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  • Writer's pictureWinston Endall

Navigation for Backpacking


Getting around in the modern world has become as easy as putting a location in Google Maps and a nice voice will get you there turn by turn. So when we head into the backcountry it would be easy to expect to do the same but until Google sends hikers with special sensor packs on every trail we have to be responsible for finding our own way.

At its heart, wilderness navigation is knowing where you are, where you want to go and how to get there. This involves reading topographical maps, using various tools and being aware of your surroundings. Most people who get lost don't look around and take note of where they are and the changes in terrain as they move through the woods.

Map and Compass

This is first because it is the most important. Even if you use a GPS or cell phone as your main navigation tool you should always have printed topographic maps and a compass because they never run out of batteries. Additionally, a topo map gives you the big-picture view of the area you are in. You can look in close for the detail or pull it away to get an overall view almost instantly. Using a device with a screen is going to limit how much of the area you can see if the scale is zoomed in enough to see any detail.

When possible try to get maps with a scale of 25,000:1 which means each inch on the map represents 25,000 inches in the real world. This scale gives enough detail so you can read the details of the land. A larger-scale can make it hard to make out if a ravine or canyon would be possible to get through on foot. Maps with a larger scale can work if you are only on well-developed trails but if you are doing any cross country travel then you need more precise detail.

Don't be afraid to mark on your maps. Highlight your planned route with a highlighter and mark it on the map as you get to checkpoints such as rivers, where trails cross or other landmarks so you don't have to remember. I like using it as a countdown, checking off different points, each getting me closer to my campsite for the night. It can help if you get lost as you know where you have been.

A compass is more than a needle that points north. In fact, the red needle on a compass doesn't actually point north. The needle points to magnetic north rather than geographical north. The North Pole is the location of the geographical north while the magnetic north is a point in Hudson's Bay. The difference between the two is called declination. The difference between the two can be up to 20 degrees on the coasts of North America so if you don't compensate then you will end up well off of your intended route.

Maps will have the declination shown on them so you know how much to adjust your reading by. Note what year the map was printed because the magnetic pole moves a little each year. I usually just Google the declination for the area I'm heading to if there is an issue with the maps. Some better quality compasses have an adjustable declination scale so you can set it and forget it, rather than having to calculate every time you take a reading from your compass.

With all that said about declination, if you are hiking established trails then the exact compass bearing will be less of a concern as you just need to be facing in the right general direction when you are choosing which way to go at a trail intersection.

When shopping for a compass you can go with a simple baseplate design if you stick mainly to popular trails but if you head out into the wilderness then a model with a sighting mirror and adjustable declination will make your life much easier. Suunto and Silva brands make high-quality compasses that stand up to the rigors of backcountry use.


GPS units work by triangulating the signal from three satellites to pinpoint your location. They need a clear view of the sky so deep valleys and dense tree cover can affect the reliability of the signal.

When looking at handheld GPS units you will find that Garmin has the market pretty well cornered. The reception is reliable due to high-quality receivers and the use of multiple satellite networks. You need to make sure your unit has topographical maps for where you are going loaded otherwise the global base map will just show you in the middle of a patch of a blank map with no detail.

Push-button models like the GPSMAP 64 and 66 are my personal favorites due to the push button design and external antenna which give better reception. The buttons allow you to use it with gloves on making it usable in the cold.

Garmin makes a number of their mapping GPS units available with the Inreach technology which gives you two-way satellite communication and an SOS emergency locator beacon. This combines your navigation with communication with civilization potentially saving some weight over having two separate units. Since your emergency communication is being used to navigate, battery management is even more important because if you run out of power for navigation you lose the ability to signal out in case of emergency.

GPS reception and bright screen use are battery hogs so you can set how often it samples the satellites and how long your screen stays on to maximize battery life. If you are using it in the cold then keep it in an inside pocket to keep the batteries warm. Below freezing temperatures are the enemy of electronics as the cold will sap battery run time. Depending on the model you will want to bring spare batteries or a battery pack to recharge your unit.

Before a trip, you can preplan a route and save it to your GPS unit. Waypoints, which are like putting a pin in a map, can be used to mark campsites and other areas of interest. When you are in the field you can record your track and mark waypoints so you can go back to them in the future. This can as simple as marking where you parked or a cool campsite you found.

Cell Phone and Apps

You can use a cell phone and an outdoor GPS app for navigation. Most phones will work for finding your location using the GPS satellites even when you have no cell coverage. The reception often isn't as fast or reliable as a dedicated unit but works reasonably well when you have a good view of the sky.

Apps like AllTrails, Gaia GPS or Hiking Project all have maps and user-submitted hikes to help find your way. Unlike a driving GPS, you don't get turn by turn directions the quality of the maps with these apps will be more than adequate in most areas. Always check out the maps where you are going to make sure it has all the data you need including the trails, campsites, and topographic detail.

When aiming to use your phone for navigation with no cell service make sure to download the maps so you don't need access to data to load them.

Since GPS is huge battery drain on your phone make sure you have a backup battery to recharge and turn location off when you aren't hiking.

Time Keeper

Whether a watch, your phone, or handheld GPS, knowing what time it is and how long you are moving will help with navigation. If you know roughly how fast you hike you can figure out how far you've gone based on how long you've hiked. Plus it's important to keep track of daylight, especially in the fall and winter when the sun drops far earlier than in summer. Night hiking can be fun but I like it to be on purpose.


In hilly or mountainous terrain, knowing your altitude can help pinpoint your location. It will also give you an idea of how much farther you have to go if you know your target elevation. You can get a wristwatch with an altimeter and most GPS units have it built-in as well.

Notebook and pen or pencil

A small notebook can come in handy when it comes to navigation because it is much easier to retrace your turns if you have written them down. Don't count on being able to remember every turn and tree. If you write down the bearing (reading from your compass) of turns, time and any notes you will find it much easier to get back to the last point you knew where you were. This is particularly important as you don't think well when you are tired and stressed.

Making notes about your trip, in general, can be helpful as well such as gear you didn't use, what you wished you had and how you found the experience. It's nice to look back upon trips to both relive them and help make the next one better.

Bushcrafty Navigation

There are a number of traditional methods such as using the sun and stars to know which way is north. Learning these techniques are good to have in your back pocket when all else fails.

Remember the sun rise in the east, sets in the west and in the northern hemisphere is generally to the south.

This alone can help you orient yourself in the right general direction if you know the time of day.

The Wrap Up

When you head into the woods or mountains you need a thorough understanding of how to stay unlost. Wilderness navigation is a perishable skill so make sure you get out and practice so that you stay sharp for when you head out into more remote locations. Whatever tools you choose you should be competent in their use so that you don't get into the search and rescue stories.

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Cover Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard

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