplating our next move we thought about Inchworm. After a little bit of rain this river crossing was clearly incredibly dangerous. Even the testing of the waters that we had been doing wouldn’t have been a good idea if we were there alone as solo hikers. It was very easy to envision that river making someone disappear.

There was nowhere to tent, and no way to cross the river, which left us with just one option, to retrace our steps and to reclimb Mt Sugarloaf (the second highest peak in Maine). We were not in the best of spirits as we headed back up Sugarloaf. Our plan was to reclimb it, then hike down the ski slopes and then get a ride into town. We’d face that river again on the following day.

On our ascent we met Jungle Gym and Midway. After hearing our story and seeing our pictures they decided to join us on our detour over Sugarloaf. Coming down the ski mountain the weather brightened and we were rewarded with great views of the fall foliage and with a beautiful rainbow. It raised our spirits a little bit, but it was a challenge to get over the frustration of having to turn back at that blasted river.

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The next day we returned to the river and the waters had receded. There was no evidence remaining that would suggest the danger that had lurked there just the day before. What a difference a day can make!

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It was definitely eerie, having to turn back because the trail was too dangerous to continue on, and having that happen on a section of trail in which a hiker had disappeared. Did that river take Inchworm from us? It was definitely a stretch of trail for sobering thoughts.