How to Navigate the Wilderness Like a Boss
So more recently than I like to admit — after years of teaching mountaineering and wilderness navigation classes — I climbed a mountain alone and walked off the wrong side.
Because I was supremely overconfident, I didn’t even notice I’d screwed up until I was about a few hundred feet down. It was early in the season, and there I was surrounded by steep snowfields with no ice ax. Oh, and it was also late in the afternoon and about to get dark.
When it hit me that I was lost, I spent about two minutes totally panicking and forcing myself to take calming breaths. Being lost alone in the wilderness really is no fun.
Fortunately, I knew that I had a long catchline (the trail) to the east. I decided I’d head that way so long as I didn’t run into any steep snow.
And it worked. Using a few basic wilderness navigation techniques, I found the trail without even taking the map out of my backpack.
I tell you this story to make two points.
One, it’s easier than you think to get lost — especially if you are hiking off trail in an unfamiliar area. So it’s important to be prepared.
Two, knowing some wilderness navigation techniques will also set you free to leave the trail and explore new areas with confidence.
Skills like reading a topo map, using a compass, and route finding can open up a whole new world of adventure for hikers and mountaineers. Many of the most beautiful hikes in the world don’t have trails.
So in this post, let’s look at some wilderness navigation techniques you can start practicing today. When you master these, you’ll always know where you are in the backcountry.
A note to my lovely readers outside North America
Apologies in advance: much of this info is specific to the lower 48 states of the USA (though Hawaiians, Alaskans, and Canadians will find some useful resources).
If your region has useful wilderness navigation resources or websites that visitors should know about, please share them in the comments. Links are welcome.
Featured image: Summit of Mt. Ouray, Colorado
Post images: Wilderness navigation class near Deckers, Colorado
Topo maps 101
Topographic maps are ideal for wilderness navigation because they use contour lines to the show the shape of landforms (mountains, valleys, ridges, saddles). A contour line connects points at the same elevation.
Here’s one of my favorite topo maps, which shows the summit of Mt. Rainier. See how the contour lines outline the shape of the crater?
Why you should always carry a topographic map and know how to use it
With the rise of accurate, durable GPS devices and phone navigation apps, reading topographic maps has become a bit of a lost art.
But no matter how fancy and expensive your technology is, it can always run out of batteries or croak from too much moisture or stop working in the cold (ahem, iPhones) or fall off a cliff and smash.
Also, your device needs a satellite signal to locate you — and it will always decide to lose this at exactly the wrong moment.
So no matter how awesome your GPS is, always carry a topo map of the area in a waterproof case. Better yet, bring two copies. (One could blow away or get wet.)
How to print a topographic map
Where do you get these topo maps, you ask? Well, if your trip is in North America, you can print your own for free using CalTopo.com. Here’s a video that explains how.
An alternate free mapping platform that a lot of people rage about it Hillmap. It’s got some cool features that CalTopo doesn’t. One of my favorites is that it lets you chose from different map sources and versions (some of which may be more up-to-date than others).
How to read a topographic map
Map reading takes practice. At first, everything may look like a snarl of lines and shapes.
But keep trying, and you’ll eventually be able to look at it, picture the landforms in 3D, and match what you see on the map to what you see in front of you.
If you’re brand new to reading topographic maps, here’s a quick tutorial.
For a full list of map symbols, check out this map key from the United States Geological Service (USGS).
How to use a topographic map while hiking
Printer ink runs when wet, so always carry your map in a waterproof case. SealLine makes these awesome ones that attach easily to your backpack strap. Or you can improvise a decent map case from a Ziploc bag)
As your hike, pull out your map frequently and look at it. You should always be able to locate yourself among the land forms and features. Use landmarks like trail junctions, streams, ridges, and passes to track your progress.
Also, check the direction you’re heading (north, northwest, etc.). If you’re off trail, know which direction you should head to return to the trail or road.
Topographic map cautions
Topo maps aren’t perfect. Source data for some mapping software (including CalTopo) may be decades out of date. To further complicate things, the government now updates maps using aerial photography, not surveying.
Be especially cautious about relying on manmade features like jeep roads or buildings to locate yourself. We have a couple of famous “topo” roads in Colorado that show up on maps, but don’t actually exist. Note that natural features can also be altered by human activity (for example, forest cover).
Special note for Alaska hikers and mountaineers
Until 2009, the USGS only produced large-scale maps (1:63,360 or 1:100,000) of Alaska. While better than nothing, these historical maps show fewer features and can be difficult to navigate with on foot.
