Hiking isn't about having a perfect, linear, or flawless journey; rather it's about knowing where you are, and having reliance that whichever way you choose to go – you will arrive at your desired destination.
We prepared for you the list od 10 navigational tips that will help you navigate through the wilderness. By becoming a skilled and confident navigator, your hike will be that much more enjoyable.
Ten Navigational tips/advise:
1. Be attentive
When you start your hike, I can assume that every one of you knows exactly where he is. Let that be a constant. If I would make a wild guess – approximately 70% of your navigational knowledge/skill is exactly that - understanding where you are. So when you’re making progress on a trail, make a habit of checking your map every once in a while so you could compare things that you see in your surroundings with what you see on your map.
2. Keep close your map & compass
As much as this advice sounds silly, you would be surprised how many (mostly) inexperienced hikers keep their compasses or maps shoveled deep down in their backpacks. What’s the point in carrying them if you are not using them? If your intention is to use them when you get lost, you missed the whole point of having a map and compass in the first place.
3. Give yourself a time to understand the Map
Map (topographic) shows everything that you need to know about your trail. By studying it before the hike, it allows you to imagine what kind of surroundings you will encounter. Rivers, valleys, meadows, peaks, ridges… all of that is on your map. Use it to your advantage.
4. Respect the learning curve
If you don’t have experience in using a map or compass, start with the less remote trails where there is no big chance of you being lost. After you acquire some knowledge – you are ready for the next phase. Practise makes perfect.
5. DO NOT be in a hurry
There is no need for it. If you are not sure where you are or what to do, relax, take a deep breath, and try to become aware of your surroundings. Check for landmarks (e.g. lake, river crossing, summit…) – that’s the easiest way to understand again where you are. Resist the urge to wander around if you are in a doubt – those 10 minutes you will “loose” while staying put can save you a couple of hours of walking back to a point where you get lost in the first place. Patience is a virtue.
If it is getting darker, don’t even bother – prepare to spend the night where you are, and rest your body… and your mind too. Morning is always smarter than the night.
6. Use your watch
Watch is your friend. By checking what the time was when you arrived at a certain landmark – you will know how much time did you loose moving the wrong way. It will make backtracking easier.
7. Try to control your hiking speed
Again – a very important part of the navigation. If you know approximately what is your hiking speed, you can use that piece of information to calculate how far did you go from your last landmark. (see no. 6 – use your watch, check the time!)
So, if your hiking speed was 5 km/h, and it has passed 30 minutes since you checked your watch at the river-crossing – you know that the river-crossing is 2.5 km behind.
Note: Hiking speed is highly dependable on the type of terrain (snow, ascend/descend, mud, hard surface etc.).
8. Magnetic Variation isn't a myth
“Magnetic Declination” is the angular difference between true north (i.e. the north that is marked on your map) and magnetic north (i.e. the north that is shown on your compass).
Magnetic declination is “the angle on the horizontal plane between magnetic north (the direction the north end of a magnetized compass needle points) and true north (the direction along a meridian towards the geographic North Pole). This angle varies depending on the position on the Earth's surface and changes over time.”
The difference of 20 degrees between true north and north on your compass can lead you away from your desired path. For this reason be careful. Magnetic variation is more often than not declared on your map. Because magnetic variation changes over time, I advise you to use new, updated maps of the trail you are hiking. Like with everything regarding hike – think and plan before the hike itself.
9. KISS principle is not for stupid
“Keep-it-simple-stupid”. If you are in doubt about which way to go, choose the way you think might be the simpler one. Often the simpler route is also a longer one, but as a hiker, you want to move efficiently and preserve energy whenever you can. In this way, you can enjoy nature rather than fight it.
10. Don’t be a wise-guy
Even the best navigators can get lost. If that is the case, significant is that you recognize you’ve made a mistake. There is no room for pride and ego. The sooner you realize and admit of being wrong, the sooner you will be able to correct your mistake.
Nature itself can help you to navigate. Trust me – it can come handy!
What if a bear eats your compass? What if meteorite rain cuts down all the satellites from the sky and your GPS becomes useless? What if you’ve mistakenly wiped your ass with your map, and you can’t stand to use it ever again? Well, nature can offer a helping hand… 😊
The Sun – In the northern hemisphere, the sun will be due south at noon. (It will be due north at noon on the southern hemisphere). U can use the sun for determining the direction you want to go by using shadow compass, or even your own analog watch. Here’s how:
Improvised shadow compass:
• Find a stick approximately 1m long and stick it vertically into the ground.
• Mark the place where the stick’s shadow ends.
• Now wait for twenty minutes.
• Then do it again – mark the place where stick’s shadow ends.
• When you have 2 marked places or two “dots” – connect them (by drawing a line on the ground or by placing another stick so it covers both dots)
• This new line represents the east-west. It is not 100% accurate, but it will help you for sure.
You can determine where the south /north is depending on hemisphere:
• Put the watch in your palm – as if you are holding a compass.
• Align hour-hand with the position of the sun (rotate yourself around the axis)
• Midway point between hour hand aligned with the sun and 12 o’clock marker is the south/north line.
• E.g. If it is 15:00 on your watch – that means that the hour-hand is aligned with the sun at 3 o’clock marker on the watch. Midway between 3 marks and 0/12 mark Is precisely between 1 and 2 o’clock markers. That is your south/north line.
Vegetation – Plants are useful indicators of north and south so don’t just eat everything you come by. In the northern hemisphere, where the sun is in the southern part of the sky, most plants will grow on the southern sides of trees and rocks. It is the opposite of the southern hemisphere.
Wind – If you are well informed and know the general direction of prevailing winds in the area in which you are hiking - then grass, plants, and trees will be leaning in that direction.
Combine – As you could already see, all the info that you can gather from nature regarding navigation can not be 100% accurate. For this reason, try to use more than one method I just explained. By combining them you can have more accurate results and peace of mind as well.
GPS – tool for idlers or…?
The British Mountaineering Council wrote an article about this in 2016:
“People using GPS for navigation just aren’t building a mental map in the same way you do in traditional map and compass navigation, where you are constantly relating the map to the terrain around you. That means if the technology fails for whatever reason, you are going to be a lot more lost than you would have been if you were using a map.”
GPS is a great tool, make no mistake about that. But should you use it all the time? I would say – no. By using it, certain hikers can become less aware of their surroundings. Payless attention to detail. Sure, it can take a hike easier, and by all means, do use it.
But at the same time try to nurture and develop navigational skills. Every devoted hiker needs them. GPS can be and is an ideal supplement to map and compass. There will be situations when absolutely nothing can replace GPS like areas with no visible trails, or in weather conditions less than ideal like heavy snow.
But do you want to hike and never try to navigate on your own, rather having the device doing all the work for you? Navigation is at the core of hiking. It is part of the experience, part of why you do it. Learning and applying navigational skills can be incredibly satisfying and engaging. A connection that you have with nature can be deepened and more meaningful, as navigation can be translated as exactly that - “understanding the nature”.
No matter how you decide to “hike your own hike”, take something away from everything written above, and I promise – you won't regret it… might even have had fun using it.