Monday, April 11, 2022

The Hub and Spoke Recovery Method - When You're Lost and Whimpering in the Woods

 It's not something I hope for. In fact, it's something I hope never happens, But it does - you know - happen.

I'm out on a nice hike minding my own business - I look up - and realize I have 'misplaced' myself.

And it can happen easier than you might think!

See that trail there in the photo?

The one cutting proud and loud across that wide-open land?

Well here I am, standing within 30 feet of that well-used trail - and it's gone!

And here, in thicker vegetation, I'm standing within 12 feet of that leaning tree over there on the right.

And it's pretty hard to tell there's a trail there between me and that tree! (Same tree on the right edge of this photo.)

And this is early spring, before the vegetation starts to thicken up, cutting sight-lines even more.

Maybe I've just stepped off the trail a few feet to pee in private.

Maybe I wandered off a little ways to find some shade for a short rest-break, or because something shiny caught my eye.

Either way, if I'm not paying attention the results could be the same.

That heart-stopping - blood-draining realization that I'm out here all by myself - and don't know where 'here' is.

I've had enough experiences in life to learn that it's OK to let panic's chill take hold of me for a moment, it's a natural process after all, but it's usually not OK to actually do anything while it does so. (An exception maybe when a bear is charging. Then I might want to be unholstering the pepper-spray!) The best thing I can do at this moment is to just stand still and let panic do its thing until the crinkling of my scalp, and at least most of the whimpering, has settled down.

Because right now I at least know where I was when I first realized I was lost. Letting panic translate into motion at this point will only make the situation worse.

That's where STOP comes in.

I talked about STOP, Sit-Think-Observe-Plan, at the end of an older post and since this current post is focused on one possible action resulting from the P part of STOP I won't go into STOP any deeper here other than to emphasize the importance, the critical importance, of the Sit. And I do mean Physically Sit Down! It's hard to run off half-cocked when sitting and half-cocked is the last thing I need right now!

By the way, STOP is applicable to a whole range of situations and isn't limited to wilderness experiences.

There are whole books, and lots of them, written about getting yourself back out of remote places. The hub and spoke is only one of many options and it may not always be the best. But let's assume I have determined that it is in this case.

The hub-and-spoke strategy of self-recovery is based on the universal truth that I will never be closer to where I should be than right here where I first realized I wasn't - you know - where I should be.

This spot becomes the hub.

From there the idea is to explore outward in a controlled and methodical manner, making note of my outward path so I can reliably return back to the hub, until I resolve the situation. These outward explorations become the spokes, as many as it takes to resolve the issue.

The strategy here is to move outward from the hub along a spoke, presumably in the direction I determine most likely to get me out of this mess, and see if I can find myself. That might be finding the trail I was on and resuming my interrupted hike with a nervous chuckle and a vow to never speak of this incident again. It might be finding a road, a power-line, or different trail that I can follow until I can figure out where the hell I'm at, or perhaps run into someone who knows.

But a key feature of this strategy is ensuring I have the ability to, when I admit that this current spoke I'm on is the wrong direction, backtrack to the hub and try again. 

Now returning to the hub might sound easy, just turn around and walk back. But, contrary to the imaginary world of paper and pencil, the real world is never as neat and straightforward as the conceptualized exercise.

Trees, rock outcroppings, and meadows all tend to look alike after a few minutes so make terrible "landmarks"and rather than nice straight lines the spokes are actually going to be warped and bent by the irregularities of natural terrain so following a compass heading with the kind of precision that guarantees relocating that 16 square foot spot that is my hub is problematic at best.

Obviously my best bet is to have reliably marked my actual trail somehow as I wander down each spoke so I can consistently make my way back to the hub.

There's an age-old tradition of marking trails with a blaze created by cutting away a palm-sized chunk of bark with an ax or a knife to expose the contrasting lighter wood underneath so it can now be seen at a distance.

In fact there's a subset of axes called marking axes used by foresters. They would cut away a section of bark with the ax-face to create a 'canvas' then stamp a mark in that canvas with the backside of the head. Usually to mark trees to be cut down and who they belong to. (nowadays they use spray paint.)