The government is now in the process of publishing more detailed maps (1:24,000 scale) of the state, but progress has been slow. You can read more about the project, including how to download Alaska topo maps, at the USGS National Map page.
Cool Compass Tricks
A lot of hikers who faithfully carry maps avoid using compasses. Because let’s face it. They can be a little intimidating.
If you are a person who hated high school geometry and hasn’t picked up a protractor since, you may squinch at the thought of shooting a bearing or triangulating a location.
But fear not. You can actually get a lot of use out of your compass using first grade math (or none at all). Let’s take a look at some basic skills.
Choosing a Compass
You may own a novelty compass that’s hanging on your keychain or integrated into the end of a trekking pole. But for backcountry navigation, you’re going to need a proper compass with a bezel and a baseplate like this one:
Or if you want to shoot lots of bearings and go more advanced, here’s my compass (which I’ve been totally in love with since 2013):
Here are some useful compass features to consider when making your choice:
- Sighting mirror — Folds over so you can shoot a bearing and read the compass at the same time. In my experience, this makes bearings much more accurate.
- Clinometer — Allows you to measure slope angle. Especially useful for mountaineers and winter hikers and backpackers who need to check for avalanche terrain.
- Declination correction — In just a minute, we’ll talk about magnetic declination, an annoying feature of geology that introduces some extra math into your compass work. However, if your compass has declination adjustment, you can set it once and save yourself some adding and subtracting. (You’ll need to update it if you travel to a new location, however.)
- Luminescent markings — Make the compass markings easier to read at night.
- Global needle — Most compasses only work in the northern or southern hemisphere, but global needle compasses work everywhere.
Understanding magnetic declination
Topo maps are oriented toward true north (the North Pole).
However, the earth’s magnetic pole (which compass needles point at) doesn’t actually match up with the North Pole. And to further complicate matters, the magnetic pole moves around over time.
So when you’re using a map and compass together, you need to know the distance (in degrees) between magnetic north and true north so that you can account for it in your calculations.
This distance is known as magnetic declination. It varies with your location, and it also changes over time.
Here’s a rough breakdown of magnetic declination in the lower 48 of the USA in 2018.
To find out the current magnetic declination for your area, print a CalTopo map (or just pull up a print preview on the screen). The declination will appear at the bottom to the right of the scale.
Or you can use NOAAs handy calculator.
In April 2018 in Denver, Colorado, USA, the magnetic declination is 8 degrees and 11 minutes EAST (according to NOAA).
- There are 60 minutes in a degree, so let’s round that number to 8 degrees.
- Because degrees are measured clockwise from true north, numbers to the east are positive. So we’ll call this +8 degrees.
So when using a compass to orient myself in Colorado, I need to subtract 8 degrees from my intended direction of travel. (Or, if I have a compass with declination adjustment, I can set it to -8.)
Check the website and see if you get the same number for Denver. Then check the magnetic declination for your own zip code. How many degrees is it? And is it positive (to the east) or negative (to the west)?
How to read a compass
Simply using your compass to orient yourself can solve many problems in the wilderness:
- Traveling the right direction when visibility is limited (for example, in a snow storm or dense forest)
- Navigating toward a catchline (a linear feature like a road, trail, or river) when you are lost
- Making sure you descend the correct side of a summit (ahem)
- Determining the direction of sunrise and sunset
Before you start to use your compass, it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with its parts. Here’s a helpful diagram.
Next, watch this video to get yourself and your compass pointed in the right direction.
Aligning your map
This video shows you how to turn your map in the right direction so that what you see on the map matches what you see in the landscape.
Navigating toward a catchline when you’re lost
A catchline is a long linear feature (river, coastline, trail, road) that you know you can reach by walking in a certain direction. This quick video shows you how they work and how to identify them on topo maps:
More things you can do with a compass:
- Shoot bearings
- Triangulate bearings to locate yourself on a map
- Walk a bearing in dense forest where visibility is limited
- Navigate around obstacles and get back on track
- Use back bearings and leap frogging to improve accuracy
- And much more!
It’s hard to learn these skills from a single blog post, so I definitely encourage you to take a map and compass course, particularly one that takes you into the field to practice. For inexpensive options, check out your local mountain club or outfitter.
To see some of the skills you’ll learn, check out this excellent video from REI. (The section on taking bearings starts around 3:20.)
Phone Apps and Technology
While you should never trust your life to a battery (or a finicky iPhone that shuts off in the cold), GPS devices can make navigation faster and more reliable.
