Backpackers Get Lost Near Ten Lakes

July 18, 2013 Posted by: Yosemite Search and Rescue
On Sunday, June 23, 2013, two friends, ages 40 and 38, set off an overnight backpacking trip at the Ten Lakes trailhead. Their destination for the night was one of the Ten Lakes, a six-mile hike. Of the pair, one lives in the Yosemite area and has some limited backpacking experience in the park, while the other had never before been on an overnight backpacking trip. Neither hiker had ever been on the Ten Lakes Trail. The local backpacker brought along a full-park topographic map (scale 1:80,000) that, though it included the area they would be hiking in, was not detailed enough for finding their way if they were to lose the trail. The local backpacker also was relying on his cell phone’s compass for any navigation the pair might need to do.

About two miles into their hike, and unbeknownst to the pair of backpackers at first, they lost the trail while crossing an open granite slab. When they looked behind them they noticed two more backpackers following them. They determined that these backpackers were also off trail, and continued to hike off trail even further. Eventually, they were in a wooded area where it was impossible to make out any nearby landmarks that would allow them to use their topographic map to figure out their approximate off-trail location. They also discovered that their cell phone compass wasn’t working, so they had no compass to help them determine a direction of travel. They decided to keep hiking, and for two to three hours, did not have any idea where they were. They debated between scrambling up higher to get a vantage point and heading down toward Yosemite Creek; their plan changed frequently.  As time passed and they didn’t seem to be any closer to finding the trail, the backpackers became increasingly concerned. When their cell phone compass finally began to work, they decided to make one last attempt to locate the trail to Ten Lakes (their other option, they had decided, was to try to head off-trail toward the trailhead and their parked car). When the compass did work, it was midday, with the sun directly overhead, and the backpackers discovered they were completely turned around, thinking that what turned out to be north was south; according to one of the backpackers, “While I have no way of knowing for sure, I believe we were going in circles.” Eventually, they saw another hiker in the distance, and quickly made their way toward the hiker, guessing that the hiker was on the trail, which turned out, luckily, to be the case. They were relieved, yet also tired from the stress of the past few hours; they were able to continue hiking to their planned destination for the night.

As a hiker, as soon as you realize you are no longer on a trail, and in the absence of a detailed topographic map and traditional (non-electronic) compass, it is important to stop immediately. You should observe your surroundings carefully and take note of landmarks, such as visible mountain tops, obvious creek drainages, and memorable trees and shrubs. You should then attempt to backtrack to the trail, even if it means going back uphill; be sure to frequently look back at the point where you discovered you had lost the trail to ensure you’re not becoming even more disoriented. If you can’t find the trail, return to the point where you realized you had lost the trail, sit down, and wait. As long as you told a friend or family member where you planned to hike and when you planned to return from the wilderness, you can rest assured that searchers will come looking for you. If, instead, you choose to continue hiking with no real hope of finding the trail, there is a good chance you are travelling farther away from your stated destination, making it more difficult for searchers to find you, and your chances of becoming injured while travelling off-trail, in unknown and possibly treacherous terrain, also increase.

Always bring--and know how to use--a topographic map that will provide enough detail about surrounding terrain to be useful in the event you end up off-trail; for overnight trips into the backcountry, a 7.5-minute map, also known as a quad (scale 1:24,000), can be extremely helpful. Also critical for navigation is a traditional magnetic compass. A cell phone can prove unreliable to backpackers: the batteries can run out, rendering the device useless and reception in Yosemite’s wilderness is spotty at best, making it an unreliable tool for both navigation (the compass feature) and for communication (little to no reception).

When hiking in Yosemite, it is not uncommon for trails to pass over open granite slabs where it is often impossible to detect a trail tread. In these situations, stop hiking and gaze past the granite slab, sweeping the area with your eyes to discern where the trail continues. At times, other hikers leave stacks of rocks, known as ducks or cairns, to mark a route—do not rely on cairns to find your way. Cairns can often lead to a social (unofficial) trail or have been placed there by hikers who themselves didn’t know where the actual trail is.

