Getting lost was one of my worst fears when I started traveling. I know it’s probably high on the list of other travelers too. I really like knowing where I am, and especially if I’m on the right road to where I’m going. Not that I always have big plans and reservations made, but I just like to get where I’m trying to go. I don’t want to end up in the middle of nowhere in a shady neighborhood with nowhere to sleep. Terrible fears.
I remember I was in Guatemala City trying to get to Copán, Honduras, a few hours away by bus. It seemed simple enough, but everyone kept trying to send me to Cobán in Guatemala, which is nowhere near Copán but sounded identical. Pretty soon I wasn’t sure where I was going and had to ask each person “Copán con una P?” every time they gave me some directions to make sure we were talking about the same place.
Everyone’s been lost a few times before, and the thought of ending up in the wrong place in the middle of an unfamiliar country without understanding the language can be really intimidating. Especially if you’re behind schedule for your plane or it’s night time!
How to Not Get Lost While Backpacking Around the World
Everyone travels differently, and there’s a million ways to get from where you are to where you want to be.
The key for me is to stay on top of where I’m at and double-check with people or a map along the way. There are always roadblocks, schedule changes, wrong directions, and a hundred other things that could go wrong, but being attentive, asking questions, and trusting my instinct has really helped me stay on track quite a few times.
The single most difficult thing about finding my way around is that it’s STRESSFUL. The stakes are high and decisions often have to be made quickly or in crowded places like a bus terminal with a thousand people yelling and our bus is starting to pull away. My wife shuts down in these situations, so I just grab her hand and either make a quick decision or get to a quiet place where we can think and look at a map without worrying about someone running off with our bags.
Asking People for Directions
I’ve found that people are usually very helpful at pointing travelers in the right direction, and usually get a kick out of us trying to pronounce their city names and making frantic gestures with our hands trying to describe the place we’re looking for.
This is a harder skill to master than reading maps – at times it borders on reading people’s minds! We’ve been amazed at how difficult it is to get correct directions to common places is some countries. With very few street names and landmarks that have sometimes been long-since demolished, the directions are much different than we’re used to coming out of a car GPS back home. If they know how to get there and it’s nearby they’ll usually try to show us rather than explaining.
Can I Trust Them?
People are usually pretty trustworthy, except if they are excessively “too helpful” or get a commission for hooking someone up with an expensive taxi. Bus drivers usually know the country inside and out and are always willing to point out the stop where we need to get off. But, they can be forgetful and might need to be reminded if it’s a long ride.
I’ve found it’s better to be a little annoying and ask a few different people to verify the directions rather than completely trusting one person to get me somewhere.
We’re glad we could trust this taxi driver in Peru!
Some people really don’t like this 4 letter word, but I promise, they’re not that bad. We use both the newfangled digital maps and the old fashioned paper maps that don’t use batteries. Both are awesome in their own way, so pick the one that works best for your type of traveling.
I use a simple iPhone app called Pocket Earth that has never let me down. I can download the road maps and landmarks for an entire country before I travel so I don’t ever need to use my cell phone data plan when navigating.
The app uses my phone’s GPS to put a little blue arrow where I am on the map, next to landmarks like parks, pizza joints, banks, and bus stops.
It’s prefect for finding my way around a busy city or for making sure I’m still on the right route to my destination. I’m always amazed at the detail of roads on the OSM (Open Source Maps) database. It gets down to hiking trails and even bumpy dirt roads following a dry riverbed. Sometimes we head down the strangest routes using this app!
Old Fashioned Printed Map
The paper (or waterproof plastic) map is a bit more limited than a phone with a GPS, but it shines where the phone fails. Nobody wants to steal it, it doesn’t run out of batteries, can be waterproof, written on, and is much quicker and easier to use for asking directions.
Don’t let the fear of getting lost keep you back from exploring the world. If directions aren’t your thing, just travel with someone else as the navigator and take notes along the way.
Between my wife and I, I’m the almost-too-fearless navigator and she’s the trusting companion. She’s picked up quite a bit considering she never used a map before we started traveling. I try to let her make some of the navigating decisions so if we get separated she’ll have practice and know how to get where we’re headed or at least to somewhere safe.
Leave a comment if you have some more tips or a crazy story to share.