What is Hiking Navigation?

What is Hiking Navigation

Even the most seasoned and hardcore of hikers, mountaineers, backcountry explorers, campers, and adventurists can claim that they have never lost their way during an expedition or trip.

As a hiker or trekker, you can unwittingly lose your way while you are traipsing through a dense equatorial forest or tramping through the expansiveness of the Steppes or scaling a peak on the Andes mountain range.

When you feel that you are completely lost as you simply do not have any clue on how to proceed, only a navigation tool and course-plotting skills can help you find your way and get you back on track.

Trekkers, hikers, backpackers, and climbers have traditionally used maps, atlases, charts, and compasses (and sense of humor on most occasions) as navigational aids.

However, in the present times, hikers have it easier finding their way as they have greater access to a wide variety of navigational aids and tools. These include GPS, Google Earth, Google Maps, World Wind (NASA), orienteering, and PBLs (personal locator beacons).

Nevertheless bear in mind that even the most advanced of navigation aid or system is not foolproof. So, you need to pick up the nitty-gritty of multiple direction-finding techniques as well as master using different navigation tools so that you can always get back to civilization while you on a wilderness trail.

 Hiking Navigation: Why does it matter?

When you are out hiking, the natural beauty of a trail or the unexplored exquisiteness of a landscape can titillate you to venture far away from the trailhead.

So, there is always the possibility of getting lost regardless of whether the route is a popular one or used by only the most veteran of trekkers. Hence, it is a foregone conclusion that you must pack at least one or two navigation tools that will keep you on track.

At the same time, you must be well-versed in using the steering or routing tools you are carrying. At the least, knowing how to use a compass and map are extremely crucial as these basic navigation skills will prevent you from losing your way. Even if you do get lost, a compass and map will let you chart your way back to the trailhead from where you started.

Apart from a map and/or compass which are two of the most basic navigation tools, you can also take advantage of GPS (global positioning system) technology, satellite-based maps, World Wind of NASA (used by Google Maps and Google Earth) for charting a trail course.

Again, irrespective of whichever modern course-plotting implement you use, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with how to use a particular tool. Take your time out to figure out the tracking tools that will be the most appropriate for the sort of trekking you usually do and thereafter invest in the same.

Knowing how to make the most of navigation tools will offer you peace of mind when you step out for a hiking trip.

Different Types of Tools Used for Navigation

Hiking trail maps

Hiking trail maps are undoubtedly the most fundamental of navigational aids that almost every hiker or trekker throws in his or her backpack. A hiking map lets you pinpoint your exact location, where you are proceeding, and the topography of the region you are in. Most importantly, they are convenient to refer to, easily manageable, and eminently portable.

You can opt for US topographical hiking maps (available for free), foldable maps, flat maps, digital/downloadable maps, US Forest Service maps, Bureau of Land Management Maps, State Forest maps, national park hiking trail maps, and satellite maps.


Compasses have been used for centuries by navigators and explorers. You’ll need to use this tool along with the topographical map in order to chart a route without consulting a trail guide (map or chart) as well as determine your position.

In case you find yourself in a territory that is covered in snow or is almost featureless (without any trees or vegetation), you could lose track of where you are heading to.

Alternatively, you come across an enchanting area or territory that is off of your regular trail and you wish to explore the region but you need to get back to where you started from. Awareness of handling a compass will stand you in good stead in such circumstances.

Google Earth

The whole world, in your hands’-this tagline of Google Earth makes it amply clear that exploring any nook or cranny of the planet becomes a child’s play with a simple tweak of your fingers. You can download the app on multiple handheld devices, including your smartphone and tab and survey any part of the world.


GPS technology can help you offer the accurate coordinates of your location, regardless of whether you are moving or stationary.

The coordinates from the GPS unit, like a handheld navigator or wristwatch can be extrapolated onto a map for determining your exact location. Conversely, you can feel numerous coordinates from guidebook or map into a GPS device which then chart your course gradually.


PLB or personal locator beacon is a tracking device that you will need to use as a last resort-for emergency purpose. With a PLB, you can communicate only one way and after you press the button, the signal is transmitted to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), AFRCC (Air Force Rescue Coordination Center) or COSPAS-SARSAT (Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking) via satellites. You will have to register a PLB with AFRCC or NOAA before you can use it.

Besides the above, there are a host of other navigation gadgets and devices you can use during your hiking trips including a satellite messenger and Google Maps.

Tips for Making the Most of Navigational Tools and Techniques

Keep navigational items accessible

Keep using the devices every now and then

If you are in the habit of using the compass, map and the GPS device, you will not have a problem referring to these when you are actually lost.

Memorize the route you will be trekking through

A topographic map not only helps you progress from one point to another but also gives you a clear conception about the topography or geography of the region. Refer to the map each day of your trail.

Keep yourself physically fit and mentally alert

You may not be in a position to read a map or use the compass if you have been starving or have been under the weather. Keep yourself in the physically and mentally fit all through the trail so that you are in a position to put the navigation tools to use.

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