Mistakes in the Outdoors

I’m teaming up today with nine other bloggers and Sierra Trading Post for a roundup of our favorite mistakes in the outdoors. I mean, let’s face it: Mother Nature comes with a serious learning curve, and sometimes it’s a steep grade that results in hilarity. Other times, you’re lucky to escape with your life! I debated which story to share {because trust me—I have plenty of them!} but in the end, I opted for a semi-serious tale of the perils of hiking sans map. Trust me; you don’t want to learn the hard way like we did, and if you only 4.2 seconds to read this, here’s the takeaway: carry a map!

Want to catch more mistakes in the outdoors? Join the #STPLive Twitter chat this Thursday at 6pm EST/4pm MST. The Sierra Trading Post chats are always entertaining, but I suspect this one will be especially good!

Back in 2002, I was just finding my outdoors legs, so to speak, and each weekend trip typically served up a side of humility with my main course of chaos. This particular weekend was no different! We had chosen to head up to Mt. Bierstadt and Mt. Evans, two 14ers located pretty close to the Front Range area. They are two of the easiest routes in the state and we had climbed both separately, but we were after a new challenge: we wanted to climb Bierstadt, cross the Knife Edge ridge between the peaks, and then summit Evans before heading back to the car. It would be our first class 3 route and we were looking forward to the challenge!


The Sawtooth Ridge

Ironically, summiting the two peaks and crossing the Knife Edge was the easy part of our day. We practically sprinted up Bierstadt and truly enjoyed picking our way across the ridge before hoofing it up to the top of Evans. Evans is a disappointing summit because there is a road to the top {highest paved road in the country!}, so you finally conquer the peak only to find busloads of tourists eating sandwiches and walking around the parking lot in high heels. Regardless, we crammed some food in our mouths, reveled in our accomplishment, and began the long trek back to the car.

We chatted as we hiked down the backside of Evans, not really paying attention to where we walked. Because we weren’t crossing the ridge again, we were taking a new-to-us route to get back to the car. We assumed it would be well-trodden and hadn’t bothered to do much research. The kicker? We hadn’t brought a map or the guidebook either. In short, we were completely relying on the hope that the trail would be so clearly marked that we couldn’t miss it. I’m sure you hear where this is going, right?!


This is an old photo from the 2nd or 3rd time I crossed the Sawtooth. It’s seriously the least-flattering pic, but I feel I deserve that for being so stupid back in 2002!

After an hour of talking and walking, we realized that we weren’t really on a trail. We weren’t lost because we knew exactly where we were and where we were going, but it became clear that we had wandered off the beaten path and were merely ambling down the side of the mountain. We discussed our options and both agreed on a decision: we didn’t want to turn around and hike back up the mountain to find the proper trail. We were extremely tired after our long day and couldn’t justify the extra elevation gain. Instead, we’d just bushwhack our way back to the car and hope that we found the trail at some point. After all, what could really happen?

As it turns out, quite a lot! You see, if we had been carrying a topo map, we would have been able to read the contour lines. And, if we had read the contour lines, we would have quickly noticed that our “route” was about to cliff out!

But, since we didn’t have a map, we kept wandering in the general direction of the car. We noticed the slope was getting continually steeper, but we just kept pushing forward like idiots. Finally, we reached the breaking point when we found ourselves on the top of sheer cliff face with nowhere to go but down. The rock was damn near vertical and we didn’t have any climbing gear with us. To make it worse, we had wandered for so long that turning around and retracing our steps would eat up the rest of the daylight hours, leaving us with route finding after dark. We knew we would be in serious trouble if we were still on the side of the mountain after dark, so we decided to basically free climb down the rock face.

Brilliant plan, I know.