But there are a few, significant downsides to using an ax or a knife to blaze a trail.

It's very time and energy consuming to cut away a patch of bark, especially since it must be done on both sides of the tree. The backside, relative to the outbound trip, so I can see the blazes on the way back to the hub, as well as the frontside (again, relative to the outbound trip). You'll see a couple instances of the importance of marking the front-side before this post is over.

Even then, the blaze(s) can be hidden if I somehow end up looking at one of the sides of the trunk that aren't marked.

And marking trunks like this not only permanently damages the tree but can also create confusion later. (I'll get to the confusion issue in a moment.)

Cue the modern world!

Just as foresters have kept up with technology, have put away their marking axes and use the more efficient spray paint method now, I have adopted a product of the age of plastic as a more efficient blaze-tool.

I briefly mentioned in a previous post how I carry some surveyor's tape in my day-pack. Well this post finally explains how I use it.

Surveyor's tape has all the attributes I'm looking for other than the ability to call an Uber to come pick my lost ass up. It's inexpensive, light, compact, durable, and highly visible.

In it's most common form surveyor's tape, which is somewhere between 1 and 1.5 inches wide, comes in 150 foot rolls.

There's nothing wrong with carrying the roll. That little cardboard center ring isn't adding any appreciable weight to the overall hiking load. But there's a couple reasons I prefer to strip the tape off the roll and keep in in a ziplock instead.

Once in the ziplock that 150 feet of tape fits into my pack's little nooks and cranny's better than the roll, and unlike that little cardboard ring, when I'm picking my blazes back up (I'll get to why this is important in a moment. It's part of that confusion thing I mentioned a moment ago.) the ziplock gives me a handy place to store them.

In fact, there's no logical reason I couldn't pre-size the tape into usable sections before putting it in the ziplock in the first place but - while being prepared for the possible eventuality of needing to mark my trail by stuffing a 150 feet of tape into a bag and carrying it along seems prudent - tearing that tape into ready-to-use lengths ahead of time just seems like asking the God's of screwup to reach down and thump me on the back of the head!

So. Let's say I've screwed up - or as I like to say in my more optimistic moments: I've mapped the limits of what's prudent by crossing over to the dark-side of the line. I've done my STOP. And have decided my best first move is a controlled exploration around my current location using the hub and spoke strategy to see if I can carefully and logically find a better place to be.

I start by tearing off a length of surveyor's tape. (No knife necessary. The tape is fairly tough but tears well enough, even for us oldsters.) Somewhere between 18 and 24 inches long seems to work best for me. It's a compromise between the number of blazes I can get out of 150 feet of tape and having a tail long enough to easily see from a distance.

Then I double the tape over near one end, leaving myself with both a pretty short and a pretty long tail.

Lay the bight, that loop, over top of my chosen attachment point,

wrap it around the bottom of said attachment point, thread the two ends through,

then snug things down.

The tape is a little stretchy and it doesn't take a lot of force to snug up a hitch that will stay put until you come back and remove it.

The short tail keeps the hitch in place and the long tail twists and flips in the slightest breeze making it easy to spot from a distance.

Fast and easy. It takes more time selecting where to hang the blaze than it does to attach the tape.

When hanging blazes I try not to do it next to the trunk of a tree.

Because as soon as I walk around the tree a little ways I can't see the blaze anymore.

I could use a longer bit of tape and tie it all the way around the trunk, but that would not only use up my supply of tape faster and slow down the process of attaching the blaze - since the knot is more complicated - but from most angles I wouldn't be able to see any tails flicking in the breeze, only the horizontal bit of tape as it wrapped around the trunk.

 So it's better to attach the blaze well away from any large trunks on a small horizontal branch at or slightly above eye level. This takes less material, less time to attach, and makes the blaze visible without obstructions from a much wider viewing angle.

The more freely a blaze can hang the better so it's fully laid out for maximum visibility and will flip freely in the slightest of breezes 

Eye level means easy to reach, is right where my eye naturally looks anyway, and is less likely to be blocked from view by low-hanging branches than one placed higher. But there will be times when higher than eye-level is better. Such as when I'm about to cross a large open space with no sight-interrupting branches in the way. In this case, by putting the blaze high I will be able to see it better from across the way on my return trip.

