Trail & Backcountry Navigation

There are many digital tools we use today to help us find our way around the wilderness. However, basic map and compass knowledge can help to navigate confidently in the outdoors and in the event of battery failures. 

Basic Navigation Steps:

Know how to use a topographic (“topo”) map.

Topographic lines mark lines of equal elevation. Flat terrain will have lines that are spaced widely, while steep mountains will have topographic lines very close together. Know how to look at mountains, canyons, rivers, and other features, and familiarize yourself with the map symbols. 

Do your research before you leave!

Try to visualize the terrain your trail will be crossing as you read the map. Check that your paper and digital tools agree: find the trailhead, any water crossings or bodies, and note any other special features you should keep an eye out for.

Familiarize yourself with the terrain and the topographic map of where you will be going.
Pay attention.

Before you leave the house or trailhead, be aware of what kind of terrain and other trail features you will expect to encounter. Once upon the trail, be aware of what you are passing, and do an occasional mental match with your trip research. (Did that waterfall occur on the side of the trail you were expecting? Did you cross the stream yet?)

Keep your map and compass handy.

Refer to your map and mark your progress as you go along. This helps keep you on track and can help regulate your food, water, and energy expenditure throughout the day.  Knowing how fast you are hiking and how far you have gone or intend to go can help you know if you will finish your hike comfortably, need to turn around early, or need to book it back home before dark.

Take baby steps.

Get a topo map of your neighborhood or of a familiar hike/area you are comfortable exploring. Try navigating your way around a short route using your map and compass; as you become more comfortable and capable with navigation, you can begin exploring farther abroad. 

Hit Pause.

If you become disoriented, stop and take time to find yourself. Sit down, break out the trail mix, and give yourself a breather. Take out your map and compass, take a look around, and work on locating yourself. It is far better to spend five (or 30!) minutes to accurately locate yourself instead of backtracking after an hour (or 2 or 3!) of anxious hiking. Keeping tabs of where you are and your progress can really help you here.

If you do become lost:

Stay calm. Take a deep breath.  

Stop moving. Sit down. Don’t move until you have a better idea of your location.

Make a plan. What do you want to do: go back to the trailhead? Find the trail and continue? What your goal is will help you to make your next steps.

Look around. Can’t see any landmarks? Go to a high point: hills, mountains, ridges, all these give you a better vantage point than sitting in a creek bottom.

Put the landscape together: streams run downhill. Ridges have faces. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. You can follow a stream downhill until you reach a river and a town. If you know you were hiking to the “right” side of your map, you were hiking towards the east, and can backtrack to the west to get back to your trailhead.

Remember, a map is a basic tool.

A GPS or phone app may be your go-to for most hikes, however, basic map navigation is a fundamental skill to be able to push your backcountry hiking. Have fun bringing the 2-dimensional flat surface of a topo map to life as you navigate through the 3-dimensional world!

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