You may plan to stay on a well-marked and well-maintained trail, but storms, trail damage or an accident can take you off path and into trouble. Knowing some basic navigation skills for hiking can help you avoid getting lost and back on the right track.

Photo Credit: mikou07kougou

Hiking Maps

You’ll never regret bringing a hiking map along on your trek. Familiarize yourself with the altitude, terrain and features that will help mark the trail. A good map should tell you the distance of the hike and feature landmarks along the way.

Compass Navigation

While a map can help you find your way, a compass with ensure you know exactly where you are. Compasses contain a needle that always points to magnetic north. The heading arrow on the base of the compass should point in the direction you want to go. A turnable housing unit enables you to adjust your bearing to magnetic north. On the base plate of the compass is a ruler that helps you determine distances and triangulate your position.

To calibrate your compass to magnetic north, first look at your map to find two arrows. One designates magnetic north and the other true north. Place your compass on the map with the heading arrow along true north. Turn the compass housing to align with magnetic north. Turn your map until your compass is pointing north along the magnetic north line.

You can find your location on a map through triangulation. Find a recognizable landmark and draw a line from it to your estimated position. Find a second landmark 45 degrees away and draw a second line. The position where both lines intersect is your current position.

GPS Navigation

Get a bit more sophisticated with a Global Positioning System (GPS) device. You can use this as a digital compass to determine your location and track where you are on a map. Just keep in mind that GPS devices can pinpoint your location within 100 meters, so it may be off a bit.

Finding North

If you do get lost, the first thing you should do is figure out which direction is north. Of course, a compass or GPS device can help with that, but there are several methods by day and night that require neither. The sun, for instance, rises from the east and sets in the west. In the northern hemisphere, the sun will be due south at noon. The opposite is true in the southern hemisphere.

At night, the North Star can help you find north in the northern hemisphere. It is the clear star at the end of the Big Dipper. In the southern hemisphere, the Southern Cross can help you find north. Create an imaginary point roughly five times as far as the distance from the two cross points to determine north.