This is assuming I have branches to hang the blazes off of. If not I can build rock-cairns and tie a blaze to the top rock, of if there's nothing but barren ground I could anchor the blaze at ground level by burying one end of it. (This is better than nothing, but let's face it, only just, and if this is sand-dunes I'm pretty well screwed!)

How far apart do I put the blazes?

This varies with the local conditions, but it should be pretty obvious that I must be able to see the previous blaze (Just below and to the right of the attachment point of the near one for those who are viewing the photo in small format.) when standing beside the current one.

In this particular instance the blazes are about 40' apart and still visible from each other despite the intervening vegetation.

Here, with long, uninterrupted sight lines across open space, I'm about 200 feet from the last blaze. Which is much easier to spot in person than it appears in this photo.

In fact surveyors, real surveyors, place their secondary markers, the ones that keep things on track between the major markers, about 200 feet apart. Of course the markers are usually in a straight line and  the surveyors know where they're going.  

The important thing for me to remember when hub and spoke'ing is that I'm not marking my way forward with my blazes but rather I'm marking my way back. This means I am spending a lot of time looking back over my shoulder, or watching my 6 as they say in the military, in order to determine where I need to hang the next blaze. All this 'looking back' might seem like a time consuming hindrance, but under these circumstances, lost and trying to rectify that, frequent and careful observation from a variety of changing viewpoints is a good thing. Slow and steady.

I have seen blazes placed to where I can see the next 4 or 5 from my current position. Kinda reassuring since it would be very hard to get off track in this case, but still, a waste of my limited tape, not to mention time, resource.

I've also seen blazes placed so far apart I couldn't find the next one without first leaving the current one behind, and that's not good at all!

I don't want it to happen, but if I do get into a situation where I can't locate the next blaze from my current location (Presumably I'm on my way back to the hub at this point) I can use a mini-version of hub-and-spoke to quickly, and safely, find the blaze I know I placed somewhere around here.

But before I go outbound down the current spoke any farther let's return to that all important hub.

This is not a spot I want to lose track of! As I already pointed out, until I 'find' myself again this spot is as close as I'm ever going to get to where I should be. Losing the hub will make things exponentially worse!

It might seem a like pretty obvious spot right now, but chances are, it won't when I come back hours later under different lighting conditions, tired, hungry, and with anxiety levels high.

It also might be tempting, on several levels, to lighten my load and leave some gear behind as a marker for the hub as I explore one of my spoke quadrants, but that is a huge mistake. Under these circumstances - you know, lost - a major source of my physical resources is my gear and I should never leave any of it behind. Even empty water bottles and used food wrappers could come in handy later as long as have them and know how to use them. 

Instead of relying on fallible memory or precious gear I mark my hub with two blazes side-by-side because the whole point of blazing my outbound spoke is so that when it proves to be unproductive, I can reliably get back to this point and try again in a different quadrant.

And while on the subject of the hub. Presumably I have chosen to utilize the hub and spoke recovery method because I don't have a lot of confidence that someone will be out looking for me soon enough for me to just sit around and wait. Which, if I know people will be looking for me soon is exactly what I should do, sit around and wait, rather than wandering around potentially making myself harder to find.

BUT,  in addition to the off chance of some random wilderness hikers stumbling on my location and deciding to see what's up, especially if they are experienced and recognize the signs, someone might be out looking for me, so before I leave the hub I lay down a marker pointing the direction in which I'm going. Note that if I have used a traditional tree-blaze but only on the outbound side of the trunk where I can see it on the way back, it will be very difficult for any potential rescuers to follow my trail.

Most hikers are aware of cairns. A duck is similar to a cairn up to a point. Cairns are used to mark a trail and are omnidirectional. Ducks, while incidentally marking a trail, are actually used to show the direction I've gone.

First I kick away the forest-floor litter under my hub-marker to create a canvas, then I construct a duck in the cleared space.

