“If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”

-  Chinese Proverb

A wise man once told me that “you’re never really lost, just exploring.” However, he did add one important caveat: “Exploring grows old pretty quickly if you are hungry, cold and absolutely buggered.” In other words, learn how to navigate.

Map & Compass

Suunto M-2 | Adjustable Declination, Magnifying Lens | 34 gr / 1.2 oz

The ability to interpret a topographical map and navigate with a compass are fundamental backcountry skills. Whilst walking along well-marked trails you may never give a second thought to either one. However, when conditions deteriorate and the path ahead is anything but clear, being able to use a map and compass can potentially be vital to your safety. The following websites give easy to follow instructions on basic map and compass skills:



A topographic map does more than just show you how to get from A to B. It enables the hiker to form a mental picture of where s/he is going by displaying both natural (e.g. rivers, valleys, mountains, cliffs, gullies, etc.) and man-made (e.g. tracks, huts, human settlement) features. Map and compass proficiency is attained by learning to correlate the features you see on the map with those in front of you on the ground.


Before setting out on your hike, take time to study your maps. Plan your route, identify river crossings, exposed areas, possible campsites and distances between water sources. In case of emergency (e.g. injury, illness or electrical storms), take note of potential evacuation routes. Mother Nature can be unpredictable; by arming yourself with foreknowledge of the terrain you are likely to encounter (in addition to having map and compass handy at all times), hikers minimize the element of surprise and greatly increase their chances of staying on track.


If you have never used a map and compass, start out on easy to follow trails which don’t stray too far away from civilization. As your navigational proficiency improves, gradually increase the difficulty factor of your wilderness excursions.


The key to being a proficient navigator is simply paying attention. Establishing the habit of keeping track of where you are at all times is the foundation upon which all other navigation skills are built. Repetition is key. It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of this point…………..although I’ll give it a good try.

  • Keep map and compass either on your person or in an easy to reach pocket at all times. They won’t do you much good if they are tucked away inside your pack.
  • Develop the habit of consulting your map and compass at regular intervals. Keep doing this until it becomes automatic.
  • Continually practice correlating what you see on your map with your what you see on the ground. Never rush. If in doubt, take a moment, find a high spot, grab a chocolate bar and study your map/surrounds. Don’t leave that spot until things have become clearer.
  • Pay attention to pace. Make a habit of taking note how much distance you cover in varying conditions in the space of an hour (see PACE below for details).


Pace is perhaps the most commonly underestimated aspect of navigation. In the event that you are lost, having an idea of what speed you walk in varying terrain and conditions can prove vital in calculating the approximate distance you have covered since your last “known” location.

Distance covered can vary dramatically depending on the environment into which you have ventured. Formulas such as Naismith’s Rules and Tranter’s Corrections are useful, however, individual levels of fitness, experience and pack weight vary so dramatically, that one’s own personal experience in the wilderness will ultimately prove to be the best guide. For example, on easy to follow, relatively flat dirt trails I may average 3.5 miles an hour over the course of a 12 hour hiking day. Over a similar time period traversing cross country terrain, I will cover approximately 70 % of that distance. In sloppy snow or thick mud, it may drop even further to less than 50%.


What is it? Magnetic Declination (aka. magnetic variation) is the angular difference between true north (i.e. the north that is marked on your map) and magnetic north (ie. the north that is shown on your compass).

US isogonic lines map

 How does it concern hikers? Magnetic declination varies according to where you are in the world. Failure to account for this variation when taking a compass bearing, may result in an unintentional deviation from your intended course.

How do I adjust for it? For step-by-step instructions and informative illustrations, click on the following link from Note, that the least complicated way of compensating for declination is simply to use an adjustable compass. On most compasses the orienting arrow will be pointing north (i.e. 0 degrees declination). Before setting out on your hike, adjust the orienting arrow so that it points to magnetic north, as it is displayed on your map’s border. Once adjusted, there will be no need to add or subtract, as the two north’s have already been aligned. True north can subsequently be found at the index pointer/ line, situated at the bottom end of your direction of travel arrow. For illustrations on how to adjust your compass for declination, see the following link from the Compass Dude.

