Many times people will leave established marked trails to explore, try to short cut back to their car, are diverted off the main trail by side trails created by other hikers short cutting, get off the trail in the dark, or in some cases - showing off for others by trying to get back before others. These people can easily become confused get turned around and then not be able to find their way back to the main trail. Lost hikers then tend to wander aimlessly in circles making it more difficult for searchers to find them.
Here are a few tips taken from the book A Park Ranger's Life: True Stories from Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks.
Never Hike Alone
Stay together as a group
The group should only move as fast as the slowest member.
Tell someone where you are planning to go and when you plan to return.
Take adequate water for everyone. This even applies to short hikes of a hour or more.
Take appropriate equipment and gear and be prepared for weather changes.
Should you get separated or lost, sit down and stay put. This makes it much easier to find you. We always taught school children when lost to "hug a tree" and stay put.
Remember that cell phones are helpful, but they do not allow someone to zero in on your location. You would be surprised how many people think it works this way.
Another side affect of hiking off established trails is damage to natural resources. Many trails pass through areas populated by fragile plant habitats. Leaving the trails greatly contribute to damage to the plants themselves and compaction of the soils where they grow. Trail systems within parks have had to be closed to the public due to resource damage from hikers short cutting and making their own trails.
Trails will be marked with either signs or blazed markings on trees. As an example; the Appalachian Trail is marked with white painted blazes on trees and rocks. Side trails off the AT are marked with blue blazes.
The moral of the story is; whenever hiking, stay on the established and marked trails.
If anyone has any other tips they would like to add, please share them in the comments just below this post.