What to Do If You Get Lost on a Desert Trail

This spring, Tristan and I headed out west to hike the desert terrain of Colorado and Utah. Along the way, we had the amazing opportunity to hike Arches National Park. Being no strangers to hiking—or even desert hikes—we chose one of the furthest and most difficult trails, the route to Tower Arches.

This hike turned out to be the hardest we have ever done, not because of the terrain or altitude, because those were easy. It was the most dangerous hike because it was the one time we got lost in the desert right before sunset, miles and miles away from our car. Like I said, we’re no strangers to hikes or danger, so we made it out in good time despite our natural fears to the contrary.

However, this is often not the happy ending for hikers who bite off way more than they can chew in the unforgiving desert terrain. So, if you ever get lost on a desert trail, here are a few easy tips to help you safely find your way back.

Ask Strangers for Directions

22 Corona Arches Hiking Trail Utah

As children, our parents always told us: never speak to strangers. As adults, we especially distrust strangers in strange places we never visited before. When it comes to desert hiking, however, you may want to consider breaking this rule. If you’re lost in the desert and hear voices, seek them out and ask for help. Often times, you will run into locals or more seasoned hikers than yourself.

If you’re still wary of depending on strangers in your moment of despair, the safest people to ask for directions on trails are usually groups being led by tour guides and families with children.

Check the Map

3 Torrey Pines State Reserve Map

If it is not a popular hiking spot, or you strayed far away from the trail, then it’s possible you won’t run into anyone. When this happens, your next best option is the map. Never ever get on a desert trail without a map, no matter how straight-forward the route originally seems. Get a physical one if possible, download one from the park’s website, or take a picture of one if you pass it on a sign.

When checking the map, pay close attention to:

  • Major landmarks
  • Visitor centres and parking lots
  • Overlaps with other trails
  • The shape of trails
  • The terrain you will be crossing over
  • The estimated level of difficulty
  • The distance of the trail or different sections of it

Being able to identify these features on a map will help you figure out where you are and the best route for finding your way out.

Look for Footprints

42 Arches National Park Utah

The frightening thing about being lost in the desert, however, is that often everything looks pretty much the same. It is a large stretch of sand and rocks and rocky mountains. This makes it difficult for parks to put up markers. When this happens, following footprints are helpful. You can either follow your own footprints back the way you came, or follow the steps of heavy traffic to find the way that loops out.

If the way back is longer than the way forward and light is fading fast, you will have to make a tough decision. You can either take the shorter but less sure route out, or the surer but longer route. When we got lost at Arches National Park we chose to keep going and make the loop.

Find the Balanced Rocks

23 Graveyard of Cairns Corona Arches Hiking Trail Utah

More reliable than footprints are the balanced rocks called cairns which are often used to mark trails out west in the US. For this reason, hikers are usually prohibited from erecting these on their own, since they may set lost hikers further astray. We came across a few of these in Arches National Park, but saw way more when we hiked Corona and Bowtie Arches the following day.

Go Higher

35 Arches National Park Utah Tristan OBryan Rock Climb

If you have lost sight of the trail or you aren’t sure you’re headed in the right direction, consider moving to higher ground. You can either hike to the top of a hill, or if you’re as desperate as we were, climb to the top of a large boulder. Be careful when doing this as a fall can lead to serious injury and may worsen your chances of getting out before dark. Keep this in your pocket as a last-resort option only and use at your own risk.

RELATED POST: 5 Tips for Hiking in the Vegas Desert

Hiking in the desert is fun, especially in the springtime when temperatures are more mild. However, it can also be dangerous. Accidents happen and sometimes we overestimate our abilities or underestimate Mother Nature. If you ever plan to chance the rugged desert terrain for yourself, keep these tips in mind. Also stock up on plenty of water, research the snakes in that area and bring a hiking buddy.

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32 thoughts on “What to Do If You Get Lost on a Desert Trail

    1. Hi! Sorry for the late reply! I’ve been buried in client work. By all means add your suggestions. No need to ask for my permission to add stuff in the comments. 🙂

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