Scouts of Troop 310 answering the question of “where are we?” Credit: Bryan Courtois

Just about every article that you read on hiking and outdoor safety cover the same general points. I am going to jump into the details of one specific safety rule — how to make a plan and share it with your hiking group — to show you why this rule is important and how it can save your life.

Make a plan and share your plan with the group you are going with. Write down your plan and leave it with a responsible person who will be staying behind.

All too often groups of people, whether it be a group of Scouts, an organized hike led by a local club, or a group of friends, embark on a trip with only the “leader” knowing where they are going. This is a mistake because everyone on the trip has to know where they are going and what the intent of the trip is. Each person should know the name of the final destination as well as the names of all trails that will be used to get there and back.

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It is important that everyone look at the map and get a mental picture of where they are going, what landmarks they will pass, and how long it will take to get to each landmark. Everyone should keep track of their progress by knowing which landmarks they have passed and how far it is to the next. A good leader will nonchalantly make a point to point out the landmarks as they are passed. Landmarks can be trail junctions, stream crossings, peaks, or other prominent land features. This is something that works for hiking as well as driving on city streets. In an emergency, it is vital to be able to describe where you are. When you call for help one of the first questions you will be asked is “where are you?”

It is important for everyone to know the plan so that if there is a question or a problem arises then you can draw on the resources of the group. Trying to make decisions about which way to go under stressful conditions, such as fog, cold, rain, etc. can lead to dangerous situations. Sitting at a table looking at the maps and reading the trail description in the comforts of your home is quite different than doing so under less than ideal conditions. Also, if something happens to the “leader” then the group will not be completely lost.

Whenever I was asked by one of the Scouts where we were or how far it was to the peak I would hand them the map and have them figure it out. I would guide them through finding where we started, how long we had been hiking, what map features we had crossed, and which we had not come to yet. With that information, they were able to fairly accurately plot our position. After a while, they stopped asking where we were and just asked to look at the map.

Fold your map so that only the area you are traveling in is visible, this is especially important if your map is double-sided. Put the map in a Ziploc bag so that it stays folded and protected. This way when you need to look at the map you don’t have to deal with it blowing all around and trying to figure out where you are.

With enough planning, clear communication among group members, and basic understanding of map-reading skills, your group should be able to safely navigate through even the toughest terrain.

Bryan Courtois is a hiker and camper who is an active registered Maine guide, head of Pine Tree Search and Rescue, a volunteer search and rescue responder and the statewide education director and a member of the board of directors for Maine Association Search and Rescue. For more information check out the following resources: 

Maine Association for Search and Rescue

Pine Tree Search and Rescue

Maine Wilderness Guides Organization

Pine Tree Search and Rescue Facebook page