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The Logic of the Landscape: How to Become an Expert Navigator

Learning how to use a compass isn't difficult. What's difficult is finding a class where you can learn it. Well-blazed and well-signed trails are partly to blame. You mostly use a compass when hiking outside of well-establish trail systems.
Learning how to use a compass isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is finding a class where you can learn it. Well-blazed and well-signed trails are partly to blame. You only need use a compass when hiking outside of well-establish trail systems or in poor weather, when trail signage is obscured.

A compass is one of the 10 essentials and while many hikers and backpackers carry one, many don’t know how to use it to navigate in the backcountry. This is something I hear often when I teach map and compass skills courses and describes my experience as well: I carried a compass for years but never knew how to use it.

I could get away with not knowing how to use a compass because I hiked well-blazed and well-marked trails in good visibility. I only got interested in compass navigation when I ran out of new trails to hike and was forced to expand my horizons to off-trail destinations, since I prefer hiking to new places and not repeating the same old hikes over and over.

Learning how to use a compass or GPS isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is finding a class where you can learn how to use them, since so few people teach navigation courses anymore, even in big outdoor organizations and clubs. Well-blazed and well-signed trail systems are partly to blame. You don’t really need to know how to use a compass or GPS device if you can follow the trails marked on a map, follow blazes, and read trail signs. It’s only when you step off-trail that getting lost becomes a big issue.

Given advances in smartphone GPS navigation and the convenience of easy-to-use apps like GaiaGPS, is it even worth learning how to use a compass? That’s a valid question, but it misses the point. The device you use is irrelevant as long as you can count on it to be functional when you need it.

The truth is that experienced navigators need a compass or GPS a lot less frequently than you’d imagine. While learning how to use them is useful, the most important navigational skill is how to plan and follow a route without a compass or GPS. I call this learning the logic of the landscape and it’s the focus of the backcountry navigation classes that I teach.

Hiking off-trail through dense vegetation requires a lot more effort than hiking on a well blazed or well signed trail. It also can be helpful to follow obvious landforms so you can always know where you are.
Hiking off-trail through dense vegetation requires a lot more effort than hiking on a well blazed or well signed trail. It can also be helpful to follow obvious landforms so you can always know where you are.

The Logic of the Landscape

The most important skill in learning how to hike off-trail is understanding how to plan a route that minimizes the amount of physical effort and the uncertainty that can occur when hiking cross-country.

Minimizing Effort

Hiking off trail is a lot harder than hiking on a well-maintained trail and a lot slower. For example, if you can hike 2 or 2.5 mph on a trail, the best you can hope for is 1 mph off-trail. Sometimes, it’s as low as 0.25 mph in dense brush, which is why picking a low energy route is such an important skill.

What makes hiking off-trail energy intensive? Vegetation including bushes, dense tree cover, and dead trees lying on the ground will slow down your pace considerably, since you need to scramble over or detour around them. Boulders and rocks at the base of steep hills or cliffs are best avoided for the same reason. Hiking sideways across a hillside with one leg higher than another is also much more difficult than hiking perpendicular to a slope. These are a few of the terrain features to avoid. These obstacles are not shown on maps, but you can infer them if you’ve been trained to think about what you’re likely to encounter when planning a route.

The Franconia Ridge Trail - Approachiing Mt Lafayette
The Franconia Ridge Trail – Approaching Mt Lafayette

Minimizing Uncertainty

You can often tell where you are on a map or stay “on course” by following landscape features around you. But most people need to be trained to recognize them. For example, if you’re hiking up a cone-shaped mountain, the summit is always going to be uphill and there’s little need to check or change directions en route, except to avoid debris. When you eventually get to the top, you’ll know exactly where you are on a topographic map and what your elevation is. When hiking longer routes, consider breaking up your hike into segments, hiking from one obvious landmark to another, so you always know where you are.

Another strategy is to follow so-called handrails in the landscape, like walking beside a river, stream, or a lake. As long as you keep the water within sight or earshot you’ll have a pretty good idea of where you are. Track the time you’ve been hiking on your watch and you can further refine your approximate location based on your pace.

