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“We can’t get lost, we’re on a small island. Two miles in any direction will bring us to the shore where we can get our bearings.” With these words of assurance, I led my visiting friend on a shortcut to a favorite fishing spot. And so we headed into the densely wooded, hilly terrain with our fishing poles, tackle box and large fishing net. The afternoon was getting on, and the September days getting shorter, but it was just a quick hike.

The woods were darker and wetter than expected, but we were young and in good shape, and I knew this area like the back of my hand.

After spending 45 minutes on a hike that should have taken 20 – 30 minutes, it was becoming apparent that taking the shortcut was not such a good idea. The fishing net kept getting caught on branches and the long casting rods slowed us down as we had to weave them through thick stands of saplings and brush. But this inconvenience would soon end because we’re almost there, I reasoned. And we’ll take the long way home after fishing.

By the third time in an hour that my friend said “Haven’t we seen this tree before?”, I decided to mark the tree with a small blaze to remove any doubt should we come across it again. And I made a few slight changes in direction to ensure we weren’t going in circles. But ten minutes later we came upon the tree again, and the blaze removed all doubt. We had indeed been travelling in circles.

Our experience was a common one among hikers, and just what German scientist Jan Souman might have predicted. In a recent study, Souman reported that this often-described sense of lost-hiker déjà vu, of having inadvertently backtracked while wandering in the woods, is real.

Souman’s study tested the ability of humans to walk on a straight course through unfamiliar terrain in two different environments: a large forest area and the Sahara desert. Walking trajectories of several hours were captured via global positioning system, showing that participants repeatedly walked in circles when they could not see the sun. Conversely, when the sun was visible, participants sometimes veered from a straight course but did not walk in circles.

On cloudy days, in failing light or when there is no moon, Dr. Souman says, the brain appears to be lacking a fundamental visual cue to help make sense of the jumble of other data it is receiving. The study suggests that veering from a straight course is the result of accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system, which, without an external directional reference to recalibrate the subjective straight ahead, may cause people to walk in circles.

Once my friend and I realized we were going in circles, we made deliberate efforts to sight a distant landmark and keep as straight a course to it as the terrain would allow. Going from point to point, we eventually found the shore just as the last light was giving way to the fall evening darkness. With no time to cast a line into the water, we headed directly home via the long way and made it to my cabin with the last shadowy glimmer of light.

The study suggests that even experienced hikers can experience disorientation in the absence of clear visual cues, but back-country guides and hiking experts prepare themselves, as we did not, for this eventuality. The following strategies can help prevent hikers from the tendency to walk in circles:

  • Consult a topographic map before setting out – advance knowledge of the lay of the land will help you stay on track, or help you know when you’re off track.
  • Bring a compass or a GPS device – the simplest way of staying on course while hiking.
  • Mark your trail – a simple system of setting stones in a pyramid or making an “X” with crossed branches will let you know if you’re walking in a circle. Avoid chopping into trees, it’s unnecessary. And don’t place your mark directly on the trail or other hikers may remove them. As for leaving bread crumbs, you may remember it didn’t work for Hansel and Gretl.
  • Try point to point navigation – set your sights on a nearby landmark and walk to it, then repeat the process. This can help you maintain a relatively straight line while hiking.

If you’re really lost, the advice from rescue experts is to stay in place until help arrives. Of course, this is matter of judgement depending on whether others were informed of your plans, and your preparedness for extended exposure. In all cases, the best advice is ‘be prepared’ even when taking hikes in familiar territory. Bring a flashlight, compass, layered clothing, matches and some gorp or snack bars to sustain you should you fall victim to the ‘circle route’ while hiking.