I can make a duck out of arraigned sticks, but, if they are available, an arraigned collection of rocks is faster, arguably more out of place on the forest floor than sticks, and less likely to be accidentally knocked aside by that bear that's following me. - -  Wait! What?!!

There's no hard and fast rule, but I make my stick ducks out of three short horizontals (three being the universal distress or help signal and also is a very unlikely arrangement to occur naturally.) laid side-by-side perpendicular to my direction of travel with a longer stick butted up to them and pointing the direction I've gone.

If available I make rock ducks with 6 rocks. I take the 4 largest, place 3 of them in a tight triangle which, no matter how irregularly shaped they are, will support the 4th when placed on top of them, creating a mini-pyramid. Then I use the last two rocks to point the direction I'm heading. I use two for this since one could be interpreted as a random rock but two in a line is usually not natural.

Since there's no guarantee that searchers won't stumble across my blazed trail somewhere in the middle rather than finding my hub first, it won't hurt to lay additional ducks under every 3rd to 5th blaze. Again always pointing the direction I'm going, which means away from the hub.

As alone as I feel out here right now, I need to remember that there are probably other hikers that are wandering around in this place. Maybe not right now, but they'll be here sometime.

Hopefully I'll have located myself long before then, but just because those others aren't wandering around here right now, as a responsible hiker I shouldn't forget about them.

That's why, if at all possible, I remove my blazes once finished with them so they don't cause confusion, or even worse, lead some poor hiker off-track. Besides, I don't want to be responsible for leaving these unnatural bits of plastic out here in the very wilderness I'm trying to enjoy.

Of course tree-blazes are impossible to remove so each one is a possible source of future confusion

Removing the tape-blazes is pretty much as easy and quick as putting them up. Just grab the bight and pull.

If a spoke has proven unproductive, while following my blazes back to the hub I remove them as I go. Making sure I have the next one in sight before removing this one!

I can re-use these bits of tape when I start down my next spoke.

Again, to avoid confusion, I also kick apart any ducks I've created along the way, and at the hub. If necessary I'll reset the duck under the hub-marker to point to the new direction

And if I'm still not found when I get back to the hub, it's a good idea to leave the first (on the way out, last on the way back) blaze beyond the hub-marker in place to mark the direction of any unproductive spokes. While it might seem pretty obvious at the moment which direction(s) I've already tried, this is, as I already pointed out and know from personal experience, a stressful, and maybe hungry and sleep-deprived, situation, so it won't hurt to have a reminder of the direction(s) I've already been.

If I have managed to find myself again while heading out on one of the spokes, I mark that spot with a new double-hub marker, retrace my way back to the original hub, leaving the blazes in place as I go, then turn around and remove the ducks and blazes as I walk back out again.

So that's pretty much it for the hub and spoke. It's a simple but effective strategy for getting myself out of an uncomfortable situation.

Combine it with other skill-sets and I have a pretty good chance of being able to take care of myself out there.  Skill sets like shelter, water, and nutrition management. As well as wilderness knowledge such as saw-cuts, no matter how old they are, were made by people and might indicate an old road or trail, Or that logging roads and hiking trails tend to follow along ridgelines, or across the face of slopes, so going against the flow and occasionally climbing up-slope to a ridgetop or down-slope to the valley bottom is a good way to cut across any of these roads or trails. Or that pipelines and high-voltage power lines tend to stick to empty country and are installed with little regard to the terrain which can make them very difficult to follow, but low-voltage power-lines, the ones strung up on the so-called telephone poles, lead to homes and businesses and tend to be easier to follow.

Have I ever had to use the hub and spoke to recover myself?


Fortunately, so far, never more than a single spoke, and honestly, I probably could have gotten away without using it at all. But it's good practice and it's comforting to know that I have that skill-set to fall back on.

OK, a couple closing words about hub and spoke.

Stick to the spoke.

No matter how easy I think my hub location is to spot from a distance, there next to the tallest tree in the area, on top of the highest hill, next to the most unique rock outcropping, it's not. I can't tell you how many times I have been hiking up a trail looking with relief at the summit, my destination, only to find as I get closer, that it's not, because there's another summit out there in beyond that one, and another one after that. Or how many times I have come across a unique and unforgettable tree or rock formation, only to have it disappear into the background a few steps later.

