As an avid hiker and lover of backpacking, I'm embarrassed to admit that navigation is a weak point for me. I was not blessed with a natural sense of direction nor a wonderful mind for spatial diagrams. If you're at all like me, it is VERY important to always have a map and compass. Even if you don't find yourself lost in the wilderness and left to die, you can ruin an otherwise great hike by taking wrong turns or adding unnecessary mileage. Just getting off course for a mile or two and having to backtrack can cause you to over fatigue yourself or lose too much daylight so that you'll end up hiking out or setting up camp in the dark. The risk of injury or accident is always greater in the dark. So, here are some basic tips and tools you'll need to begin learning how to navigate in the wilderness.
You can spend plenty of money on a compass, but I suggest just buying a simple model for under $20 from a reputable manufacturer (but don't buy some cheap keychain compass - buy a PROPER compass.) I use a simple Brunton model I got on deep discount from Sierra Trading Post for under $10. You'll want to get something with a clear baseplate, liquid-filled housing, mileage distance markers, a rotating degree dial (the circle), and a "direction of travel" arrow. Models from Brunton, Silva, and Suunto are popular. I suggest simply grabbing a Silva Starter or Polaris model or a Suunto A-10, all under $20. These are light, durable, and plenty accurate enough for general use.
When possible, it is great to have a topographic map with mileage grids, a proper legend, etc. Having ANY map, however, is much better than nothing. Any national park will have an excellent map available. This may not always be the case with state parks. They will usually have some form of map, but I've seen some mind-boggling horrible trail maps in state parks. A wilderness area or other more primitive public lands often will not have maps for distribution. I usually try to find something online or scan and print a map from a guidebook before heading to a new trail to be certain I have something to go by.
How To Use
If you have a map and compass but don't know how to use them, you're not much better off than having nothing at all. I admit that my orienteering and navigation skills are weaker than I'd like them to be. Honing these skills is a primary goal of mine. I do know the basics, however, and you should, too. They aren't too hard and a wealth of online resources are available, not to mention countless books and classes. You should at least know the basics of how to read a map, how a compass works, and how to find your bearings if lost. Here is a simple WikiHow that offers those basics very clearly.
What About GPS?
No doubt, Global Positions Systems are wonderful technology and immensely useful. That said, the more complicated a technology, the more prone to failure. Batteries die. Signals are lost. Sometimes rain, dirt, or mug can compromise or ruin electronics. You should know how to use a compass even if you have the most expensive, best-designed GPS device available.
As I've stated, I definitely need to strengthen my navigation skills. The good news is that I get better every single time I go out with a map. For most hikes with well-blazed trails, you don't have to be an orienteering expert to stay on course. In many cases, you'll never even pull out the compass. So, don't feel like you have to be a navigation genius to enjoy a hike. If, however, you're planning to get even modestly deep in the backcountry, especially in unfamiliar territory, you should at least be familiar and comfortable with the basics and have your tools with you.
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