That Time I Got Lost in the Woods

I’m doing a trail half marathon in two months (and if you can believe it, I’m doing the Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half in a month), so for today’s “long run,” I decided to head to the Des Plaines River Trail. On my way, I saw lots of folks heading to the Gay Pride Parade, and in hindsight, I should have gone to that instead.

I digress.

The run started off perfectly fine. I stuck to the clearly-marked gravel trail for 4 miles out, then turned around and headed back.

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The trail is very much through the woods, but you do have to go over the expressway, so you’re not that far from civilization.

On my way out, I saw a footpath that I assume went along the river, and I thought I passed both ends of the footpath. So on the way back, I decided to venture off the trail onto the footpath.

dress plaines river trail dress plaines river trail

I crossed a log over a little bit of standing water and thought I was so badass.

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I was still on the footpath, going over and under trees and branches. Still feeling badass.

dress plaines river trail

It was pretty.

But then the footpath veered away from the river, and it seemed like there was still an offshoot path going along the river. (Spoiler alert: This is where the day’s choices went from good to bad.)

I followed that offshoot along the river. However, it was very muddy. At one point the mud got very slippery and the “path” seemed to go down a decline (toward the river) and I slipped and fell on my ass.

And that’s when things literally went downhill. I think at that point, the “path” I was on disappeared. Probably because the river was higher due to last week’s rain, and probably because it wasn’t really a path in the first place. I should have just turned around and back-tracked. But I kept going forward. I thought I could continue following the river, and either wind up back on the actual trail, or I would eventually connect with another footpath, which would take me back to the trail.

But I never came across another footpath, and certainly didn’t see any sign of the trail. And I assume due to the high water levels, and last weeks rain, there was lots of standing water making it hard to “follow” the river. I figured I should head toward where I thought the trail was. I thought if I headed away from the river, I would be heading east, and I would eventually get back to the trail. (Turns out at this point, the river was heading east/west, not north/south. So I was actually heading north.)

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So I headed away from the river, but  then came across some pretty vast standing water. I got confused. Was this the river? Was I going in circles? I tried consulting Google Maps, but the GPS was kind of going in and out. I needed to go east, I just didn’t know which way was east. I headed in the direction I thought was east.

I could hear airplanes flying overhead, on their way to land at O’Hare, which was not that far away. So I knew I wasn’t that far from civilization. But it didn’t matter if I couldn’t find the trail.

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I also forgot to stop my Garmin when I got in my car, which is why the start and stop aren’t in the same spot. 

Eventually, I downloaded a compass app (this probably should be been my first step) and realized that I was completely turned around. I was in fact heading west, not east. So from that point, I would go back and forth between using the compass to point me in the right direction, then checking Google Maps to see if I was getting closer to the trail. Luckily I was.

However, I still had this vast stretch of standing water in my way. It wasn’t rushing water, so it wasn’t the river, and it seemed calm, so there probably wasn’t an undertoe or anything, I just had no idea how deep it was. I tried going north for a little bit, thinking I could go around it, but eventually I realized I had to just go through it if I wanted to get back to the trail anytime soon.

So I went through it. Luckily it wasn’t that deep … my shorts remained dry, but I think it may have gotten just over my knees at the deepest parts. And it was kind of wide. Plus there were all these branches I had to go around and over or under, and I was either stepping on a lot of submerged branches, or muddy bottom, so the footing was a bit questionable.

As I got to the other side of the standing water … I saw people on bikes!!! I wanted to yell out with relief! Instead I tried to stay cool, as much as I could. I made it up to the gravel trail and wanted to kiss it. (I didn’t.)

At this point, I called my husband. I didn’t want to call him while I was lost because I didn’t want to get him freaked out and worried, and I was pretty sure that if I started talking to him, and admitted I was lost, I would break down and start crying while I was still lost, which would not have been helpful. Anyway, I told him that I was lost for awhile (I think a little over an hour), but I found my way back to the trail and I would be home soon.

So, anyway, some lessons learned:

  • Stay on the trail. Just … stay on the trail.
  • If you lose your sense of direction, consult a compass.
  • Stay on the trail.
  • Always bring your phone with you.
  • Stay on the trail.

So I think I’ll stick to city running paths or streets (with sidewalks) for the time being. If I venture back onto the trail, I’ll probably wait until I can do it with a group. And I’ll stick to the marked trail.

Have you ever gotten lost in the woods? Please someone say yes so I don’t feel like a major tool. 

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35 Comments on “That Time I Got Lost in the Woods”

  1. I totally got lost on a trail this week too! We went 2 miles out of our way lost. I also downloaded a compass app. It wasn’t until a forest preserve ranger stopped in his SUV to tell us a way out. We were 2 miles from home base and had to call for a ride home. The anxiety was too much. I was not by myself and there was no standing water so you are super badass. Glad there you made it our okay!

    1. I should not have ventured off the trail, even onto a footpath, if I was alone. So stupid of me. Luckily I didn’t add that much mileage, only because once I realized I was lost, I couldn’t run. There was no trail or footpath, just lots of mud and foliage and downed branches.

  2. Jason and I decided once to just “cut through the woods” once. He was living in Steger and we had decided we would try running in the forest preserve. We knew where we were in relation to the parking lot, and we thought it couldn’t be that far.
    I have no idea how, but we were wandering through the forest for some time, and once you get into the preserve it’s pretty dense, know what I mean?
    And when we came out, we were still a good distance from the car.
    Last time I listen to the hubs regarding woods. Pfft.

