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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 view 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 navigate by landscape features vs. navigating by instruments, or through 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.Editor's note: If you’re thinking about buying gear that we’ve reviewed or recommend on SectionHiker, you can help support us in the process. Just click on any of the seller links above, and if you make a purchase, we may (but not always) receive a small percentage of the transaction. The cost of the product is the same to you but this helps us continue to test and write unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides. Thanks and we appreciate your support!