The rock face was only 100-150 feet long so I felt oddly comfortable with our decision while viewing it from the top. I’m no expert rock climber, but it didn’t look that hard…or so I thought! I made it about halfway down before I realized I had completely run out of solid holds for my feet and my hands, and it made no sense to upclimb because I would end up right back where I had started. So, I did what any normal person would do: I began grabbing shrubs and grasses for holds and cramming my knees and shins into tiny cracks, no matter how much it hurt! {To this day, I have a winner of a scar on my shin from mashing it into a particularly tight hold.}

I vaguely remember thinking about the pain, but that was far secondary to the actual fear in my head. I don’t get scared very easily and it takes quite a lot in the outdoors to make me downright uncomfortable. However, this was terrifying. I was hanging off the side of a mountain with no ropes or gear while wearing a slightly heavy backpack and trying to down climb a sheer face with negligible grips. The penalty for failure was very real, so I just continued to calm myself by focusing on one movement at a time. I didn’t look down or up and I didn’t consider the entire rock face in its entirety; I just focused on the baby steps.

Fortunately, we both arrived intact at the base of the rock face and aside from the bloody shin, I was physically fine. Mentally, however, I was a mess. I was beyond angry with myself for forgetting a map which is a pretty basic outdoor requirement. Additionally, I was wicked frustrated at our series of stupid decisions. When we first wandered off trail, we should have sucked it up and hiked back up the mountain until we found the solid path. If we had done that, the entire debacle would have been avoided. Hindsight is always 20/20 but in this instance, it was unnecessary. We made poor choices, period.


What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made outside or in the fitness realm?


  • Reply Carla at

    Im so wimpy in the outdoors.

  • Reply Heidi @BananaBuzzbomb at

    Yikes, Alright, that does sound scary. I’m definitely good about taking maps. I’m also good at direction and reading regular old maps My downfall? I need to really learn how to read topo maps and such.

    • Reply heather at

      I can teach you!

  • Reply Amanda @runtothefinish at

    Not only will I carry a map, but ensure I have a smarter person than I available for any such crazy adventure 🙂

  • Reply Kovas - Midwest Multisport Life at

    We’re pretty good about planning, most mistakes happen when we’re not prepared for the elements.

  • Reply Ellie at

    Hmm, in Japan years ago I went hiking with two male friends. We were relying on a tiny (and, as we found out, out of date) map in a guidebook. Long story short: we changed our route last minute, and the path we took no longer existed. Got hopelessly lost and wound up getting airlifted off the mountain by helicopter. Man, did WE feel like rank amateurs! Highly embarrassing. So a map that’s FULLY up to date is best!

  • Reply Kayla at


    Obviously I haven’t been in nearly as remote areas as you, but I’ve still managed to do some retarded stuff, regardless! Like…..losing my phone at the top of a trail and not noticing until we were back at the bottom (having to hike it all over again with 1 snack bar to split between 2 people and minimal water left)…..OR……..not knowing that if I didn’t constantly sip on my camel during the hut trip last year that my water would freeze in the tubing and I’d be without easy access to water for the rest of the hike!!

    Yikes. I consider the water a HUGE deal, especially since I’m always doing these things with Texan lungs and would rather steer clear of altitude sickness!

    • Reply heather at

      I thought I told you this on the hut trip, but did you know you can just blow the water out of your Camelbak’s tubing and that will keep it from freezing most of the time? Typically the bladders don’t freeze, just the tubing since that is what is exposed. So, if you blow the water out of the tube, it decreases the freezing significantly 🙂

  • Reply Sarah Z at

    Wow! I’ve had some dismally map-less adventures, but as of yet I’ve managed to avoid any unanticipated rock climbing. That would definitely scare me a bit and probably involve some tears of relief at the bottom!

    • Reply heather at

      I was too mad at myself to cry 🙂 Plus, I tend to cry at things like Budweiser commercials but never when it comes to outdoor stuff. Makes absolutely no sense!

  • Reply misszippy at

    I would have completely fallen apart in that situation! You are so impressive with your cool collected nature in the face of that. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    That Twitter chat sounds really cool!

    • Reply heather at

      Aww, thanks Amanda! I do tend to keep my cool outdoors, but then I will absolutely lose it with, like, not enough pens on my desk at work 🙂

  • Reply Znara at

    Sounds like a beautiful hike, despite the fear and pain. I have definitely been there! Gone out without a sufficient topo and ended up wandering around trying to find the right trail all day. It ended in more hilarity but it could have gone really bad. It’s nice to enjoy the messy stories as well as the triumphant ones 🙂

    • Reply heather at

      Sometimes the funny ones make the BEST stories later!

