“You’re never lost; you’re just exploring. However, exploring grows old very quickly if you are cold, hungry and exhausted.”
~ Cam Honan
When you are ambling along manicured trails, the sun’s shining and you are camping at established sites, the only skill you will probably require is the ability to locate your vehicle at the trailhead car park.
On the other hand, when conditions turn nasty and the path ahead is anything but clear, your comfort and more importantly your safety may ultimately depend upon your ability to navigate.
10 Navigation Tips
Irrespective of whether you carry a GPS or not (see below), the ability to interpret a map and navigate with a compass are fundamental backcountry skills that every serious hiker should know.
1. Pay Attention
The key to being a proficient navigator is paying attention. Indeed, I would estimate that 70% of navigational proficiency comes down to this one simple point.
Establishing the habit of keeping track of where you are at all times means regularly correlating what you you see on the map with what you see on the ground.
2. Close at Hand
Keep map and compass either on your person or in an easy to reach backpack pocket at all times. They won’t do you much good if they are buried at the bottom of your rucksack.
3. Know your Route
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 the terrain which he or she will be traversing.
Before each and every hiking day, I look at the maps and visualize my proposed route. Rivers, valleys, ridges, peaks, cliffs, buttes, gullies, gradient (i.e. contour lines). Imagination to realization………….the backcountry remix.
4. Baby Steps
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.
If in doubt, take a moment, grab a chocolate bar and study your map & surrounds. High points are ideal in order to get your bearings, however, like phone chargers and spare change, they aren’t always there when you need them.
Don’t set off again until things have become clearer. Better to spend five minutes obtaining your bearings, than an hour going in the wrong direction. As every hiker knows, backtracking yards are always the hardest!
If you aren’t sure of your location and the day is drawing to an end, it is often better to cut your losses and set up camp. Things always seem clearer in the morning after a good night’s sleep.
6. Landmarks & Time Checks
Make a mental note of the time whenever you reach an easily distinguishable landmark (e.g. junctions, lakes, passes, summits, river crossings, etc.). If you happen to lose your way, this information can prove very helpful in getting you get back on track (see Pace).
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 all types of terrain and conditions can prove vital in calculating the approximate distance you have covered since your last “known” location (see Landmarks & Time Checks above).
Experience and paying attention (again) are keys. When you find yourself hiking in different types of environments, make note of your miles per hour average.
After more than a quarter of a century of hiking I know exactly how fast (or slow) I can move in all types of conditions. For example, on easy to follow, relatively flat dirt trails I will usually clip along at around four miles per hour. Traversing open cross country terrain, this may drop to two miles per hour. In sloppy snow, knee-high mud or thick bush, one mile per hour may be par for the course. These speeds will obviously vary according to the conditions, however, the important thing is to have a point of reference upon which you can call if the need should arise.
8. Magnetic Declination
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 (i.e. the north that is shown on your compass).
Is it really that important? If you are always going to walk on easy to follow, well signed paths then 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.
How do I adjust for it? For step-by-step instructions and informative illustrations, click on the following link from www.rei.com.
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.
9. Path of Least Resistance
When faced with multiple alternatives when hiking cross country, more often than not the path of least resistance is your best option. It may not always be the shortest way, but it is usually the most efficient.
Watch a wild animal traversing its natural habitat. Unless they have a more pressing concern (e.g. stalking prey, being stalked themselves, food, water) they will invariably choose the path of least resistance.
Irrespective of your navigational proficiency, there are times when everyone takes a wrong turn. In such scenarios, the key is being able to recognize your error sooner rather than later. Take pride out of the equation. Look at each situation as an objective observer, rather than a subjective participant.
What if I am Lost?
Five points to remember if you lose your bearings and aren’t sure of your location:
1. Stay Calm
Panicking and making rushed decisions will only make a bad situation worse.
2. Stay Put
Don’t walk any further until you have made an assessment of your current position.
3. Formulating 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.
4. High Point
A good option (assuming you are in a hilly/mountainous area) 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.
5. 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? Here are some tips:
A. Sun – 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.
B. Flora – 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.
C. Wind – 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.
D. Confirmation – 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!
GPS: Do they make you lazy?
Employing a GPS as your primary navigation tool is like using a calculator to do basic addition. Push a few buttons, tap, tap, tap on your smartphone and voila! Little in the way of grey matter required.
And therein lies the crux of the matter. Navigationally speaking, GPS can make you lazy, as there is less need to pay attention to your surroundings as there is when using map and compass.
I imagine that some folks reading this will already be thinking, “you old curmudgeon (or worse). If a GPS does the job, why shouldn’t I use one? It’s good to turn the brain off on occasion.”
To some extent I agree with that sentiment; particularly the curmudgeon part. It is nice to let your mind drift every now and again. However, what happens if you’re out in the wilderness and a worst case scenario occurs?
Batteries can die, electronics can fail, coordinates may be off, signals don’t always come through. GPS have their limitations and if you haven’t being paying attention and/or have little in the way of navigation skills to call on as a backup, then you may well find yourself up poo creek, without a technological paddle.
The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) published an excellent article on this subject in June, 2016:
“People using GPS for navigation just aren’t building a mental map in the same way you do in traditional map and compass navigation, where you are constantly relating the map to the terrain around you.That means if the technology fails for whatever reason, you are going to be a lot more lost than you would have been if you were using a map.”
A Complement, Not a Substitute
GPS is not a navigational panacea and shouldn’t be thought of as an “easy” substitute to map & compass proficiency.
I like to think of GPS as a complement, rather than an outright replacement to map & compass. A directional “backup” of sorts, which in certain situations can be worth its weight in backcountry gold.
For 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 handy bit of information to have when the weather has turned nasty and daylight is fading fast.
The Benefits of Necessity
Map and compass proficiency is a fundamental bushcraft skill. A high level of expertise takes lots of practice in different types of terrain and weather.
But you know what? Once you get the hang of it, it can be both satisfying and fun in a way in which following an electronic GPS line or arrow never quite manages.
Because you have to “up the attention ante” at all times, out of necessity your senses become more attuned to your surroundings. This in turn can contribute to a heightened feeling of connection with the landscape through which you are hiking. And isn’t that one of the principal reasons many of us head out into the wilderness in the first place?