How Not To Get Lost On A Hike and What To Do If You Do

By Rexy Prakash Chacko

September 2023 PEAKS AND PARKS
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“AREN’T YOU SCARED of getting lost in the jungle?”

I have lost count of how many times I’ve been asked this question, and I am sure many other hikers would have been asked the same, at least once. While we often shrug off the thought of getting lost in the relatively confined and small green spaces we have in Penang, cases of lost hikers occasionally appear in the news, a stark reminder not to underestimate the risks that come with our love for adventure.

I must admit that, I too, have lost my way on several occasions while hiking. Fortunately, with a bit of backtracking and “jungle sense”, I could find my way out without the need for an elaborate rescue operation. Therefore, I have compiled tips (some based on personal experience) on how not to get lost and what to do if we do. While some may be general advice, this article has been tailored specifically to highlight tips relevant to hiking in Penang.

Strava’s interface. The grey lines indicate roads, trails and passageways which people use.

Strava’s interface up close. The dotted lines indicate trails and the contour lines indicate the rise in elevation and how steep it is.

Know Where You Are Going

Before you embark on your hike, have an idea of where you are going and convey this information to a next of kin. While this might be straightforward for short trails to popular destinations like Bukit Jambul or Station 46, detailed planning is advisable for longer or less-trodden routes to gauge the terrain. As they are deemed “more natural”, one is bound to encounter the “untamed side” of nature; for example, a sting from insects like wasps or a bite from ticks can trigger an allergic reaction in some. Knowing this enables you to prepare your rations accordingly, for example, bringing sufficient water, food and antihistamines (for treating allergic reactions).

Having a hiking application (a GPS navigation app) on your smartphone is essential. A plethora of Android and iOS applications are available, the most popular of which are AllTrails, Gaia, Komoot and Strava. It helps you plan your routes, stick to the correct trail and also discover new ones. While there are paid versions of these hiking applications, most of the necessary navigation features are available even on the free version. Personally, I’ve been using Strava as it has an easy and accessible interface, its standard mode shows the terrain contours, and switching to the satellite mode gives good imagery of your location. If it is a long hike, please lug your powerbank along.

“Reading” terrain contours. The area in the red box indicates closely arranged contours, which indicate either a steep slope or a cliff. The area in the blue box indicates well-spaced contours, which means the slope in this section rises with a gentler gradient. Snapshots taken on Strava.

Here's how to interpret satellite imagery. The light green patch in the yellow box shows a large, disturbed area covered in a fern patch; best avoided as it is difficult to navigate through. The area bordering it, which is dark green with patches of grey, indicate a dense canopy dominated by large trees; passing through this might be easier. Snapshots taken from Google Earth.

Before striding confidently into the forest, you must learn to “read” terrain contours and interpret satellite imagery. Mastering it will tell you where the peaks, valleys and cliffs are. For example, well-spaced contours indicate a gentle rise in elevation, while closely arranged or overlapping contours indicate either a steep slope, a cliff or a vertical rockface—areas which are best avoided. More importantly, they also show where the hill ridges are; these are the most straightforward “escape-routes” from the hill if one gets lost.

Satellite imagery gives you an idea of what kind of vegetation you will be passing through; dark green with patches of grey indicates a dense canopy dominated by large trees like the Shorea, while light green “grass-like” patches indicate disturbed areas dominated by impenetrable fern thickets—best avoided unless you know that there is a well-established trail going through the area.

Stick to established tracks. While it may sound like the most obvious thing to do, the reality is much more complex as many well-established trails like Moon Gate have several, if not a dozen, narrower junctions branching into every imaginable direction. Some may be shortcuts, while others may be longwinded trails for those who want a vigorous workout and a taste of adventure. Such junctions are a dilemma for the first-timer – how does one know which the established and well-trodden route is? The best thing you can do in such situations is to check your hiking application, ask around or pick the wider route. A well-established trail has more foot traffic and more indications of perpetual usage. This may not always be foolproof; certain wide junctions may result from vehicular traffic. Therefore, always make a conscious effort to remember (or photograph) a landmark or something eye-catching near an intersection just in case backtracking is needed later.

Moniot Road East, an example of a wellestablished trail on Penang Hill.

A boulder-filled river valley in Batu Ferringhi. Emergent boulders which are exposed by water action, present a daunting challenge, they are uneven, slippery and often hide deep crevices which make navigation hard and hazardous.
A clearly visible ridge on Pulau Gedung, Seberang Perai Selatan.

What To Do If You Do Get Lost

What do you do if you find yourself lost in the hills of Penang?

First, do not panic. You will need a clear mind and enough energy to hatch a plan to get out safely. Check the time to get an idea of how many daylight hours remain, then ration your supplies accordingly. You must have enough to see you through to safety. Look around and note down visual landmarks you can remember (or have photographed) and try to retrace your steps. If you were tracking your hike on a hiking application, retrace your journey using the app.

However, in the absence of a hiking application or any sort of digital assistance, one may heed the well-known advice—“when lost, find and follow the water”. This is necessary if one were dehydrated or running out of water. If not, avoid heading directly in the direction of a watercourse; many such areas have steep cliffs, boulder-filled valleys and slippery surfaces which make navigation hard if not hazardous.

A clearly visible ridge on Penang Hill.

Instead, search for a hill ridge. A hill ridge is a line of high ground with slopes dropping away on either side. In other words, it is the narrow “backbone” of a hill. Vegetation on most hill ridges is generally less dense compared to valleys, making passage easier, either up or down. Most of Penang’s trails are also established on ridges; hence, the chances of reconnecting to an established route are higher if one navigates to a ridge.

If all else fails and darkness is fast approaching, calling for help would be the only option left. Call the Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba) at 994 or 112 from your mobile. If there is no signal on your mobile phone, keep moving until the line reconnects. If your GPS location is retrievable on the cell phone, send it to help the authorities locate you. If not, be as descriptive as possible about your location and where you started from. Having a whistle in your hiking bag would turn out to be a great help for search teams to locate you.

Varying shades of green on the hillslopes of Bukit Batu Itam. The areas covered in darker green with patches of grey indicate a healthier and more mature forest while areas in light green indicate that it might be disturbed areas dominated by secondary growth like ferns.

The great outdoors promise a dose of adrenaline for all, but we must always recognise that the risk of getting lost still exists. Even if you are a casual hiker, equip yourself with the basics of orienteering, navigating and surviving in the wild so that even if a “hiking nightmare” does happen, it will have a happy ending.

Rexy Prakash Chacko

is an electronic engineer by profession and a nature lover by passion. While he spends his weekdays earning a living at the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone, his weekends are spent reflecting and recharging on the green hills of Penang.