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Backcountry Navigation in a Group by Blake Miller

Before setting out, it's good to get everyone on the same page in terms of declination, GPS datumns, and waypoints
Before setting out, it’s good to get everyone on the same page in terms of declination, GPS datums, and waypoints

There is nothing more enjoyable than hiking with friends in the backcountry.

However, preparation is essential for any wilderness trek.  When hiking in a group, it’s important for everyone to be on the same page regarding our navigation.  Agree in advance to some simple parameters before heading out.  The following recommendations can be done at home and take little time to accomplish.

Ideally everyone one will use declination adjustable compasses such as the Suunto M3 or Silva Ranger.  (A declination adjustable compass keeps the navigation simple.)  Not all need to have the same compass but all should be properly set to the local declination.  An US Geologic Survey (USGS) map will provide declination data.  Better yet visit the web site www.magnetic-declination.com to get current information.  Visually check the adjusted compasses to ensure that the declination correction has been set properly.

You can increate the reliability of backcountry navighation when multiple people take compass readings of the desired bearing
You can increase the reliability of backcountry navigation when multiple people take compass readings of the desired bearing

Everyone’s GPS receivers’ set-up selections should match.  These selections include:

    1. Heading (select either degrees true or magnetic.)
    2. Chose the option for “numeric degrees” not “Directional Letters.”
    3. Adjust Map Datum to match the Datum on the map.  This is especially important if the hikers will determine location or destination information from the map. Without datum set correctly the error may be up to 100 yards.
    4. Choose a coordinate system.  The most common options are Latitude and Longitude or Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM.)
    5. The electronic compass must be calibrated after every battery change out.  When calibrating move away from large ferrous objects (e.g., vehicles.)
    6. Reset barometric altimeters at known locations.
    7. “Dump the Junk” and get rid of old waypoints.  Keep the number of waypoints retained to a minimum.
    8. Reset the trip computer.
    9. Delete old track log files. (The track log identifies the hiker’s historical path the backcountry.)  Old track log data just clutters the map screen.
    10. Zoom setting – This is a purely personal selection and completed on the map page.  I keep my receiver set between 500 ft. and 800 ft.
    11. Remember to put in fresh batteries.
    12. Ensure that the receiver is tracking at least for satellites.

Navigation techniques don’t change whether hiking solo or with ten.  GPS, map & compass are components that are only a part of the complete navigation experience.  Taking the time to set-up your gear in advance helps eliminate confusion on the trail.

About Blake Miller

Blake Miller received significant hands-on navigational training during his 20 years of service in the US Navy.  He has taught map and compass, GPS and wilderness survival classes in Central Oregon since 1998.  As a part-time faculty member at Central Oregon Community College, he currently teaches land navigation classes to Natural Resource students.  He has been an active member of the Deschutes County’s Search and Rescue (SAR) team since 2009.   Blake is also a featured speaker at regional SAR conferences, Sportsman Shows, and Cabelas. His articles have been published in several national magazines.  Blake can be contacted through www.outdoorquest.biz.

Be sure to check out Blake’s other navigation posts on SectionHiker.com:


  1. Just reading the Title sent shivers down me spine from “Memories” of Group navigation….Lols Though in today’s world it must be nice to verify location with a electronic Unit. Me I still use the old Map and Compass and me brain method of navigating. Someday I just might buy a GPS..You ought to try and do this at night. with a Group, without a GPS Unit, That is the way I learned in the Marine Corps, all our Compass and Navigation exercises were done at night trying to locate half a dozen Posts out in the Woods and the Jungle somewhere…That can get exciting let me tell you….One question, with the Group, were all their GPS Units able to synchronize to exact same Coordinates?? And one word of advice for Groups of 4 or more. Select ONE person as the primary Position Locator and a Secondary to back that person up…Every one else has to put their faith into those two…Avoids a lot of time standing at a Trail Junction having every one arguing and giving their opinion resulting lots of bad feelings and sometimes group desertions breaking up the group….Especailly if you have one or two people who are on “edge” any one about their locations…My former wife used to get real freaky if we were even remotely off track…Oh the fights we had due to her panic….Sure was glad when GPS came out…

  2. If I am not leading in a group, but in the rear, I often take a reading of the front of the group. This checks for bias in dealing with obstacles, verifying we are actually heading on the desired bearing.