Where do I find it? The magnetic Variation is generally stated on the border of your map. Considering that the information is right there for all to see, it often surprises me how many hikers disregard declination when it comes to navigating. It is worth noting that magnetic variation is constantly changing, therefore it is always wise to have the most current map available for your chosen area.

Is it really that important? If you are always going to walk on manicured, well signed paths than declination may never be an issue. However, what happens if snow covers all signs of the trail and you need to figure out which of the upcoming adjacent notches represents the pass you need to ascend? A discrepancy of twenty degrees on your compass bearing, can mean the difference between staying on track and spending a frustrating four or five hours retracing your steps through knee-high snow. And as all hikers are aware, backtracking yards are always the toughest!



Garmin Foretrex 401 | 65 gr / 2.3 oz

Being a bit old fashioned, I was reluctant to jump on the GPS bandwagon. “Why would I want to use a battery dependent gadget, when a map and compass had served me well for so many years? In an increasingly high tech world, isn’t it refreshing to be gadget free from time to time?”

Fast forward to 2013. Map and compass continue to be my navigational tools of choice. However, in recent times I have mellowed just a tad. I have learned to think of GPS as a complement, rather than a replacement to map and compass. A directional “backup” of sorts, which in certain situations can be worth its weight in gold.

  • Example: In trailless, snow covered terrain, when visibility is limited and there is not much in the way of distinctive landmarks, a GPS can pinpoint your exact location. A useful bit of information to know when the weather has turned nasty and daylight is fading fast.

As with any gadget, GPS has limitations. Batteries can die, electronics can fail, signals don’t always come through. Therefore, it is worth reiterating that GPS should never be seen as an “easy” substitute to map and compass proficiency. For anything and everything pertaining to GPS, check out the following two websites: &

What if I am Lost?

Stay Calm: Panicking and making rushed decisions will only make a bad situation worse.

Stay Put: Don’t walk any further until you have made an assessment of your current position.

Formulate a Plan:

  • If you have a map, ascertain your position. Think about the last time you were 100% certain of your location. Quite often becoming “un-lost” is simply a matter of swallowing your pride and retracing your steps.
  • If you don’t have a map (what are you doing without a map?!), make an educated guess. Think about the terrain you have covered, the approximate pace at which you have been walking and any landmarks that you may have seen since your last “known” location.
  • A good option is to climb to the nearest high point in order to gain a lay of the land.  Using your map and compass, identify any landmarks which may help in figuring out your location.

Nature’s Indicators

What happens if you fall in a creek and lose your compass? What if your GPS battery dies? How do you find your way back to civilization? A few tips:


In the northern hemisphere, the sun will be due south at midday and vice-a-versa in the southern hemisphere. Two ways of using the sun in order to discern direction are the Shadow Compass and Analogue Watch methods:

  • Shadow Compass: Place a one metre high stick in the ground. Mark the location of the tip of the shadow. Wait 20 minutes, then mark the new location of the shadow tip. Draw a line between the two marks. This line runs approximately in an east west direction.
  • Analogue Watch: For the southern hemisphere: Hold the watch out in front of you. Point 12 o’clock towards the sun. The mid point between the 12 and the hour hand represents north. For the northern hemisphere: Hold the watch out in front of you. Point the hour hand at the sun. The mid point between the hour hand and 12 o’clock is south. Tip: If you have a digital watch, stick on a piece of paper with a clock face drawn on it.


Plants are good indicators of north and south. In the northern hemisphere, where the sun is in the southern part of the sky, most growth will be on the southern sides of trees and rocks (e.g.moss). Vice-a-versa for the southern hemisphere.


If you know the general direction of prevailing winds in the area in which you are hiking, then grass, plants and trees will be leaning in that direction.


Natural methods aren’t infallible. Always look for more than one indicator when ascertaining a direction. If the sun, plants and wind all indicate the same thing, then chances are they can’t all be wrong!