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How to Become an Expert Off Trail Navigator

How to Become an Expert Off-Trail Navigator

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 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 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.

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  1. We’re can I sign up for the class on Navigation for compass and maps

  2. I’ve always considered myself competent with the use of a compass because my father, a WWII navigator on a B-24, taught me from youth on how to do it. I took a compass navigation class with my grandson and was surprised at things I learned. I think those classes are well worth the time invested.

    • Grandpa, my father, too, was a navigator on a B-24 off the coast of Brazil in WWII. After a group of three B-24’s took out a U-boat but lost one plane and crew, he came home. I respond, because it is not often I see mentions of B-24’s.

      • My dad was in the Pacific theatre. He told a few hair raising tales of what happened to various crews through mistakes in navigation. While in training on the West coast, four ten-man crews were lost by flying into mountains because of navigation errors.

        He also related what happened to his when he applied the magnetic deviation the wrong way after they were shot up on a mission and lost their radio and trailing wire antenna. Once he realized that error, he used a break in the clouds to get a star fix to find the Marianas and they had to use that string of islands as a handrail to get back to Guam.

        Unfortunately, that was also the route the Japanese used to bomb them and they were greeted with a Black Widow night fighter. The pilot had them turn all the lights on, get to the windows, and “Smile and wave, boys!”. The Black Widow waggled its wings and they followed it the rest of the way and ran out of fuel on the runway when they landed. They had been reported as shot down.

        In spite of that never to be repeated error, the pilot trusted him implicitly and that trust did save the crew on a couple other occasions.

        After the war, he became a geologist and geophysicist and traveled the world. He and Mom loved Creation and took their five children on camping/hiking/canoeing trips often. When he came back from an extended trip, he’d check us out of school with some humorous excuse and take us camping. We all grew up around maps, rocks, and the outdoors. We wouldn’t trade our upbringing for anyone else’s.

  3. I never cared for bushwhacking in NH,too thick for me. I did plenty off trail on the 14ers in CO and some in CA, but thats all above treeline navigation.

    • This discussion reminds me of the many stories I have read about the.navigational techniques used by the long range patrol teams in South Vietnam. This time period in the 60’s and early 70’s predated the advent of the GPS and it seems that many of these Army and Marine troops used as much terrain feature navigation as they did compass nav. That they did it so successfully is amazing to me.

  4. For short distances in daylight hours the sun is also a great handrail. I find myself muttering, “Keep the sun over your right shoulder” and such as I detour around brush and briars; that will keep me moving in the general direction of my goal. Doing so keeps from having to stop and take a compass bearing or yanking my phone out of my pocket fifteen times in thirty minutes to stay on track. So your point about using the landscape saving time is a good one.

  5. Well-written as usual! Landmarks are awesome to work towards but those damn mountains have a tendency to look different from different angles ha ha. In situ I can usually figure it out.

  6. My dad was in the Army Air Force. He inspected and repaired B-17, B-29, B-25, P51, and 747 aircraft. He never talked about it. As I got older and started asking questions (I was the only daughter who did), he mailed me his discharge papers. He was afraid to fly, so was my ex-husband, and my son. Not me, I took flying lessons. I’ve got 27.5 flight hours to my name. I’m a much better navigator in the air than on the ground, lol.

  7. There’s another “handrail” that I’ve used while bushwhacking in Pa on certain tracts of public land (where these tracts are adjacent to private land). Both the state and the private landowners will have their property lines posted or marked in some way, and very often the posters can be seen for 50 yards or more, which makes them a great “man-made” handrail that can be used in conjunction with a topographical map.
    I always carry a map and compass, but rarely need to resort to “bearing navigation”. My Dad always used to say “being aware of your surroundings is the best way to stay ‘unlost’!

  8. A fun way to get some free map and compass instruction is to attend a local orienteering event. There are clubs across the country.

  9. Shout out to all the cartographers that make it possible to have something to reference in the first place!

  10. For me, the most important navigational tool is my brain; what I put in it and the methods I use on that data. The compass is primarily a tool to confirm that my actions conform to a decision I’ve made, which is a direction I want to travel in. The compass is merely the best source of directional guidance (lacking a GPS driven electronic map). There are others such as the sun, the wind and the stars.

    I don’t recommend people rely on terrain for direction except in the rare circumstances as illustrated in this article where the terrain is an unambiguous guide. It is not often the case and the terrain is never laid out like a manicured hillside. It goes down and up for surprisingly long distances when in the large scale it is headed generally in the opposite direction. A dip in the accent of only a few hundred yards in thick foliage can fool you into thinking your crested or missed a forested ridge. Likewise for a valley.

    Examine the map frequently before you go. Memorize the headings of key features, here called “hand rails”. Water courses, roads, ridge lines, valleys and vegetation changes all occur in extended lines, not often straight but still more or less bordering a certain heading. Yes, you should have a map but if you carry only an electronic map you could find yourself without it for a variety of common reasons. You will never be without the map you have committed to memory.

    To test your memory in advance of an adventure, put the map aside for a few hours then draw a sketch of all that you can remember about the map, paying attention to scale. Compare it to the original map. You may be surprised at how well you’ve done. You will also immediately see the deficiencies in your memory training and know what you must study to correct them.

    All navigation, even following trails, relies on your spatial reasoning and memory. The more you train it the better it will be.

  11. To me, a USGS Topo Quad is like reading a good book. I have file cabinets full of them. They are available for free download at the USGS site and I’ve printed many for various hikes and vacation trips. I prefer the older 24K series because the contour lines are more accurate on steep slopes and cliffs. The newer ones extrapolate the contours and round off the steep jagged areas.

    When flying, I select a window seat whenever possible so that I can follow along on my mapping programs and observe the geology and scenery. Which side I choose the window will depend on the sun angle and terrain. I have about a thousand hours flying small aircraft and love that because I can really enjoy my own customized view.

  12. even if you think you will rely on a GPS device, it’s important to learn and practice Land Navigation skills. even if you plan to hike on a trail, it’s still easy to get turned around and lost. skirting a swampy area , skirting blowdowns, or mistaking a side Trail or a game Trail are prime examples. I have known people to get lost stepping out of their tent at night to go to the bathroom.

    you should test your abilities BEFORE you need them in an emergency. that provides a lot of self-confidence. a good way to test them is to go out with an orienteering club.

    it’s important also to know what to do in an emergency if your GPS fails and you do not have a compass. here in the well-watered east, we say head downhill until you hit a stream. follow the srream downriver and you will eventually hit civilization. meanwhile at least you have something to drink.

    • Unfortunately, I can think of instances where that’s the last advice you should give anyone. For example, following a stream down mt lafayette (NH) in cold weather often results in a body recovery

  13. A note about Leave No Trace: some places are not appropriate for traveling off trail. The photo of the trail on Mt. Lafayette is great example if a ridge line, but it also illustrates an alpine zone with fragile plants in habitat that’s vulnerable to disturbance. No matter how careful you are, traveling through alpine plants will leave the imprint of your route and in a heavily used area like the White Mountains, others will be tempted to follow it, increasing the damage. Before you go, be conscious of when and where it is appropriate to travel off the beaten path.

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