Everything You Need to Know About Navigation

man holding compass on hiking path

Navigation is one of the most basic and foundational skills any outdoor enthusiast should be proficient in to freely and safely enjoy nature. If you have sufficient skills and the right tools to figure out your location, then you’ll never have to worry about getting lost. It is, however, always a good idea to keep more food and water in your backpack than you need as well as an emergency shelter such as a bivy. These things will keep you going should you unexpectedly need to overnight outside. With time and practice, you can master basic navigation and build your confidence in finding your way through any terrain. If you really want to undertake a more in-depth study of navigation, you can study the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s guide online.

Understand Topographic Maps

man standing at mountain overlook

At their most basic, topographic maps use lines and spacing to indicate the elevation of the land. For example, the closer together the lines are, the taller the land feature is. These maps also show other notable landmarks such as bodies of water, cliffs, buttes, valleys, ridges, and often major roads among other identifying characteristics. That’s why you can study these maps to get a mental picture of what your trail will look like before you head off.

Once you are out on the trail, you’ll want to keep your map and compass close at hand to frequently check your bearings and ensure you are on the right path. That’s really the best way to ensure you don’t get too far off-trail if you lose your way. It will also keep you from losing too much time or daylight by accidentally moving in the wrong direction for a long time.

Become Proficient With a Compass

map and compass

Being able to read and understand a topographic map is undoubtedly helpful when learning to navigate, but it’s nothing without the ability to use a compass. You have to be able to pair your knowledge of both to successfully navigate your way to the final destination or back to the trail.

To do this, you need to place the compass on the map and point the direction of travel arrow to your desired destination on the map. Next, turn the rotating housing on the compass until the north-south arrow is aligned with the map’s meridians. Once you’ve accomplished this, lift the compass and turn until the red tip of the arrow is parallel to the north-south arrow. When this happens, it will mean that your destination and the direction of the travel arrow are facing the same direction and you can follow the path forward.

One thing to keep in mind is that you will need to account for magnetic declination or magnetic variation. This means the north on your map (true north) and the north on your compass (magnetic north) might not be totally in sync. You can adjust for it, but you will want to have the most recent, up-to-date map available.

Practice In a Familiar Place

man with backpack

While these skills might sound easy enough, they do take time and practice to really hone. That’s why you should start out by practicing on trails you are really familiar with. When you are ready to put your skills to the test, stick to hikes that are close to towns and within cellular range just in case something goes wrong and you need help. Once you are more confident and comfortable with your navigation skills, you can move on to unfamiliar territory and give it a shot.

If you are still worried about emergencies or getting lost, you can always buy a GPS phone with a range of service plans to keep on you when you are out in the woods. This will allow you to get in touch with people for help whether you have cellular service or not. It’s not cheap, but it is one of the best safeguards you can have on hand if you’re worried.

Something else to keep in mind is that it is always better to take your time to really get a firm understanding of your location rather than take off in the wrong direction. By taking longer to figure out where you are, you might lose a bit of time, but you won’t lose as much as you would if you walked miles in the wrong direction and needed to backtrack.

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