Backpacking Navigation

Backpacking Navigation

When you are backpacking in the wilderness it is easy to get lost. Therefore, you must have basic skills in backcountry navigation to ensure that you know where you are going and how to get back. They do not come naturally to most, but with a little bit of practice you can find your way around wilderness trails and ensure that you return safely home from your adventure.

Essential Items

  • Map and Compass
  • GPS

It is important to know how to navigate using a map and (magnetized) compass and it should be your primary means of navigation. However, you should bring a GPS as a backup as well. Just make sure to download relevant maps to your GPS.

Learning Map and Compass Navigation

Map and compass navigation skills are truly learned out in the field. There is no replacement for experience, so I recommend that you start on more well-established trails in more populated areas to get a feel for it. However, there are some basics you should be aware of:

Study your Route

Your map not only serves as a way to get you from one point to another, but it should also help you form a mental picture of your terrain. Take some time before your trip to study your route, the topography and get an idea of where you will be traversing.

Adjust your Compass for Magnetic Declination

A compass’s needle will always point to magnetic north, but this not  true north. They usually differ by a few degrees depending on your location. First you need to find out what the declination value is for your location of your route. This can be done through online resources such as a Magnetic Declination Calculator. Next adjust the declination on your compass before heading out.

Pay Attention to Landmarks

Keep track of any noticeable landmarks you cross along the way to help you find your way back if you get lost. You may be navigating using a map and compass, but you should be familiar with the land you are exploring.

Keep Track of your Pace

Keep track of how many miles you are traveling per hour. This will ensure that you are able to know how fast you are traveling and as a result where you are on the map.

Stay Aware

Always stay fully aware of your environment. Truly be present in the outdoors to get a feel for the terrain, route, and ecosystem around you.


To get started navigating find a well trafficked trail to hike. Bring your map and compass and navigate along the trail, keeping track of where you are on the map and relating it to your current environment. You should be practicing this mental translation throughout your trip to learn how to turn a map into a visualization of your actual environment.

As you build your skills you can try navigating tougher terrain and then ultimately take your skills to the backcountry.

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