How a picnic dinner turned into a lesson on being lost, at night.

I often feel the impulse to head out for an evening picnic dinner, ever since Melissa first suggested it on her blog back in May. Last week I was feeling a bit more picnic-adventurous than usual… My plan was to pull the kids in the sled up the Tahoe Rim Trail, watch the sunset over Lake Tahoe while we cooked dinner, and hike back down with headlamps. The first part of my plan went beautifully. We got there in time to see the sunset, we cooked a delicious pot of mac’n’cheese, followed by a couple cups of hot cocoa, and the kids had a ball crawling all over the rocks. Soon after dark we decided to head back down the trail. Well, let me rephrase that, we headed back down ‘a trail’.

We didn’t notice for quite awhile that we were on the ‘wrong trail’. I suppose we were just so occupied trying to keep our 2-year old in the sled while also trying to keep him from making coyote sounds just to scare his older brother. His older brother on the other hand was pleading to get back to the van so that he could get in his car-seat and go to sleep. He was “sooooooo tiiiirreeeedddd”. As soon as we had a minute to think, we started to noticed a few things.

  1. We definitely should have been back to the van by now.
  2. We were walking up hill, and at no time during the hike back ‘down’ should that have happened.
  3. The moon was on the wrong side of the sky…
  4. Come to think of it, the sound of the highway was also coming from the wrong side…

We had somehow gotten turned around. It was the craziest feeling. Directionally both Joe and I felt SO SURE we were walking directly northwest, but all the signs were telling us that we were in fact walking southeast. How could our gut have been so wrong?

I thought about panicking for about a half a second, then I just got kind-of excited; I had a puzzle to solve. Besides, I had no reason to panic, I had my Olivia bag (with extra emergency blankets). So IF the worst-case scenario happened and we had to stay the night in the woods, we would have been fine.

Unfortunately that bag lacked the one thing I really needed at that moment, my compass. Fortunately I had one on my phone. Unfortunately it took us about 20 minutes to actually trust this ‘fake’ compass; but as soon as we did the math, we realized it had to be pointing the right direction. We followed that blessed iPhone directly back to the van.

Our predicament was pretty easy to get out of, but there was that moment of panic. A moment when we realized we were in unfamiliar territory, and that we had no idea where our vehicle was. So, a few tips to remember when your lost at night.

  1. Don’t panic. Leave that to your children, and if they panic, give them more suckers.
  2. Stop for a moment. Take a drink, a deep breath, and realize that nothing is actually bad just because you don’t know where you are. Get your brain working normally before you try to figure out how to get to where you really want to be.
  3. Think about where you are on a map. Even if you don’t have one. Draw one in the dirt or snow if you have to. Add landmarks and anything else that may help. Which direction did you walk to get where you’re going, which direction do you need to go to get back?
  4. Orient yourself. Find the north star (unless your down in the trees like we were), or try to orient yourself with a landmark. We knew the moon was in the southwesterly part of the sky when we headed back to the van. Therefore we could use that info to help orient ourselves.
  5. If your with someone else make sure that one of you thinks about where you’re going. Let the other person deal with the kids (i.e hand out suckers and make up knock knock jokes).
  6. Be prepared, even if you think you don’t need to. We thought this was an easy-in-and-out trail. I’ve been on it a lot, it’s popular… I just never stopped to think about the fact that because it was snowy there would be trails going everywhere and I would happen to get on the wrong one at night. You never know.
  7. Don’t forget your compass. Pull it out right when you start your hike: which direction are you headed? I can assure you, that the very first thing I did when I got home was put my compass back in my bag.

Anyone else been lost in the dark. This was a first for me, did I miss any tips?

P.S. I still highly recommend the picnic dinner. And you know, turns out Ari loves telling people about how we got lost…

17 Comments so far

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  1. Fortunately, we have never been lost, but I hope when it happens we handle it as well as you. We need to put an Olivia Bag together for ourselves!

    • Family Wilds – You really do, and it seems like the older our kids get the more we use it for the most random things…

  2. Great tips and so important to be prepared because you just never know. What a fun ‘adventure’ and glad you made it back safely. We got lost during a hike at dusk once. I didn’t panic, I got mad at Bedge for not knowing where we were going, hahaha. He had been on the hike before but I had not. Lesson learned…I will not do a dusk or night hike if I’ve never done the trail before. Glad you sill recommend the picnic dinner. ;)

    • Melissa – That made me laugh because this trail we got lost on was one I’d been on several time and Joe had never been on it. I think he probably felt the same way you did, but was wise not to voice the frustration. ;)

  3. Great lessons learned – thanks for sharing. This is one predicament I haven’t yet found myself in, but the part about being prepared even if you think you don’t need to be is important no matter where you’re headed.

    • Thanks Debi – And it’s because of your post about the stitches that I made sure I also had all my medical supplies in there!

  4. Wow – what a scary but valuable experience. There was a couple on the news a couple weeks ago who got lost trying to pick out a christmas tree. After seeing that my husband and I put together a pack of “just in case” supplies.

    • Abby – Yes, I have no desire to be one of those people who make it on the news for being lost. I could see the headline in my mind as we stood there disoriented “Couple gets lost pulling kids in a sled less than 2 miles from a major highway”… not how I want to get famous!!!

  5. Great picnic! And useful tips on getting out of a jam. The dark always adds a certain frisson to even the simplest experience and getting lost double that up! Great advice on staying calm, looking after the kids and role modelling to them what to do if things go a little wrong. Also on being prepared for the possible problems. I was writing only yesterday about the need for parents to show kids how to adventure safely and your story’s a great example of that. And I just love the idea of sunset picnic dinners, that’s one simple everyday adventure I’ll be adding to my to do list. Thanks.

  6. Great write up as usual Lindsey! Glad you all made it home safe!

  7. Andree'

    I was lost once canoeing at night in cutler marsh! We could see the road and car lights, but couldn’t find the right path through the marsh to get back. We really thought we might end up sleeping in the canoe! We ended up just heading straight for the road and slogging over cattails if needed – – definitely taught me to be more prepared.
    Also, my aim when going outdoors is to not be that person you see on the news and think “well, of course that happened, you made a bad choice and weren’t prepared!”
    Great post!

    • Andree’ – Thanks for the comments, and for the vision of you lost at cutler marsh. Sounds exciting, you didn’t have students with you did you? ;). The worst would be to get lost in sight of a road! hahahaa.

  8. You are tireless! I love that you take these adventures because I am quite familiar at how difficult it is to pack up and actually get out there. How beautiful it must have been. These evenings are so gorgeous, especially with the full moon but with three active boys by the time we are all at home we snuggle in quite quickly.

    I suppose a lot of the motivation stems from the preparation?

    • Jillian – Funny you should mention preparation, because this trip was totally spur of the moment. It’s something I’d thought about doing, but I just happened to glance at the weather one day and see that this was the last “warm” evening for a very long time. I had to take advantage. I sent Joe an emergency text, I packed up quickly, he came home from work early and we were off! Having a bit more time to prepare would have been nice, as in we would have had a decent dinner and better snacks, but it worked out ok. My kids love those spur of the moment adventures, which is good, because I’m pretty bad at pre-planning.

  9. […] down and have dinner, and the next minute we’re packing up that dinner and heading out for a picnic. The kind where I pick my child up from school in a van all packed and ready for a camp […]


    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

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