Trail Finding

Very few trails were created for the use of climbers. Miners built trails to ore, fishermen to the high lakes, trappers along valleys, pioneers over passes, and animals to food and shelter. But the mine or the lake or the pass might make a good base camp, and any track is worth following as long as it heads the right way.

Even in popular areas with heavy foot traffic and lots of signs, keep alert to find the trail and stay on it. It's easy to stagnate mentally on a long, monotonous walk and miss a turnoff where a sign is missing or where logging has obliterated part of the trail.

Old blazes cut in tree trunks or ribbon tied to branches often mark the trail through a forest, and rock cairns may show the way above timberline. But these pointers don't last forever, and they aren't always reliable. A tiny cairn or a wisp of ribbon may reflect nothing more than the passage of a climber who was lost or was laying out a route to another destination.

As a trail-seeker, you become a detective who combines the clues (a bit of beaten path here, a tree blaze there) with the use of map, compass, and altimeter and with tips from guidebooks and the experts. You'll soon delight in rediscovering the trail just as your companions pronounce it lost forever. And you'll shock the lowland Sunday-af ternoon hiker with your definition of the word "trail": any visible route, no matter how ragged, that efficiently gets you where you want to go without battling through brush.

The trick is to stay on the trail until the inevitable moment it disappears or until it becomes necessary to head off-trail in order to keep going in the right direction. Then create your own trail, choosing a course that a trail would follow if there were one. Trail builders look for the easiest way to go. Do as they do.

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