Navigation 101: Skills and Tools for Finding Your Way on a Hike

A hiker uses a map and compass to navigate

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When the famed frontiersman Daniel Boone was asked if he ever got lost in the woods, he replied as follows: “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.”

Even pros get turned around from time to time while hiking. Simply stepping off the trail for a covert bathroom break could be enough to disorient you in dense undergrowth. Game trails or drainage paths are sometimes mistaken for human trails. Making the situation worse, confused hikers tend to wander around hastily looking for the right path.

Knowing some basic wilderness navigation skills can keep you going in the right direction. As always, adhere to good hiking safety and carry a whistle—blowing it could be enough to help fellow hikers find you.

How to Navigate Your Route Before Your Hike

Navigating yourself along a hiking trail doesn't start when you reach the trailhead. A lot, if not most, of the navigation work occurs in preparation for your hike, so don't neglect these steps before starting your journey.

Study Your Route in Advance

The expression "can't see the forest for the trees" especially applies to hiking. Fortunately, we now have ways to see the forest from above before plunging into it.

Proper preparation for a hike includes getting an aerial overview. Use Google Earth or to determine a high-level “box” of your hiking area. The sides of the box can be primary trails, roads, rivers, or whatever forms a perimeter. Know how far you would have to walk in a straight line to intersect some sort of natural or man-made barrier to orient yourself mentally in advance of your hike.

(If using Google Earth, click on “Map Style” and select “Everything” for the most detail. You can use the handy measurement tool for determining distances.)

Buy (or Download) Proper Technology

Don’t rely solely on technology for finding your way—many things can go wrong. Always pick up or print a paper map just in case. That said, a good navigation app or handheld GPS can supplement your toolkit for staying oriented; learn how to use it before going to the field.

Alltrails is a popular hiking app that works quite well; Gaia GPS is another good option. Both offer free versions, but you’ll need a paid membership to use offline maps when hiking without phone service. Avenza Maps can also be useful for offline maps.

Learn to Use and Adjust a Compass

You can use your compass to get rough approximations for cardinal directions, but you’ll need some training and practice before relying on it to shoot azimuths for backcountry bushwhacking. To be accurate, a compass needs to be adjusted for declination in the region you are hiking.

Did you know there are three types of north?

  • Grid North: The top of the map
  • True North: The True North Pole / Earth’s axis
  • Magnetic North: Where a compass wants to point

Magnetic north in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park varies more than 21 degrees from magnetic north in the Pacific Northwest—enough to get you lost if your compass isn’t adjusted. Read more about using a compass properly from the American Hiking Society.

Learn to Read Topographic Maps

“Topo” maps provide useful detail but can appear more intimidating than regular trail maps. Each contour line represents an interval (found in the map’s legend) of elevation change. The number on darker index lines is the elevation at that point. The closer together the lines, the steeper the terrain. With practice, you’ll be able to identify peaks, valleys, and other terrain features by reading the lines and spacing between. The U.S. Geological Survey provides a guide to common symbols found on topo maps.

To delve deeper, consider signing up for a navigation class at your local outfitting shop (REI offers half-day classes). You can purchase topo maps for practice from the USGS website.

How to Orient Yourself During the Hike

Many of the skills and gear you prepared in advance also come into play while you're on the hike—referring to a map, knowing how to use your compass, and having ingrained knowledge of your route. Other than those, here's what to remember when you're actually out on the trail.

Look for Trail Blazes

Trees, rocks, or posts on major trails are typically marked at eye level with a painted “blaze.” Knowing how the trails are officially blazed (it varies) can help you stay on track. For instance, the famous Appalachian Trail is often blazed with vertical, white rectangles, but blue-colored blazes indicate a spur trail to a viewpoint, campground, or some other feature.

Avoid “Bending the Map”

Bending the map happens when you realize something on a hike just doesn’t add up. Maybe you crossed a stream where there shouldn’t be one or see a distant peak not represented on the map. Instead of taking action and admitting you’re in the wrong place, the tendency is to “bend the map” by warping observations and then proceeding in the wrong direction anyway. Inexperienced hikers sometimes assume the map is outdated. (Even U.S. Army Rangers tend to “bend the map” sometimes during land navigation exercises.) Either way, don’t disregard your map!

The best way to avoid bending the map is to check it frequently to make sure you know where you are before you get too far from your intended route. Don’t wait until you’re potentially lost to pull out your map. Instead, orient yourself frequently while having a drink of water at major trail junctions or terrain features.

Mark the Map

Instead of bending the map, mark it. Your memory may not be as good as you think, especially while your nerves get the best of you if you think you've veered off course. Mark progress along the way by writing the times when you reached major features or trail junctions. Doing so will help you backtrack should you stray off course.

What to Do If You Become Lost While Hiking

Almost always, getting lost while hiking is caused by a seemingly small event (such as missing one turn) followed by a bad decision. Stop the situation from deteriorating further by using the STOP method:

S – Stop moving and stay calm. The thought of being lost, especially alone in the woods can create a feeling of panic that leads to bad decisions. Don’t make a simple problem worse by wandering around in circles hoping to find the trail.

T – Think clearly. How long have you been going in this direction? When was the last trail junction? Think of the bigger picture and where something could have gone wrong.

O – Observe. Scan in a widening radius for trail blazes, bent undergrowth, boot scrapes on the ground, or any signs that could indicate hikers passed through. Listen carefully for distant sounds.

P – Plan. Before you begin moving again, have a solid plan; doing so will prevent you from becoming even more confused and acting on impulse, which can be dangerous. For instance, you could mark your current location with natural materials then proceed in a straight line for 50 paces (count each time your left foot hits the ground). If you haven’t intersected the trail, you’ll turn around and return 50 paces back to your starting point before trying another direction in a straight line.

Hopefully, the STOP method, as well as the other tools in your gear and skill arsenal have helped you get yourself back on track. If not, here are some more natural cues to follow if needed.

Follow Water Downhill

If hopelessly lost in hilly backcountry and staying put isn’t an option, many survival guides recommend following water downhill and downstream. The logic is that streams run into rivers that then lead to lakes or the coast—places where humans tend to build and frequent. And, if you’re out there for the long haul, this approach also helps solve the critical problem of having enough water to drink. (On that note, a lightweight and portable filter is an easy and useful item to bring on every hike, as it helps in case of emergencies or you run out of water, and it doesn't take up much space in a pack.)

Navigating With the Stars

The two stars at the “bowl” end of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major), the two furthest from the "handle," line up to point at Polaris, the North Star; it's the brightest star in the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor). In the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star can help you approximate true north.

Unless you have a serious emergency, however, leave celestial navigation to sailors, and consider spending the night where you are if possible and waiting until daylight to keep moving. Trying to find your way out of the woods at night is one of the worst things you can do. Even Daniel Boone would probably opt to stay put and wait for sunrise!