Franconia Ridge depicted topographically
Franconia Ridge depicted topographically.

Ridgelines are another common handrail, especially in mountainous environments.  What’s a ridgeline? It’s a narrow swath of high ground with lower elevations on either side, like Franconia Ridge (see the picture and corresponding topographic map representation, above).  Note how the elevations on both sides of the Franconia Ridge Trail increase until they reach their apex, the ridgeline, which has a trail on it.

If there wasn’t a trail on this north-to-south ridge, you could still follow it easily by staying on the highpoint. You can tell this by sight since the horizon slopes down on either side of you, or by feel, since you’ll quickly detect it if you start walking down a side slope. Ridgelines commonly link multiple mountains in the landscape and are therefore a common handrail to follow if they run in the direction you want to travel.

The best route up Mt Lowell is to follow the ridgeline
The best route up Mt Lowell is to follow the ridgeline.

A ridgeline is also a useful handrail to follow up the side of a mountain, like this example route on Mt Lowell. The blue-marked route follows a ridge that has westward facing cliffs. If you keep the cliffs in sight as you climb, you’ll have a pretty good indication of where you are without ever having to refer to a compass or GPS.

Compass and GPS Use in Uncertain Conditions

If you can plan routes that follow landscape features, you can limit your reliance on a compass or GPS-enabled device. One of the reasons we advocate doing this is so you can move faster. If you’re constantly referring to your compass and a map, or a smartphone GPS/dedicated GPS unit, your pace is going to slow down considerably. Hiking off-trail in the dark really sucks, so speed during the daylight hours can be a significant safety issue.

But you still need a compass or GPS when hiking through less differentiated terrain where the landscape features are less obvious and the direction you need to travel is more uncertain. For example, when hiking across gently rolling hills covered by grassland or forest, across indistinct arid areas, and even large saddles between mountains, it’s handy to use a navigational device to stay on your desired bearing.

Becoming an Expert Navigator

It’s this interchange in being able to navigation by landscape features vs. navigating by instruments, or though regions of certainty and uncertainty, that’s the mark of an expert navigator. It takes a little mentoring to learn, and a little practice to become proficient, but once mastered, you can hike anywhere your feet can take you, on-trail and off. That’s an amazing feeling.

Written 2017.

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  1. Join the military. Uncle Sam will pay you to learn how to use maps and a compass. Of course, they want a 8 year commitment afterwards so if learning to use a compass is the only reason to join, it may not be for you. :-)

    37 years later and those lessons are still burned into my brain. Also my first experience “hiking” in the Ozark mtns.

  2. An example of how important it is to know how to use a compass is one of the Appalachian Trail hiker, Geraldine Largay from Brentwood, Tennessee, who, on July 22, 2013 left the trail in Maine to relieve herself and then couldn’t find her way back. Although a massive search was done at the time to find her, and she managed to survive until August 18th, her body was finally found in her tent 2 years later not far off the trail. According to the report of a fellow hiker who had been with her the day before, “Inchworm” admittedly said that she did not know how to use a compass. Her death could have been simply avoided had she been carrying a compass that she knew how to use as well as knowing how to read a map and the landscape around her.

    • Glad you mentioned that Roger. A sad but grim reminder. Last year 2 hikers got lost on the PCT and were never found. This year 2 hikers have been lost in Olympic Nat. Park and not found. It happens more than people think. Orienteering is fun, easy, and can be self taught. If I remember right, the Army Field Manual ” Survival, Evasion and Escape ” (Amazon) will show you how to get unlost without a compass or map. I never needed to use it, but still remember how to do it.

  3. Alpine Pedestrian

    I like your phrase “Logic of the Landscape.” I used to hike with a trip leader in a local hiking organization who would carefully plan out an off-trail route at home using his map and setting waypoints along the ridges, because usually the ridges were a good route. At least on paper. We would use our compasses to go from waypoint to waypoint based on his gps settings. Once out in the actual area, he wouldn’t budge from his pre-planned route even though we could see the terrain was not as good a route as it had seemed on the map. In one case, I had been in that area before and knew of a route a bit farther down the ridge that avoided the cliffs, but he insisted on staying with what he had planned even though staying in that landscape wasn’t logical. He wouldn’t use the landscape features around him. We cliffed out a few times and had to do some technical scrambling to get to our destination. I quit hiking with him.

