The Basics of Backcountry Navigation

Knowing where you're going, how long it's going to take you, and what lies between where you start and where you finish is no doubt an important thing to know.  It's also pretty daunting at first because when you're new to backpacking the wilderness just seems like a jumbled mess!


Have no fear!  I promise it's not as complicated as it sounds, but it does require some basic understanding of maps and how trails work.  The biggest thing you need to focus on is being aware of where you're at throughout your entire trip.  If you ever find yourself saying "hmm, actually, I'm not really sure what trail I'm on..." or "yeah...I don't know how far it is to camp, but we'll get there eventually...," then you should probably do some learning!


This post isn't meant to educate you on topographical lines, how to use a compass, or what to do if you do happen to get lost, rather it's meant to start the conversation about backcountry navigation.  


WE have technology!

It's 2018 when this post is being written and technology is only getting better and better.  If you have smart phone, then you likely have a built in GPS at your disposal.  The next step is to use a navigation and mapping too like Gaia GPS (free 3 month subscription) or onX Maps so you know exactly where you are in the backcountry.  It would be wise to learn how to read a map and use a compass, but not everyone has the time to do learn or someone to teach them so at a minimum, you should at LEAST be using some sort of mapping/navigation application on your phone.


Start small and work up to bigger and better

I'm approaching this from a realistic standpoint.  Yes, you need to know how to read a map, but if I had the choice between you learning to read a map before you go backpacking and you using a mobile application for your first few trips so you can get out there initially, then I'd take the latter.  With that said, however, don't go hiking somewhere crazy if you don't have the skills to go along with the terrain and conditions in terms of navigation.  


If you're new to backcountry navigation, go easy on yourself at first.  Choose a well marked trail and learn how the trail systems work before you go into an area that might require some bushwhacking.  Don't stress yourself out by biting off more than you can chew and make sure you have an idea of how long the trail is, how many hours you will be hiking before you should be at camp, and what the terrain features are (i.e. flat, rugged, river crossings, etc.).  Remember, we walk between 2.5 and 3 mph so that should give you an idea of how long you'll be on a trail for if you know your distances.


Learn on well marked and popular trails

There are so many great trails to learn on when you're getting into backpacking for the first time and so many ways to NOT put yourself in a bad situation.  Here's a quick list of things I'd suggest doing and thinking about while you're preparing for your first trip into the wilderness.

  1. Call a local ranger station and ask if there's a trail they would suggest for new backpackers
  2. Then ask them if they have any information on that trail like maps, suggested camping locations, and what the terrain is like.
  3. Download a navigation application for your phone like GAIA GPS or onX Maps
  4. Use Google Earth to scope out the area of the trail.  A lot of times you can find trail data online for a specific trail and load it into Google Earth.  This is a bit more advanced, but it's pretty cool.  Sometimes I just like to try and find the trail from above!
  5. Find a map of the area you're backpacking into.  It can be a topographical map or a general trail system map to let you know what is what in the area.
  6. Find a topographical map of the area.  The main thing to keep in mind with topo lines is that the closer they are together, the steeper the terrain.  Take that map with you as you hike and try to point out features along the way that are represented on the map.  
  7. Be aware of where you're going and ask yourself what your plan is if things go sideways.  I always have a backup plan!  At a minimum, I tell myself that if the trail sucks and isn't doable, then I'll head back to the truck.  No trip is worth getting stuck in a bad situation.
  8. Finally - Think.  Use your brain and don't be so passive in the wilderness.  Be an active participant.  When you get to a bluff, try to find where you came from and take note of the area you're passing through.  Try to visualize where you're at on the map and think about how you got there.  Never be so aloof that you don't remember how you got to where you're at.


Closing thoughts

If you start working on your navigation skills on easy trails, then you'll be setting yourself up for success down the road.  Eventually, there will come a time when you have to get creative.  On more than one occasion I've had a trail disappear before my eyes and I've had to use those tools available to me to find my way back to the main trail system.


Sometimes we just make mistakes.  We take a wrong turn, miss a trail marker, and find ourselves a bit out of the way.  Don't freak out if this happens.  Take a minute, think about where you SHOULD be, where you ARE, and how you can get back on track.  


I promise you'll be just fine if you start small and work up to bigger and lesser travelled trails.  When you get to the point where you can navigate without stressing out, then the world becomes your oyster.