Last year, Covid restrictions inspired many people to seek outdoor adventures close to home. That sounds like a good thing, especially for rural areas like mine where outdoor recreation is important to the local economy. But it doesn’t take a pandemic for people to get lost out here where paved bike paths are almost as rare as secondary roads that adhere to a logical grid scheme. And some visitors are utterly unprepared for what they find (or don’t find) once away from the familiar urban terrain of water parks, indoor mountain bike parks, and climbing gyms with amenities like smoothie bars.

Last year, volunteer search and rescue (SAR) teams logged record calls to aid people unprepared to go off the beaten path who did so anyway. But we can’t blame it all on the pandemic. In recent years, at least part of the increase in SAR calls in my area seems connected with cell phones. How they’re even able to call 911 from whatever rock they get stuck on while rafting the Wolf River is a mystery to me. But they do. Except when there’s no signal to make that call. Either way, cell phones foster a false sense of security that seems to be replacing planning and preparation at an alarming rate.

Furthermore, reliance on cell phone mapping and trail apps is changing how people navigate. The blinking blue dot that says “You are here” may be a great comfort. And it can help you get yourself back on track — sometimes. But it won’t actually keep you from getting lost, and may not work at all in the many rural places where cell coverage is spotty at best. That’s true not only for city slickers but also for those of us who live and work out here. So here are a few things to keep in mind about navigation in rural areas.

Roads. Trusting an app instead of your instincts is a good way to test how well you can back up over a long distance without bottoming out on unseen obstacles. The double dashed lines you find on one map or app may look no different from a paved road or well-maintained gravel on another. In fact, some apps will direct you to use those “roads” when you select the “shortest route” to a destination. Sometimes signage provides helpful clues that it’s time to reconsider a plan. If the sign says Unimproved or Unmaintained Secondary Road or Service Road, it might be perfectly fine for your minivan if it’s dry and you go slow and no bridge or culvert is out. But when farm equipment takes the long way around instead of the shorter route, there’s a good reason. And then there are US Forest Service “roads.” 

Last year when I worked the Census, I traveled many Forest Service roads that are primarily used as fire lanes and ATV or snowmobile trails. I’m pretty sure the guy grading one ATV trail never expected to see a Prius on it. If the sign says Private Road, it might be maintained only when landowners foot the bill. One road I was on was probably a township road until the local government started allowing ATV traffic on all public roads. By taking it private, the cottage owners could post it as off-limits to ATVs. On that road, I was careful to mark places where I could turn around and only kept going because it was dry enough that I could see all the rocks jutting up in the low spots that would have held water after a rain. 

Logging Roads. My neck of the woods is crisscrossed with routes cut for use in harvesting or managing timber. Many of those show pretty clearly in satellite view on mapping apps. On the ground, though, you’ll also find lots of spurs that may or may not meet up with anything. After a recent search and rescue call, one member of our fire department said, “I need to talk with your husband about what constitutes a logging road.” My husband did tell the crew sent in on that road they would need a chainsaw to cut through some downed trees. But I guess he didn’t mention that the timber harvest for which the road was cut happened before several of our firefighters were born. Over time, intersections are masked by berry brambles, bracken, nettles, and storm damage, or bermed with rocks and soil to deny access by wheeled vehicles. Among Bill’s fishing buddies it’s the kind of route called a Death March. (Side note: The lost persons were found after a long night and the worst injuries were scratches to the two 4WD pick-ups sent in to retrieve them, rescuers, and boats.)

Driveways. Think you’re out of the woods once you turn off a road and onto a driveway? If only that were true. Rural fire departments are well acquainted with driveways that are too narrow, twisty, steep, soft, rutted, or littered to navigate with fire apparatus. And that’s if you can find the turnoff where overgrown vegetation masks the driveway and address sign (if one exists). Sometimes non-resident owners want it to look like there’s not easy access to anything worth seeing off the main road. In other cases, the cost of maintenance or restrictions on an easement keeps a driveway rugged. Dirt and gravel drives are often crowned — that is, the center of the lane is built up higher than the sides to let water drain in both directions. But water and time have a way of showing the flaws in any drainage scheme. That high crown combined with erosion and standing water of unknown depth can make navigating the approach to a rural dwelling a real adventure. I’m surprised some entrepreneur hasn’t built an urban terrain park modeled on rural driveways for 4WD pick-up owners who don’t get enough excitement from potholes in the pavement. At one of those, you would have to sign a waiver. But getting to your uncle’s fishing camp that hasn’t been used since before Covid? No waiver, but you might want to take a chainsaw and be sure to arrive well before dark.

Trails. This may be the navigational term most likely to mean different things to different people. If you’re relying on a crowdsourced app for information, it’s particularly important to keep that in mind. For some, “trail” implies some amount of signage and at least a nodding acquaintance with regular maintenance. Where I live in rural northern Wisconsin we have many trails that are well-signed (unless signs are stolen) and well-maintained — trails for driving tours, hiking, walking, mountain biking, birdwatching, horseback riding, sled dog racing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and ATV and UTV riding. We even have some sections of the Ice Age Trail, a 1200-mile National Scenic Trail built and maintained by volunteers. We also have bootleg trails with no signage and no one who will admit to doing maintenance. At least one of those is included (with a 5-star review rating) in a hiking trails app I use. A satellite view of the map shows it skirting a large area I know to be the blowdown from a 2007 tornado — a challenging place to make a navigational error. 

Apps, mapping utilities, and cell phones can be useful tools in rural areas. But even when you know the terrain well it’s easy to get a little off track from the trail to a hunting blind at O’Dark Thirty. So here are some basic precautions to recommend to family and friends before they head out:

  • Always assume you should be prepared for a delay, a wrong turn, a change in the weather, and other unexpected challenges. Assume you will need drinking water, energy snacks, clothing suitable for varying conditions, a pocket knife, and reliable maps whenever you venture out.
  • Check the weather while you still have data service. Conditions might change while you are unable to refresh the app, so keep a weather eye out as well and trust your instincts.
  • Make a written trip plan (date, starting point, intended destination, estimated times, route details, number in party, emergency contact information). Text a photo of your trip plan to a family member or trusted friend while you still have reliable cell service. It never hurts to also text pictures of your companion(s), vehicle(s), equipment, trailhead or landmarks, if you can. Leave the written plan on the seat of your vehicle when you head off.
  • Note GPS coordinates when you know where you are and at intersections, where you make changes to an intended route, and any other time it seems prudent. Dropping waypoints in an app also works, if you can share them via SMS (texting). Or you can determine GPS coordinates of your current position in Google Maps Even if you have disabled the general Location Sharing setting, you can grant Location Permission to the Google Maps app. Launch the app and look for the blue dot that marks your location. Then press and hold on that blue dot until it becomes a red marker. GPS coordinates will appear in the search bar at the top of the screen. Save a screenshot for your own reference, and also text it to your trusted contact (a text may go through eventually). The time you took the screenshot will be in the image properties. Be sure your trusted contact knows to share those with authorities if you don’t report by your agreed-upon time.
  • Be flexible. I’ve been on search and rescue calls where the trip “leader” insisted on sticking to a plan despite all evidence that it was deeply flawed. SAR team members are not above taking bets on whether relationships survive after that kind of adventure.

Donna Kallner writes from her home in rural northern Wisconsin near the 45th Parallel. For the record, she says, “Hunters never think they’re lost — just late.”