    • You need to be flexible and look around you when hiking since you can’t have advance knowledge of what the conditions on the ground will be – just educated guesses. Contouring around obstacles is required and so are on-the-fly route changes. I’ve hiked with people who stare at a GPS and won’t deviate from a pre-planned route too. Never twice though.

      When I lead off-trail trips, I actually ban GPS use. I like using my brain more.

  4. Hmm. I guess that I must be fortunate. Both of the local outfitters (REI and Alpine Shop, St. Louis MO) offer compass classes, and there are occasional classes advertised on some of the Meetup local hiking clubs. Also, there is a local orienteering club and two or three “courses”.

    I have to think that bushwhackers and even clueless types like the AT hiker who got lost in the summer and died ought to have the sense to carry a beacon (or satphone), a whistle, a mirror, as well as a compass and map (and some basic knowledge of how to read same – and in some locales, to check if the local iron-rich rocks are interfering with accurate reads – “Iron County” is named that for a reason…).

    I consider the Ozarks to be worthy of “hiking” – no peak bagging, but quite enjoyable, especially for observers of nature (birds, plants, geology, mushrooms, lizards/snakes/amphibians, fish, mammals, etc.).

    • AMEN. I’ve carried an ACR PLB for 8 years as a solo hiker. Never had to use it, but don’t even do a day hike without it! (I also practice navigation skills and carry a compass and map, but still never leave my beacon at home.)

    • [[ …and even clueless types like the AT hiker who got lost in the summer and died ought to have the sense to carry a beacon (or satphone), a whistle, a mirror, as well as a compass and map… ]]

      It’s doubly tasteless and offensive to both refer to someone this way who died under circumstances you apparently know nothing about and to also generalize that further to others whose circumstances you don’t know.

      • Seemed like an appropriate remark to me. All of those navigation and signaling aids would probably have saved her life…if she had them or knew how to use them.

      • I apologize. The clueless one is the LEADER of the group, if there was one. I tend to forget that the AT probably attracts a lot of city people who may not have much experience outdoors and may not have had exposure to Scouting as a kid, and the “be prepared” mindset. I am lucky enough to have had the advantages of a country childhood.

        Hunters – depends on where they hunt. I imagine that the ones hunting the 15,000+ acre (mostly without paths) reserves have better navigating skills than the ones hunting the 800 acre reserves.

        There are good reasons to bushwhack, and good reasons to just use the trails. I consider it good behavior to use the trail in heavily used areas, to minimize disruption to wildlife and minimize erosion (trail crews try to shore up possible erosion on trails). The state conservation department does flag critical areas with rare organisms, so one knows where NOT to bushwhack.

        The business about the whistle, mirror, beacon – anyone can get injured. There are county parks, less than 10 miles from downtown, that have dead zones for cell signals. You can always trip, slip, etc. and need help getting out. I happen to know which local parks/conservation areas and which trails have cell signals, and “shortcut” trails, so I can still hike when on weekend call and still have reasonable response time of 1 hour or less from phone call to hospital. (I am not an emergency responder, obviously – I provide pathology frozen section consultation to surgeons, so there is always lead time).

      • No, sorry, Phil (responding to post below), it’s hard to see how this is in any way “appropriate.” The Largay case is the only “AT hiker” incident mentioned in the comments, and i assume that’s what Nancy is referring to. The case was a tragedy. I’ve read a number of reports and articles. She apparently had anxiety issues and took medication. Her hiking partner for the earlier part of the trip had to go out for personal reasons, and Ms Largay decided to continue on her own. No one knows exactly how she became so disoriented, but calling someone “clueless” in cases like this is just pure bad taste and unnecessary. Imagine you were her friend or family and having to read stuff like this from anyone, let alone someone armchair quarterbacking with no apparent empathy or knowledge of the case. Sorry to see you defending this.

