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Wilderness Navigation and Route Planning

Wilderness Navigation and Route Planning

Wilderness navigation requires planning routes across terrain that doesn’t have pre-defined trails or roads to follow. While following a route using a map and compass, GPS, map-to-terrain association or just dead reckoning is required, those tools and techniques don’t provide you with the skills to plan good cross-country routes. Part art and part experience, learning how to plan new routes that are efficient to travel, safe, and fast is a skill that is only mastered after you’ve spent a fair amount of time roaming off-trail and learned the kind of terrain and vegetation to avoid.

Three Principles

There are three principles of wilderness navigation that you want to keep in mind when planning wilderness routes: energy efficiency, safety, and speed.

Natural obstacles and vegetation can slow you down when you hike off trail
Natural obstacles and vegetation can slow you down when you hike off trail

Energy Efficiency

Hiking cross-country is considerably more difficult than hiking on a cleared and well-defined trails. One of the first things you’ll notice is that the ground is littered with rock and organic debris that you need to hike over or around. Tall grass, bushes, trees, bogs, and boulders may block your way. The hills will be steeper than you’re used to encountering on trails and your normal hiking pace will be much slower.

Careful study of a topographic map will reveal routes that are easier to walk than others, with gentler gradients and detours around difficult obstacles. For example, cliffs are best hiked around rather than tackled head-on and the sides of streams are best avoided because they’re often filled with dense vegetation and flood debris.


The need to hike across avalanche terrain, scree-covered slopes, and river crossings all increase the danger of getting hurt when you step off trails and head out into open country. It’s also best to avoid steep ravines as they are often catchments for ankle-busting boulders, fallen trees, and vegetation. While many of these hazards can be anticipated by learning to analyze topographic maps, you’ll also want to make real-time detours around dangerous terrain that you can’t anticipate  based on the information provided by maps or other planning resources.


Despite the difficulty of wilderness travel, there are land features that you can follow that make cross-country travel faster and easier. For example, hiking above treeline is often faster than below it, provided you have good weather. Hiking along gravel river bars is also much faster since there is no impeding vegetation. But there are also many types of terrain that will significantly slow you down because they’re boulder or vegetation traps such as steep hillsides or ravines.

The shortest distance route is not always the best
The shortest route is not always the best.

A Route Planning Example

Learning how to plan a route that is energy-efficient, safe, and fast to hike is the essence of wilderness navigation. Let’s look at an example to illustrate the process.

Assume we’re standing on top of heavily forested Mt Martha (on the map above) and want to hike over to a feature that’s 9/10 of a mile away, as the crow flies, called The Humps. If you have a GPS, it’s perfectly conceivable that you’d plug in the lat/lon location of The Humps, plot the shortest route to it, and set off to follow it. But that wouldn’t be such a great idea, since that direct route isn’t energy-efficient, safe, or fast to hike.

Notice that the route descends very steeply down the face of Mt Martha into a steep valley, before crossing what is likely some sort of drainage, before climbing uphill to The Humps.

  1. The descent down the east side of Mt Martha is 774′ in 0.4 mile, which is quite precipitous, and there’s a very good chance that its covered with boulders and trees that have eroded or fallen over and been swept down the hillside. Picking your way through that crap will take an enormous amount of energy, you can easily twist an ankle or break a leg in the process, and it’d probably be pretty slow going. Crossing the drainage (the “V” at the bottom of the valley) and climbing out of it is also likely to be a horrendous slog, since all of the debris from the slopes overhead will collect at that point.
  2. While the climb from the drainage to the highpoint of The Humps is only 250′ over 0.5 miles, you’d be side-hilling, or hiking up the slope at an angle. You could do it in a pinch in this context, but it’s usually more efficient to hike perpendicular to the contour line to distribute the work equally between your legs. Side-hilling can be exhausting because one leg is always higher than the other and doing more work.
While slightly longer, this route requires much less energy to travel, is safer, and much faster
While slightly longer, the blue route requires much less energy to travel, is safer, and much faster since it crosses easier terrain.

A Better Route

The blue route (above) from Mt Martha to The Humps can be broken down into two legs: a 0.4 mile leg which crosses the saddle to the unnamed peak south of Mt Martha, and the second leg, an 0.8 walk down the ridge to The Humps.

  1. The first leg drops 164 feet to a flat area called a saddle before climbing just 108′ to the unnamed peak. The saddle is probably covered with trees, including some blown over trees on the ground, but easy to cross because there’s so little gradient.
  2. The second leg gradually drops 550′ feet down the ridgeline to The Humps over the course of 0.8 miles.  I would expect spruce above 3000′ then turning to open hardwoods which are faster to hike through.