      1. The one right next to Sauk Trail? We took Steger road to, damn, can never remember. The street with the gas station on the corner. There’s a parking lot right off that road.

          1. Too funny about Shubert Woods. Every time I run there, there is a guy who carries a golf club during his walk. I will admit it’s very quiet, but I enjoy the hills.

    1. I normally have a very good sense of direction. Like, when I’m on actual roads. Lost in the woods at midday when the sun is straight up … well. So glad my phone didn’t die.

  3. Sheesh, what a run! Glad you found your way back safely. I’m always too chicken to veer off the marked paths, solely for spider purposes. Running into a spider web is something that really freaks me out, always afraid they will get in my hair setting up shop and just nesting there. Ick!

  4. I got lost while running on a trail in Ohio last year, because it’s not really marked very well. Even though it’s in a state metropark. That I’ve been going to for my entire life. So I always worry a little about trail running by myself, especially on trails/in parks that I’m not very familiar with.

    Good call on the compass app! That’s a smart idea that I hadn’t even thought about.

    1. Kelly’s idea of tracking yourself with a GPS so you can easily back track is also good. Although that would drain the battery on my old phone.

  5. You were in my ‘hood!’ The unoffficial/slightly illegal trails are great. I hope you had fun and don’t get lost next time on the DPRT!

    Lemme know if you want to run together more north of where you ran. I like it a bit more north of where you ran because there’s less people and a bit less noise. 🙂


  6. Oh gosh! Hilarious yet runner scary! When I traveled for work and did a new trail, I had no idea where I was going and just hoped I was doing the loop and not just a random off shot. The only other time I felt like I got lost was the dunes out in Michigan.
    Glad you made it out!
    Your directional confusion reminded me of the Two Towers where Pippen and Took were on the shoulders of the Ents and having them take the long way around the forest!

  7. I’m so glad you’re alright! Getting lost out there on a trail, I imagine, can be pretty frightening. I’ve felt lost many times while running in the trails of Palos but thankfully I was with a group that knew where they were going. At least the experience made for a good blog post! 😉

  8. This is one of the many reasons that trail running scares me. I have a terrible sense of direction and I am sure I would get lost, too. Hell, I even find trail races tough because the course isn’t always marked clearly. You are one brave soul in my book:)

  9. I grew up in the country, so getting lost in the woods was a normal part of my childhood – it wa a fun way to spend an afternoon.

    I’ve run out in that location once before, and really enjoyed it. This post has convinced me to go back.

  10. That is so scary!! I was just reading a book on vacation about survival situations like being lost in the woods and why people keep moving forward instead of back tracking. So, you’re not alone in doing that! I’ve only run on the DPRT in Cook County one time and I was with a group. Otherwise I don’t know if I would have done it. It’s not the most well marked trail for sure!

  11. Glad you escaped the woods and posted about your experience to warn others about staying on the path!! I’m exploring the Forest Preserve trails more and more, and I like to reference the official maps (which are going to get a big makeover later this summer / fall) for distance and a general idea of where I’m going. You can check them out here: (scroll down past the Google map).

    FPCC also posts about area closures for trails that are flooded out or closed for other reasons — really good info.

  12. Aww man! Thankfully you had your phone with you! I am happy that was one of your tips! That is why I always run with my phone, and try to pay attention to where N/S/E/W is. I have gotten turned around on trails, but always just figured I would find my way out. I think where you were might be where one of the Muddy Monk runs I did was? Or maybe the U-Sole one. Anyway, when the river is high, it gets really confusing! I am happy you made it out! 🙂

    1. I parked at the north end of Schiller Woods and ran north. I think Muddy Monk has a couple races there, but not sure if I ran on the part of the trail that he does races. Maybe I’ll find out later this year, if I do those races! Or will I get flashbacks? LOL.

  13. Ugh. I was running with a group at Swallow Cliff once and the trailhead we parked at was not very well marked. One runner, who had the key-fob to the car we drove got caught behind and then lost. Those of us who made it back to the car got stranded with no water and the runner with the fob was lost for about 1.5 hours. Many lessons were learned that day:
    1. Leave no runner behind.
    2. Mark your trailhead with something – ANYTHING.
    3. Split up the fob and the key.

    1. You know, it’s funny, I was SO SCARED of getting lost during Ragnar, I even printed up the directions for my legs and covered them in packing tape so I could “wear” my directions as bracelets. And yet, I threw all caution to the wind when running on the trail alone. I don’t understand myself sometimes.

  14. Yes, I’ve gotten lost in the white mountains of New Hampshire. We ended up on a very dangerous trail in the middle of a thunderstorm above tree line instead of the easier route to our destination. When my dad and I got to the hut and told people the trail we took they looked at us in amazement.

    I’m so happy you found your way out! I would have panicked. It’s so crazy to think you can get lost so close to the city.. Must be a nice trail area.

    Ps your shoes are snazzy 🙂

    1. Getting lost in the White Mountains is the scariest thing. I was hiking the Presidential Traverse and a storm rolled in. We were able to get to the Mt. Washington Observatory and hung out there until the storm passed. Then we hiked in the clouds and almost got lost. The cairns were barely visible. It was one of the most sketch moments in my life. Thankfully, we made it to Lake-in-the-Clouds in one piece.

  15. =( So scary to hear about your experience. It must have been absolutely terrifying. I am really glad you were able to find your way back! And what a way to take those new shoes for an inaugural run! At least now you know they can hold up to just about anything!

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