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.

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Into the (100 mile) Wilderness (Days 143-148)

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Back when I was in Virginia I felt like I was just one of 3 or 4 people on the trailI, and I worried that I would be the only person left by the time that I got to Maine. As I hiked North, however, the trails got more and more crowded. By the time I got to Maine I’d long since caught up to “the bubble” that I’d been chasing since Georgia (The bubble is the large concentration of thru-hikers that end up bunching up together and moving up the trail in a big group).

Being in the bubble meant that suddenly there were a lot more social interactions and goings on on the trail. Each new group of people I met filled me in on the current trail gossip. It reminded me a little bit of the cliques that formed in high school, but much more welcoming. All of the people I met were incredibly open and instantly included me in their groups (definitely an improvement over high school).

The fact that I was in the bubble now was incredibly obvious to me as I entered the 100 mile wilderness (one of the most rugged and remote sections of the trail) and had to wade through the remnants of the previous evenings trailhead thru-hiker keg party. Though everyone was excited and celebrating our last resupply before the end of the trip, I had opted to hang out with friends at the bar in town instead of going to the kegger in the woods. I’ve been tempted to think of the bubble as a roving frat party in the past (full of 20 something boys partying their way up the AT) and the idea of the keg party in the woods did nothing to dissuade me of that particular notion, though I think the last kegger in the woods I went to was in high school not college.

With my backpack fully loaded with 7+ days of food I navigated around the keg , the coolers, the sleeping (or sleepwalking) bodies, and the haphazardly pitched tents. It seemed unlikely that anyone from that crowd would make it very far that day. Within a mile the signs of the party had vanished and I felt like I was *really* entering the wilderness.

This was it, the last 100 miles of the trip. It was hard to believe that the adventure was almost over. I wanted to savor every last minute of it!

I came to the first river fording in time to see my friend Rainbow Bright pushing her pack across a rope balance line as she waded across the knee deep river. She shouted some advice my way as I took my boots off, rolled up my pants, and prepared to ford my first river since the Carabasset River fiasco (I think I can finally talk about that river without swearing). I crossed the river without any trouble at all and decided to sit and lounge in the sun by the river and chat with Rainbow Bright for a while.

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One of the advantages of our lounging location was that we got to watch Twigs and then Hotshot attempt to ford the river when they caught up to us. Though Twigs and I had both managed to ford that river without falling in, both Rainbow Bright and Hotshot slipped and got a bit wetter than they’d hoped.

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By the time we’d forded the next two rivers I was the only one left with a completely dry pack. I figured I’d payed my dues to the river Gods with the hour and a half that I’d spent waist deep in the Carabasset River, so I didn’t feel too bad about it.

Though there are disadvantages to catching up to the bubble (like having to wade through keg parties on the trail), there are definite advantages as well (like fording rivers with friends). The major advantage of catching up to the bubble is the opportunity to hike with old and new friends. Heading into the 100 mile Wilderness I had friends hiking with me, friends ahead of me, and friends behind me. It was a good feeling, and a great note to start the beginning of the end on.

In addition to the companionship, having friends around is really helpful if you run into any glitches. After hiking solo for 2100 miles I thought that I’d already worked through most of the glitches, but it’s never too late to run into trouble. My first night in the 100 mile wilderness I went to cook my food and discovered that somehow all of my fuel (denatured alcohol) had disappeared. I sat down and pouted at my stove… It wasn’t going to work without any fuel.

As I sat there pouting, Rainbow Bright bounced into the shelter. She cheered me up almost immediately, offered to boil water for me that day and tried to coordinate a fuel drop for me on Monday (from Night Train). Everybody I met offered me fuel and I was once again happy to be in the bubble and surrounded by so many awesome people.

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Despite the kind offers of fuel, I ended up heating things up old school. I did all of my cooking in the 100 mile wilderness by campfire. Cooking by campfire was awesome, it heated my water more quickly than my alcohol stove, it kept me warm as the chill of the fall evenings set in, and campfires are still the height of hiker TV. Almost every night in the 100 mile wilderness there were 6-12 people hanging out by the campfire as hiker midnight (7 pm) came and went.

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All of us were trying to savor our last week on the trail and dealing with the realization that we were actually going to make it… We’d hiked from Georgia to Maine and now, after endless trials and tribulations, after good times and bad… Katahdin was finally in sight.

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