  3. Should “tracking at least for satellites” read “four satellites”?

  4. Great tips. On the declination thing, many people I know don’t bother with compasses with a declination adjustment. There’s a common technique of compass use here, which I also use myself (I’m unsure if it’s done much outside New Zealand), whereby we simply keep red pointing at 22, or whatever the offset is, instead of keeping it on North and doing the adding/subtracting thing. With so many people locally who do this, I’ve found in a group that it’s critical to be clear, when yelling out bearings, whether it’s a bearing off grid north, or a bearing off magnetic north.

    • Likewise. When I teach compass navigation I always make students say “true” or “magnetic” after they yell out a bearing since it gets real confusing if everyone isn’t on the same page. Very important.

    • izogi,
      Your technique is certainly a valid one, and works great provided you remember to always point the red end of the needle to your declination value, which in New Zealand is pretty substantial.

      A simple memory jog for this is to simply draw in your local declination with a sharpie pen right on the surface of your compass dial. Provided you stay in the local area, you now line up your compass needle to your pen mark and not the orienting arrow. If you move to where the declination is different, you can easily erase it with a little bit of solvent, such as paint remover.

      Another option is to attach a narrow strip of electrical tape, but I find that this can move around in hot weather.

      Of course, as Philip has repeatedly mentioned here, the best option is to buy a good quality compass with adjustable declination, but, not everyone is going to do that.

  5. Having grown-up with paper maps & my trusty compass I can state that using an app (android) such as Backcountry Navigator makes it very simple.

  6. Here is a point that creates a little confusion on the ground that I never see addressed in articles like this one. Suppose you have your GPS set up to include the magnetic declination (14 degrees where I hike) when you take a reading. For example, half way up a mountain on a bushwack I go to my GPS and use the pointer to get a fix on the summit. The GPS gives me degrees and distance to the summit. Next I put the GPS away and check the compass hanging around my neck to see if I am still on track or if I need to adjust the setting to get back on track. My compass has the ability to set mag declination. If my GPS is set to include it, how should my Compass be set? If I have set the mag declination to include those 14 degrees then if I use the heading my GPS gave me to dial my compass to, did I just dial in an extra 14 degrees? Seems to me that only one device should be set to account for the declination. What say you?

    • Nope. You should set both of them to the same declination. Get yourself a compass with a declination adjustment, so you can set it once and not have to do the declination math each time.

  7. Declination math leads to confusion and mistakes. An adjustable compass just keeps it simple..

    I recommend the compass and GPS match the map by using degrees true.

    • And I’d add (as earlier) that if you don’t have an adjustable compass, it’s still an option to simply remember that the needle always points at that number, not at north, and so leave the needle pointing at that number. It’s definitely my personal preference to do it this way. I can’t imagine trying to constantly add and subtract, but maybe that’s just because I don’t bother with it. :)

  8. Well, I don’t mean to be obstinate about this, but the explanations you guys have given me don’t completely makes sense (to me, maybe everyone else gets it), so I want to re-phrase the problem/analogy. This time, assume that you have the compass and it is adjustable for declination and so you have dialed in a 14 degree WESTERLY declination. In other words you ADDED 14 degrees and tightened the screw so it set and you can forget about it. I have the map and a protractor (no GPS) and you ask me for the bearing to the summit (same as in my example above). Using my protractor and the map I get 200 degrees. Not knowing that you have already “dialed-in the mag declination” I do the addition in my head and give you 214 degrees. To my way of thinking it makes a difference if I tell you 200 degrees or 214. If I give you 214 degrees thinking that you haven’t already accounted for the mag declination I believe we’ll miss the summit. 200 degrees is what I should have told you. I believe this is the same as my example above. If I am getting a bearing from a GPS that is ALREADY set to account for the 14 degree westerly declination (telling me 214 rather than 200) then I don’t need to do anything with compass (use the factory setup with the orienting arrow set to 0). I don’t need to set if for the declination in my area because the bearing I am turning the dial on my compass to has already accounted for it. What’s wrong with my logic? Again, I am not trying to be argumentative.

    • Perhaps this will help. The GPS is a map. It’s electronic, but it’s still just a map. If you take a bearing using the GPS, and the GPS has been set to true north (declination adjusted), your compass must also be declination adjusted to remain in synch with the compass and map on the GPS. Think about it this way….you have two compasses, both with declination adjustments. If you set one to true north and don’t set the declination on the other, you’re not going to end up at the same place (unless the local declination = 0).

      This is why we tell people to always say “200 degress magnetic” or “200 degrees true” when they give someone else a bearing, to head off such inconsistencies at the pass.

      • While you :

        “tell people to always say “200 degress magnetic” or “200 degrees true” when they give someone else a bearing” (Great tip for all).

        I make a big deal about “matching the map” to keep everything on the same page. GPS, compass and map compliment each other in the field.

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