The backpackers in this story were lucky that their cell phone compass worked long enough to orient themselves, and in the end they found their way. But, in reflecting on the experience and their overall preparedness for what seemed to be a simple, one-night backpacking trip, one of them commented, “I was totally unprepared. Our [water] filter was broken, I had no iodine. I was thinking, ‘Hey, we are going on a popular and marked trail, how could I get lost?’” In addition to the tips offered above, using the trip planning section on Yosemite’s official website could prove helpful when preparing for a trip into Yosemite’s wilderness.

hiker walking on log in wildflower-filled meadow

While searching for the trail, the lost hikers came across this meadow full of Sierra shooting stars (Dodecatheon jeffreyi).

14 Comments Comments icon

  1. July 28, 2015 at 02:50

    I'll be hitting this trail in two days, I have my magnetic compass ready!

  2. September 05, 2013 at 08:54

    My first overnight hike 42 years ago was Ten Lakes, with only that old dotted line park map - we got truly lost and ended up halfway down a gully towards the Grand Canyon... a hard lesson - ALWAYS carry essentials.

  3. July 23, 2013 at 07:18

    Hiked 10 Lakes trail two weeks ago and nearly lost the trail several times. And yes... I had my detailed topo and compass :)

  4. July 23, 2013 at 06:05

    My husband and I did a 3 day backpack trip in the Ten Lakes Basin just one week ago and we do remember there are some tricky places on the slick rock as to where to find the trail. We just looked ahead and glanced from side to side we saw it alright. A good map is essential and a little patience as well. We really enjoyed our trip, our first time in that particular area.

  5. July 23, 2013 at 09:18

    The old reliables work well: a large scale map (which covers a small area, like 7.5 min. quads) and a good old magnetic compass. If you are into high tech, try downloading your intended route from a web site like National Geographic, Backpacker or All Trails. Just make sure you carry enough spare batteries!

  6. July 23, 2013 at 01:25

    The Ten Lakes trail is not the best marked trail and for rookies at back country travel they are lucky not to have had worse things happen. Focus on you're destination

  7. July 22, 2013 at 11:15

    duplicate essentials: bring a gps which includes a compass and a top map. -bring water filter, water tablets, stove to boil water. -two garbage bags, 550 paracord, and duct tape. --two headlights which uses the same batteries as your gps. --whistle (three blows = distress signal). I went off trail at Glen Aulin trail. gps saved me to just back track my route.

  8. July 22, 2013 at 09:26

    Such good information. In fact, my husband & I always prepare as if we may get lost for one night. It makes us aware of our surroundings and happy to know that we could survive if we didn't make our destination in the day we planned.

  9. July 22, 2013 at 08:57

    @Patricia. It depends on how adventurous you want to get. Just between Yosemite Valley and the Half Dome, there are multiple options. You could: A) Hike up to Vernal Falls with a single bottle of water and refresh at the drinking fountain. You'll be surrounded by hundreds of visitors. B) Hike up to Nevada Falls with a full Camelbak of water. C) Go all the way up to Half Dome but you'll risk running out of water on your way back unless you refill at Little Yosemite Valley. (This'll require a water filter as there is no drinkable water fountain.) You won't get lost though as the path is well marked by thousands of hikers coning through each month. D) Get a wilderness permit and approach from Vogelsang peak on a three day hike. In this case you'll want the full survival kit (along with a Spot device which allows you to be located anywhere in the world). Key thing is: Know your limitations and adapt accordingly.

  10. July 22, 2013 at 08:47

    I would like to suggest all of you to contact a good Boy Scouts troop to teach you what to do and what you need to go hiking. Realize your need to have the best resources available. I was the president of the Troop Commitee in one unit in Puerto Rico and our kids were known as well prepared to go hiking always. Everyone that read this, please be careful. It's a situation of life and death. Thank you!

  11. July 22, 2013 at 08:15

    We are visiting Yosemite in September. Do we need iodine and filters and all that survival stuff just to visit the park? Scary.

  12. July 22, 2013 at 05:53

    You may also learn about low-tech navigation techniques such as using a watch and the sun's shadow. From the picture it looks like there was plenty of Sun to guide you. At the open granite slab, you could also leave your own markings (e.g. wooden sticks) to mark your way back to the last confirmed point.

  13. July 20, 2013 at 06:55

    Good advice above, sounds like you may have first hand experience in such situations. Great article, thank you for the info.

  14. July 18, 2013 at 10:38

    I would also add that you should not rely on your cell phone flashlight, as well.

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Last updated: July 22, 2013

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