  • Reply Kate at

    We royally screwed up our first (and easiest) 14er Mt. Sherman…even though our whole group had maps and iPhones with compasses and GPS! Oh man. I have not felt that dumb in a long time LOL.

    • Reply heather at

      Sherman got me once too! We tried to hike up the backside and I have no idea where we ended up, but I’m pretty sure we spent the day in a meadow…nowhere NEAR the summit

  • Reply jeff at

    I’ve never carried a map, but a good rope is a must. Ironically I have a story similar to this where my trusty rope helped me down the cliff; however my obstacle turned out to be a swollen, raging river in early July in northern Wyoming where as daylight fell I was looking at sub zero temps. Obviously I made it but wish I’d have had a map, I’d have stuck to the trail.

    • Reply jeff at

      I meant sub freezing not sub zero.

    • Reply heather at

      Yikes, scary! Rivers are definitely rough. We had a hard time getting Tals to cross one last year because it was too high and she was scared, so I had to strip down and carry her across. It was May, so the water was flipping glacial, and I swear it was like needles driving into my skin! But, like you said, we made it!

  • Reply Heidi Nicole at

    This one time I went into the backcountry with an internet stranger and I didn’t bring a map. From that day on I’ve researched trails and printed out maps.

    Look at you — you’re a teacher of the backcountry! 😉

    • Reply heather at

      Hmm, this story sounds oddly familiar….looks like I haven’t really learned my map lesson, eh? 🙂

  • Reply Jeff (@TheSoCalHiker) Hester at

    Heather, that was intense! I’m glad you made it out.

    I’ve had friends that ended up camping for the night and were airlifted out by SAR the next day. It’s not a pretty place to be, but it beats becoming a statistic.

    • Reply heather at

      Man, so glad that I haven’t even come close to an airlift. That’s all sorts of scary!

  • Reply Natalie @ Free Range Human at

    I absolutely agree that a map is crucial. Thankfully, the husband is particularly fond of maps, and we NEVER head out without one.

    I honestly can’t think of too many screw ups we’ve made, but this past summer we might should have paid a little closer attention to the weather forecast. We ended up white knuckling through an intense thunderstorm right at tree line which is an experience I’d rather not repeat!

    • Reply heather at

      Agreed– those are scary! But, for me anyway, all it took was ONE sketchy lightning experience to never repeat it again! Glad you guys made it out safe.

  • Reply Laura at

    I think you just scared me off hiking! I don’t even know really how to climb, so I would have been in big trouble. I’m so glad you were okay, but what a crazy, crazy experience! Guess it reminds me to pay attention to the old Girl Scout motto of always being prepared.

  • Reply Jessica @YouDidWhatWithYourWeiner at

    Glad you made it down ok. I know about “disappointing summits”. My hubby and I flew to Europe to hike the Tour du Mont Black for our honeymoon. It sounded epic but life circumstances didn’t allow for thorough research of the route. It turns out that almost every refuge we stayed at had a road that led right up to it (at least half of the roads were not open to the general public) and some even had gondolas that took tourists up the 2,500 k feet we just died hiking up!

  • Reply Alyssa at

    That’s terrifying. My biggest mistake was running the PHUNT 50k. Pregnant, it turns out. Never again.

  • Reply Christine @ Love, Life, Surf at

    Holy crap Heather. I would have freaked out. I’m so scared of heights. I’ve definitely been in situations where I have had to climb down some not of friendly terrain and surfaces. And yes! I will always carry a map.

  • Reply bonnie at

    Oh I love this post! Not for your scary situation but because we have similar stories, mainly from when we were first getting into life in the outdoors and more recently from events out of our control (weather and such) but then being a bit unprepared… Just can relate to so much of your blog! Great series because it can help people learn and because I think we’ve all had those situations. 😉

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