While the blue route requires about 50% less elevation gain than the red route, the biggest energy savings between the two is avoiding the debris below Mt Martha’s eastern slope that you’d have to hike through. That could be a complete nightmare in terms of effort, safety, and speed. There’s none of that on the blue route, even though it’s 0.2 miles longer, making it a better off trail route.

Planning a cross-country route in Scotland
Planning a cross-country route in Scotland

Wilderness Route Planning

The essence of Wilderness Navigation is learning how to make decisions about the best cross-country routes across unfamiliar terrain in terms of energy expensive, safety, and speed.  While learning how to follow a bearing using a compass, GPS, or smart phone app is an important perquisite to following a wilderness route, the most important route planning skill to develop is learning how to read a topographic map and making inferences about the landscape it depicts.

While there are an abundance of excellent route planning tools available, including Caltopo.com which was used to generate the examples in the article, the only way to learn the implications that different landforms shown on maps have is to get out and hike off-trail as much as you can, preferably with a partner, because discussing different route alternatives hastens the learning process. When you can look at a map and quickly decide the best off-trail route to take, you’ll have internalized the three principles of wilderness navigation route planning: energy efficiency, safety and speed.

Imagine, being able to hike anywhere your two legs can take you. That’s when you’ll experience the true freedom of the hills!

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  1. dieterweber964632478

    Following game trails works well for me.

    • Using games trails is an excellent energy saving technique especially through dense brush, as long as they go where you want them to. Takes a little practice to recognize them if you’re not used to following very faint trails. I’ve always been impressed by animals’ ability to take the easiest route. Where I hike, the moose also climb all the summits, but I guess they also like the views.

      • dieterweber964632478

        :-) Good point. Game trails are particularly good to find a way around or across obstacles. They converge at a hole in a fence, for example. Where I live we have a lot of wild hogs and the game trails look sometimes like half an army walked through in single file!

      • Moose always follow hiking trails. Its easier travelling :-)

  2. I find rogaining and orienteering very useful in allowing you to practice the same type of route-planning on a smaller scale.

    • Had to look that one up. Sounds like an aussie word.

      Rogaining is a sport of long distance cross-country navigation, involving both route planning and navigation between checkpoints using a variety of map types. In a rogaine, teams of 2-5 people choose which checkpoints to visit within a time limit with the intent of maximizing their score.

      Very interesting. I’m not that interested in racing, but I do enjoy the group decision making process on off-trail hikes.

      • The events I’ve been to in New Zealand do a great job in catering for both ends of the competitive spectrum. Rogaining in particular allows the team to plan their own route and level of difficulty.

        To me, the best thing about rogaining is learning to make good fast navigation decisions under pressure and under sometimes adverse weather, environmental and terrain challenges (night navigating with only map and compass/no gps is quite intense). Those navigation lessons apply directly back into your other off-track experiences.

      • I prefer to do my planning up front before I hike a route, I don’t use a GPS (my brain is good enough), and I don’t hike at night.
        Rogaining sounds like a fun team sport though (seriously), but I prefer a less crowded wilderness. It does sound like t would be a very effective teaching vehicle though.

  3. Nice little demo there. Before reading, I glanced at the map and instantly saw the more realistic path, which was to hop to the hill across and then go down the ridgeline and avoid the straight line thru that V… Reading the article confirmed my initial gaze at the map. Feels good to know the fundamentals are still with me…

  4. My approach to bushwacking to site(s) not only considers the terrain issue, but also the survival/emergency issue of noting potential routing to water sources, trails and roads. Depending on the length of travel and terrain, resources such as fishing spots and huts are also considered. Internet satellite imagery for avoidance of difficult terrain is also an asset.

  5. Great to see the first map of the torridon towards Craig in scotland. I will be following the same one in may this year. What tool did you use for planning?

  6. Hi Philip,
    Very nice article. Especially liked your image of the straight-line GPS direction is definitely not being the best way to go.

    Navigation skills, especially learned to use a compass, can be difficult to learn from the book I made a video that explains how to read contour lines to “see” terrain features, and has a few examples of using them to make good route choices, such as you do here. (Disclaimer – It’s mine.) I appreciate it if you can have a look, and keep this post up for your readers if you think it’s worthy.


  7. The orienteering “races” are an excellent way to learn these types of skills. You have to navigate to a dozen or three sets of hidden checkpoints – and make a decision for each leg about whether to jog along a trail, bushwack in a straight line, follow a contour line, or some combination. The total mileage varies between 3 and 10k, and the shorter ones are set up to be not-too-difficult for beginners.

    You learn a lot about terrain vs map association, and what types of vegetation to expect in different types of terrain. And since it’s a timed “race” you can see how much you improve over time.

    The mid Atlantic area I live in has “races” at different state parks (etc) each month – and welcomes beginners :)

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