The one time I went hiking alone—during a recent college reunion, while my hung- over pals slept in—I took a seemingly simple route en- circling a lake. An hour later, my phone rang. Excited to be chatting with a friend (reception! All the way out here!), I stopped paying attention to the trail markers, till I hung up. Oops. The lake was nowhere in sight. Also, I hadn’t seen a single human since I’d left. I back-tracked for a short eternity, found the correct trail again and began to sprint. But wait, what if I was running in the wrong direction? I turned, raced off again—and tripped over a root. Panicked and dehydrated, I pictured myself with a broken ankle and very bad hair, trying to army-crawl away from a wild bear only to find myself at the rifle tips of a bunch of grizzly Vermont separatists.
I called 911.
A fireman rescued me.
Turns out I was about four minutes from the parking lot.
I really wanted to be a competent hiker, but after that humiliation I feared I didn’t have the Mountain Woman Brain that is required. Yes, I could have simply downloaded a good hiking app. But I don’t have a smartphone, and anyway, what if it ran out of juice? So I called Stetson Hundgen, cofounder of the outdoor adventure company Brooklyn Outfitters, and learned that good hikers don’t instinctively know south from north, like birds with winter homes in Florida. They don’t have magical navigational abilities of any kind. They use compasses and topographical maps to constantly orient themselves. They also never ignore trail markers while gossiping on the phone.
Fortified by some schooling from Stetson and a new pair of Merrell hiking boots, I set off on a four-hour trek through Harriman State Park, in New York. As part of the training, Stetson accompanied me, never out of shouting distance in case things went terribly awry.
But I led the way, having studied a map and noted important landmarks—like an old iron mine. And as long as I never took more than a few steps before visually locating the next trail marker, staying on track was surprisingly easy. So was enjoying the scenery. On that beautiful though sunless day, the sky was a bright silver through the branches. Glacier-carved rocks, verdigrised with lichens, pointed the way to the summit, where I could see nothing but mountaintops for miles in every direction.
On the drive home, I thanked Stetson for giving me the confidence to hike on my own, and he mentioned that he himself rarely hit the trail without a buddy. That’s when I learned there’s one other thing that smart mountaineers usually bring along for the ride: a copilot.
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