  5. I have a newfound respect for hunters. Few hikers are good bushwackers or navigators but it seems to be the most basic skill for hunters

    • Hunters don’t normally have to travel the same distances as hikers and tend to go to the same area repeatedly to observe their prey’s habits. You’ll also find that a lot of hunters relay on GPS devices (to get back to their trucks) these days and not map and compass.

      • Oh well, one more romantic notion down the drain…
        But compass work requires visibility and landmarks during the learning phase and not all areas and hikes provide that to a beginner. I think that is why many get discouraged and revert to electronics.
        People who teach classes know this and can give students an early and much needed “success” that encourages them to continue.

  6. I have the highest respect for the use of competent “orienteering skills” for navigating in the backcountry and in wilderness areas. In the absence of the alternative of the use of a trail, I advise vehemently against “bushwhacking.” I always carry a compass, topographical map and GPS with me, but I always stay on trails, if available and leave my planned itinerary with friends.

    Bushwhacking is dangerous, slow travel, fatiguing and leads easily to physical injuries, even death! The danger is especially high in brown country, where grizzlies exists in northwest Canada and Alaska.

    Anyone who ever read books and understands the story of the Donner Party’s attempt to navigate a new route to California where emigrants decided to take the “Hastings’ cut-off” understands poignantly the need to rejoin the trail. Folk, as the old cliché goes, “… there is a reason the trail is there!” Yes, you may find more excitement striking off the trail across country, but in doing so you place yourself in great risk, no matter your orienteering skills.

    I agree that in some geographic areas of the country such as Alaska, the Yukon, few trails exists. If no other choice is available, heaven forbid, then bushwhacking my judicious advice to you is to “… stay on the trail!” Staying on the trail facilitates S&R units to locate you in an emergency when you leave your trail itinerary with friends to give to the local sheriff. If you are bushwhacking, then how on earth is the S&R unit to start looking for you if you fail to show at your designated appointed time???

    As one of the survivors of the Donner Party advises, and a mantra I always use when navigating in the backcountry, “… Stay on the trail, take no short-cuts, and hurry along.”

    Jerry W Doyle

    • How does a trail become a trail? At some point, someone had to be the first person to look at a distant peak and plan a route to get to it. The best routes become trails. But, someone had to be the first.

  7. There was a great navigation course on YouTube several years ago by an Australian backpacker which I can no longer locate. Does anyone have a copy or know where is find it?

  8. Great post. Having served in the military as others who have commented (Thanks for your service) learning navigation skills are so important. Better to have the skill and not need it than need it and not have a clue. Being disoriented or lost and alone can really cause great distress and panic and end up being tragic as has been shown in these stories. I have hiked on trails and off and usually solo and understand the importance of being able to navigate but also in letting people know where you are, the route you are taking and a time frame.

  9. When I was in the Army in the 70’s, we were taught orienteering. One aspect of orienteering, not yet mentioned, is that of distance. In order to travel to a particular point on the map, you need to determine the compass bearing to it using your map. Then you need to determine the distance, using your map. Then you need to convert that distance into your paces. A pace is 2 steps, e.g., every right foot step. This is determined beforehand by counting your paces along a known and marked distance.

    While traveling in this manner through thick woods to a target (or waypoint), knowing your compass bearing and your number of paces to get there, I realized that when a big tree was in my way, I would go around it on the left side, and the next big tree, go around it on the right side, and thus maintain an average straight line of travel. Soon enough the target would be seen, and I found it remarkable that I could get so close to it, just by holding my compass and counting my paces.

    Then we practiced long orienteering courses at night, traveling through the thick New York State woods, finding several targets along the prescribed route. I found all the orienteering targets; wow, so amazing! At night! When it is almost pitch black, just counting paces and holding the compass. It helps to have a compass with luminescent markers on it, and a quick burst of light from a flashlight to refresh it. One learns quickly to take care when stepping forward at night. Dark shadows on the rocky outcropping might be just that — a shadow or a strip of dark moss — or, they might be a large dark crack in the rock. Some of the guys in front of me would step into these cracks and reap the painful learning experience.

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