I recommend adopting them after you’ve mastered your map and compass basics for two reasons.
First, you won’t be tempted to cheat (because they do make everything easier).
And second, knowing some map and compass principles will help you better understand your technology and do more with it.
Some options to consider:
Simple Phone Apps
These user-friendly apps show you where you’re located on a topo map.
You can also upload GPX data to display certain waypoints and landmarks on the same map. And you can also set your own waypoints as you go.
To use them, you’ll need to download the topo map from the cloud ahead of time. These files can be large, so I recommend doing it at home on WiFi as part of your trip prep.
Once you’ve got the map downloaded, the app runs off GPS satellites. So you don’t need cell service to locate yourself or track your movements.
Two useful apps in this genre:
- Topo Maps ($8, iOS only) — includes maps of Canada. Uploads GPX waypoints, but won’t show tracks. Note: there is also an iOS app called Topo Maps+ that is a totally different app but may also be worth a look.
- Backcountry Navigator ($12, Android) — I’m an iPhone girl, so I haven’t used this one as much. But it seems pretty similar to Topo Maps.
Advanced Phone Apps
If you want a phone app with (almost) all the bells and whistles of a handheld GPS, check out GaiaGPS ($20/year, iOS and Android). This service combines the trip planning and mapping power of a computer with the portability of a phone app.
The GaiaGPS website has a mapping platform similar to CalTopo, but it’s a bit more user friendly. Choose from a variety of data sources for your base map (Gaia Topo, Nat Geo Trails Illustrated, etc.) Then upload GPX files, add waypoints, and plot routes along roads and trails.
You can view the mapping platform with a free account, so definitely check it out if you are considering Gaia. (You’ll need to subscribe to print maps or transfer them to your phone.)
The GaiaGPS phone app pinpoints your location on your map. It also allows you to record tracks of your trips (similar to a handheld GPS or an app like Strava). Reviewers give this app high marks for battery life — it shouldn’t drain your phone juice, even in tracking mode.
GaiaGPS also works in international destinations. It’s vector base maps cover the entire world (in theory). You can also access detailed topo maps of many regions, including Europe, Canada, and New Zealand.
Gaia’s social sharing feature that allows you to post your data and download trips posted by other users.
Handheld GPS Devices
While phone apps have come a long way, GPS devices still have a few big advantages over them. Compared to phones, GPS units tend to be more rugged and durable in the outdoors and more sensitive to satellite signals. And assuming you have enough batteries on hand, you can run your GPS indefinitely.
Some useful features to consider when choosing a GPS:
- Size and weight — Lighter is better, but potentially more expensive.
- Wireless transmission — Transfer files directly to your computer, mobile device, or a friend’s GPS.
- Touchscreen — Some users love it, but it will require you to take off your gloves in winter.
- Barometer/altimeter — Improves the accuracy of elevation readings.
- Memory — Consider more if you want to store multiple trips in one device. Some GPS units accept SD cards.
- Manufacturer’s mapping software — Loading maps created on third-party software (including CalTopo) to your GPS can be fiddly. It’s easier to use the manufacturer’s proprietary software. If you plan to do this, make sure that software has the features you want.
Route Finding Tips
Here are some ways to determine the fastest and safest path when hiking off-trail in the wilderness.
- Look for landmarks you can use on the return. Turn around frequently to see what these features will look like on your way back.
- When possible, use linear features like rivers, cliff bands, ridge lines, and valleys (handrails) to keep moving in the right direction.
- Traveling on ridges is usually comfortable and efficient. It’s also hard to get lost on a ridge (so long as it’s the right ridge!)
- Walking up and down the fall line is often less tiring than side hilling or traversing. Consider it even if you will lose some elevation.
- Drainages (rivers, etc.) should be followed with caution. In temperate climates, they may be choked with vegetation.
- It’s often faster to hike around a marshy or densely vegetated area than through it.
- Consult your map frequently. Always locate yourself before continuing.
So there you have ’em. All my favorite wilderness navigation techniques and tips.
And now that you’ve tried them out, I urge you to KEEP PRACTICING.
Map and compass skills are like high school Spanish. Unless you keep learning and speaking, you’ll forget everything in college. (Except maybe “da me una cerveza” and “una Corona por favor.”)
This stuff could be life-saving, and it’s also going to open amazing doors for you in the wilderness. So never stop exploring — and checking your topo map as you go.
Happy hiking xx