So while it might be tempting to think that I could find my hub again from a different direction and cover twice the ground with the same effort if I do loops rather than out-and-back spokes, I don't do it! Nature, and our own foibles, have a way of bending even our straight paths into circles. Imagine how easy it would be to spiral out of control if we were attempting to follow a curving path! 

How far should I follow a spoke before giving up on it?

I've already touched on how far apart the blazes should be, but how far down a spoke should I go before calling it a bust and turning around?

This one is tricky because there are so many variables involved.

To start with. How long was it between the time I knew with certainty where I was and the time I discovered I was misplaced? Was it ten minutes? Two hours?

I don't hike with a clock in my hand and we all know time can shrink or stretch depending on what we're doing. 4 minutes in a doctor's waiting room thumbing through tattered, year-old life-style magazines verses 4 minutes of watching Pentatonix perform their version of Sound of Silence? One takes forever and the other is over so quick I need to watch it again. (and it still gives me goosebumps the tenth time!)

My only real time-concern when I'm hiking, lost or not, is when will the sun set. (With my arms held out at full length with my fingers horizontal and stacked up together between the bottom of the sun and the western horizon, about 15 minutes for each finger width. Although this doesn't work very well in the far north or south where the sun skims along sideways near the horizon.)

Frankly, I wouldn't trust my time-sense very much and if I did have a guess for the time between last knowing where I was and realizing I was misplaced I would double that just to be safe, then double it again when following a spoke to account for my slower pace while bushwacking, laying the blazes, and spending a lot of time observing. (Of course if I had been diligently observing all along I wouldn't be out here hub and spoke'ing in the first place!)

Another consideration for how far to push on down a spoke is to decide if I'm willing to hunker down for the night somewhere along my current spoke or if I would rather do so back at my hub.

Psychologically I will probably be more comfortable spending the night at the hub but in terms of efficiency, and for the sake of not terminating a spoke sooner than is prudent, stopping  somewhere out along the spoke (Stopping because continuing in the dark is just begging for some poor unsuspecting person to discover my bleached skull two years from now!) makes more sense. If I do hunker down somewhere along a spoke then a duck (laid down pointing down the quadrant I'm exploring not in the direction of the last 100 feet of trail which may be two really different things!) is super important so that I don't get confused at daylight and head in the wrong direction, yet again! To avoid confusion I always point my ducks away from the hub, in the outbound direction.

Something to keep in mind when choosing between hunkering down along the spoke or getting back to the hub before sunset strands me is the fact that if I'm not quite ready yet to call this particular spoke a bust but the sun in getting low, I can, following the blazes I already placed, get back to the hub in much less time than it took me to get to this point along the spoke. And conversely, because I placed my blazes so they can be easily seen from both directions, in the morning it will only take a fraction of the time it took me yesterday to get back to the end of this spoke so I can continue on. Of course, in this case I would leave my blazes in place on the way back to the hub.

Notice that I have avoided talking about how far in distance I take a spoke before calling it a bust and turning around. To me distance is an even trickier thing than time. Walk a mile around the high-school track, a mile on a trail over rolling land, and a mile of bushwacking up a mountain, and all three will feel noticeably different in terms of distance. I trust distance less than I trust time.

So, How far? Well clearly I haven't answered that, and I'm not going to because, as I said, there are so many variables and 'far enough' is so dependent on the circumstances. That's just something I have to judge once I'm in that predicament.

OK, this post is more than long and preachy enough. Here's hoping you, or I, never need to hub and spoke! (But personally I'm not holding my breath - - )


  1. Nice post. Not panicking and thinking things through is so important. And your hub and spoke recovery is a good strategy. Many people have died in the wilderness without realizing that they weren't far away from safety. The story of Geraldine Largay always sends shivers down my spine. She was an older 2013 thru hiker who got lost on the AT in Maine and died.

    1. Can't really claim this strategy as my own. I can't remember the details, but I've know about the hub and spoke since I was pretty young so assume someone else taught it to me.

      And yep. Ms. Largay is a graphic example of a simple bio-break gone horribly wrong.