More Resources

Recommended Books

The Essential Wilderness Navigator by David Seidman and Paul Cleveland.

Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS by Bob and Mike Burns.

Outdoor Navigation with GPS by Stephen W. Hinch.


Reading topographic maps
USGS PDF version (better)

Topo Maps & Compass Tutorial
Jesse's Hunting and Outdoors

Waterproof USGS Topo Maps

Using a Hiking Map

Using a compass and map
Backpacker's Field Manual

Choosing a compass

Magnetic Declination

Latitude and Longitude

Sundials and Latitude video

The Universal Transverse Mercator System
University of Wisconsin

The Complete History of the Sextant

How to Use GPS

School of Sailing

Airplane Navigation

Navigation skills for boating

Survival | Gear | Compass | GPS | Maps | Evacuation | MegaDisaster

A baseline like a straight road or river can serve as an anchor in your travels. A baseline becomes a lateral when it's used as a turning point or perpendicular boundary as you hike towards or away from it.

A parallel route to a baseline is known as a handrail.

This technique takes the guesswork out of deciding which way to turn when you reach your lateral.

Landmarks provide borders to limit how har you can veer off course.

Using three landmarks to pinpoint a position is called triangulation.

In the absence of a compass, use your human protractor to estimate 90, 45, 30 and 60-degree angles.

Navigation Tutorial

Although it's easy to prevent, thousands of hikers get lost every year, even those who start their treks on clearly marked trails. In a mega-disaster, the stakes will be even higher, as you search for safe refuge in a state park or wilderness area outside the city. This in-depth tutorial will get you up to speed on the skills, techniques and tools used by experienced travelers to stay on course, blaze new trails, cover long distances and self-rescue when they get lost or separated from their companions.

Optional Index
Part 1 - Basic Orientation Skills (see below)
Part 2 - Using a Compass
Part 3 - Topographic Maps and Altimeters

Part 4 - Latitudes, Longitudes and GPS
Part 5 - Using a Handheld GPS Unit

Note: You can also download a printable PDF doc of Part 1.

Basic Orientation Skills

While it’s tempting to flip on your internal autopilot when hiking along a trail, too often these routes turn hinky the farther out you go. Trail markers disappear and sometimes even the path itself - in the aftermath of rockslides, snowfall or poor maintenance.  In some cases, you may even want to avoid known trails and roads due to security concerns. 

By learning navigation skills, you can organize miles of unfamiliar terrain into an orderly system of corridors, bridges, gateways, dead ends, impassable stretches and danger zones. In addition, you should get in the habit of exercising good situational awareness any time you navigate through the backcountry.  Here are five things to remember:


Navigation Techniques

Along with situational awareness, experienced travelers employ various orienteering techniques to keep from getting lost.   Some are common-sense tricks of the trade.  Others navigators use simple geometry to roughly measure the landscape, calculate distance and angles, and then estimate their current position within the larger area.

For example, the road where you park your car at a trailhead, when it runs more or less straight, can be used as a baseline.  A river, railroad tracks or an electrical transmission line can serve the same purpose. Travelers use these baselines as handrails whenever they hike parallel to them.   If you trek directly away from the baseline, it becomes a lateral, which is an impossible-to-miss guidepost on the route home. If you’ve pitched your tent near a river, or parked your car on the road, then no matter how far you stray off course, you're bound to run into the lateral because of its length and distinguishing features.

The only question you’ll have when you reach the lateral on your way back is which way to turn.  Aiming Off is a technique that takes the guesswork out of this decision.  On the return journey, by intentionally veering too far to the left or right -- i.e. aiming off -- you’ll know exactly in which direction your car or camp resides.  Make sure your angle of deviation is wide enough so you won’t accidentally veer back the other way and hit the lateral on the wrong side.  If that happens, at the turn you’ll be heading away from your destination instead of towards it.

One factor to consider here is our natural inclination to veer off a straight course because we’re right or left-handed.  The stronger side of our bodies pulls us off into that direction.  This is why hikers so often wander in circles once they get lost.  So it’s better to aim off in the direction you’d naturally veer. For most of us, that means to the right.  In some cases, however, the terrain is easier going on the left side. When that happens, simply increase your angle of deviation to compensate for being right-handed.

When traveling, use dead standing trees and other anomalies in the landscape to box in your overall theatre of travel.  This technique, called bracketing, will limit how far off track you can go before realizing something’s wrong.  For instance, if there’s an outbuilding on the side of the road a quarter mile east from the lot where you parked your car, and a stack of boulders a hundred feet to the west, that information will save you if it’s dark out. If you’re coming from the west, you’ll know you’re getting close when you pass the boulders.  If you overshoot the car anyway and continue moving east, the outbuilding will tip you off that you’ve gone too far.

The same technique works on a larger scale.  Make note of visible peaks and other landmarks that surround your travel corridor.   That way, if you start straying out of the area, you’ll know it, because one or more of those landmarks will have shifted significantly or disappeared from view.

You can also identify your exact fix on a map using the same distant landmarks.  If you’re trying to decide where to stop for lunch, or how much longer until you reach a water source, you can pinpoint your location in the field by finding the landmarks on the map.  Draw a line from 3 of these spots towards your location. Where the lines intersect represents your fix.  This technique, called triangulation, is based on the principle that two straight lines cross each other at only one point.

Triangulation works best when the angle of the intersecting lines is close to 90 degrees and no smaller than 45 degrees. To get close to a right angle, face your first landmark and extend one arm toward it, then point your other arm, towards a second landmark.  Using your body as a protractor is a convenient way to measure out angles. For illustrations, see column to right.

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