Off Trail Navigation

What is the best way to accomplish off trail navigation, whether you’re a beginner or an expert. The answer for both is essentially the same.A map and compass.

These two things are the duet of essentials that are necessary for getting around when you are navigating off trail. In this day and age of GPS and high tech, you’re still not going to get anything as reliable when you want to navigate off trail than a map and compass. They dont’ require batteries or powering, they rely on your abilities and nothing else. Believe me when I say that in the wilderness, when anything can happen, and you’re not going to find a charger every few miles, depending on something that requires power isn’t in your best interests.

A simple paper map and a good compass, as well as the basic know-how to use both is going to serve you far better in the long run than your mini laptop and a global GPS.

Bear in mind that reading this article and a few others like it isn’t going to make you a skilled navigator. Get some outside help. Mountaineering classes, navigation classes and other types of instruction are going to be advantageous to take. You can find them online as well as offline from outdoor societies and hiking groups.

The basic tools that you’re going to need to get around in the outdoors are a map and a compass, but not just any map is going to serve to get you where you want to be when you’re off trail.

Maps and Map Reading

A simple map for trail use( also called a planimetric map) will work if you’re staying on the trail, but once you get off of it it’s not going to do a thing for you when it comes to navigating your way around in the wild. To get to your destination in safety you will need a topo map.

Topo maps are made specifically for navigating your way off the trail.

A Topo, or topographic map is easily recognized by it’s many and varied colors and the odd appearance that it will present to you if you’re accustomed to road map type things.

The Topo map shows you areas of diverse color which has been overlaid with unevenly edged lines. They give you a mental picture of the elevations in a given area.

For example if the lines you see are spaced tightly together, this will tell a trained eye that they are looking at a very steep terrain.

The Topo map affords you a look at the actual physical characteristics of the area that you will be hiking, showing you the highs, the lows and any natural features such as mountains and valleys. They will also however feature the other things that you are accustomed to, such as roads, villages and towns, and other structures which are man-made, as opposed to natural.

A topo map will always be your wisest choice to use, whether you are planning a simple trail hike, a one day trip, or a five day excursion into the wilderness.

In fact, even if you are hiking on a well marked and “only an idiot could get lost here” type trail, it’s a great place to practice your map reading skills. Having a topo map with you when you take those kinds of hikes will give you experience at reading the topo map and trying to identify the landmarks, the peaks and valleys that you see on the topo map.

Your compass.

It doesn’t matter where you are hiking, woods, desert, or mountains, everyone who wants to do any level of exploration needs a compass. A compass is little more than a needle which has been magnetized and floats in a housing that is full of liquid.

Compasses can be more intricate, offering you features like a sighting field or mirror, as well as adjustments for declination but even the most simple, well built compass gives you all that you need to navigate. Make sure that the compass that you purchase is a good one. You don’t need the state of the art surveyors compass but you also don’t want to rely on the one that came in your child’s dollar toy set.

There are numerous ways to learn to use a compass, but the best way will be to take a class in orienteering such as you might find online or with any good hiking or mountaineering group.

Some videos that explain compass use quite nicely and use visual assistance are located here: