Get Unlost: Your Guide to Modern Backcountry Navigation

Strong navigation skills are crucial to any successful backcountry outing. A watertight navigation strategy is at the core of backcountry safety—if you know where you are, you can find your way out of a number of unexpected situations. Plus, the very act of route-planning forces you to study the terrain, making you more likely to pack what you need, make good decisions, and avoid incident.

Use this guide to brush up on your gear savvy, way-finding techniques, and emergency preparedness skills before your next trip. Don’t forget to download your free Navigation Safety checklist at the bottom of the article.

Included in this guide:

  1. Case Study: Lost in the Colorado Backcountry
  2. Essential Navigation Gear
  3. Learning Basic Navigation Skills
  4. Pre-trip Navigation Checklist
  5. Navigating Group Dynamics
  6. How to Stay On Track
  7. How to Get Unlost
  8. Download your Backcountry Navigation Checklist

Case Study: Lost in the Colorado Backcountry

In October of 2017, Colorado resident Shuei Kato set out to summit 14,067-foot Missouri Mountain. An experienced hiker, Kato prepared maps for his route, and packed plenty of food and clothing. He summited successfully, but when early-season snow set in and covered the already-faint trail, he descended along the wrong route, wandering beyond the area his maps covered. Kato spent 80 hours in the backcountry, suffering from hallucinations and hypothermia.

Fortunately, Kato shared his hiking plans with his wife before he left home, and she called the authorities when he didn’t return that night. Search and rescue found him just in time.

Kato did several things right—like wearing bright colors and leaving word of his whereabouts—but could his experience have been mitigated? Kato’s brush with danger serves as a reminder that, whether we are novices or experts in the outdoors, we can all benefit from a robust pre-trip safety check.

Essential Navigation Gear

Modernize your kit

A solid approach to modern navigation is to use a GPS app as your primary navigation tool and to supplement that with skilled use of paper maps and a compass.

What are the advantages of GPS apps?

Apps like Gaia GPS will show you your exact location and heading on the map even when you’re offline or out of service. Gaia GPS also includes additional features like waypoint marking and route tracking. These features can be life-savers in low-visibility conditions like fog or snow.

Why are paper maps still relevant?

Large-scale, fold-out maps (like those by National Geographic Trails Illustrated) can help you visualize many possible routes at once. These maps are useful both when initially planning a trip, and if you change plans in the field and need to examine multiple options.

Carrying paper maps and a compass—and knowing how to use them—is also useful in case your electronic GPS fails for any reason. We always recommend bringing both electronic and paper means of navigation, to help make better decisions out in the backcountry.

What about a dedicated GPS device?

Some people might reasonably opt for a dedicated GPS device such as a Garmin, either as their primary or backup navigation method. The main advantages are that a dedicated GPS device is more ruggedized than a mobile phone, and that battery efficiency tends to be better on a single-use device. However, you can achieve similar results with a phone by using phone cases and battery accessories.

The main disadvantages of a dedicated GPS are the cost (hundreds of dollars for the unit, hundreds more for the maps), along with inferior screen size and usability. Plus, carrying a GPS unit adds weight and bulk to your pack, whereas you were probably already planning on packing your phone.

Pack Supplemental Navigation Gear

If you have a GPS and maps—and you know how to use them—then your remaining foes are emergencies, time, and weather. If you are going into the deep backcountry or into unfamiliar territory, consider gearing up further.

Extra precautions:

  • Consider packing a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon like a SPOT device, which can call rescuers or communicate with authorities if you find yourself in a life-threatening emergency outside of cell phone service.
  • Store maps in a waterproof zip-top bag.
  • Pack an external battery if you think you might need to recharge your phone or beacon while you’re in the field.
  • Purchase a guidebook or print online resources with information about nearby landmarks or hazards.

Be Prepared, even on Day hikes

Wandering off-trail in the daytime—as opposed to getting benighted or confused in bad weather—is the most common reason hikers get lost. That’s according to one study which analyzed over 100 news reports detailing search and rescue operations. The same study suggested that day hikers are the most likely to get lost and need rescue.

The takeaway? Always bring a means of navigation, even on short hikes. Even if you’ve been on the trail before. Even in daytime. And Gaia GPS is an awfully convenient way to always have a topo map in your pocket.

Learning Modern Navigation Skills

Because electronic navigation is more pervasive and easier to use than paper maps, we recommend first learning to use and understand a GPS navigation app. This includes learning to read topo maps. Make sure you’re familiar with how to download maps, zero-in on your current location, record a route or track, and determine which direction you’re heading. Also, familiarize yourself with how to mark GPS coordinates in case you need to share your location with friends or rescuers.

The second thing we recommend is learning to use a map and compass. This is particularly important for backcountry and technical trips. Learn from an experienced friend, or sign up for a navigation course through a local guide service, outdoors club, or gear shop. Figure out how to identify nearby landmarks, adjust your compass declination, take a compass heading, and triangulate your location.

Work on your skills until they’re second nature. That way, if you do get lost, you’ll be able to get back on track without second-guessing yourself.

Pre-Trip Navigation Checklist

Is your navigation strategy in order? Ask yourself these questions before you leave the trailhead.

  • Have I left my itinerary and an estimated time of return with a friend or family member?
  • Have I reviewed my route and familiarized myself with the terrain?
  • Have I checked recent weather conditions and trip reports to inform my gear list and estimated hiking time?
  • Have I downloaded or packed maps for the area I’ll be exploring?
  • Are my phone, GPS, and/or satellite beacon batteries fully charged?
  • Do I have everything I need to stay on the trail a few extra hours (or an extra night) in case of an emergency?

There are plenty of benefits to hiking alone, but studies of search and rescue operations reveal that the majority of those who lose their way on the trail do so while hiking solo. For that reason, many authorities, including the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, recommend hiking in a group. Hiking partners provide a sounding board for ideas, and an extra set of eyes to double-check your map reading. Having someone to problem-solve with can also help you stay calm in case of an emergency.

If you’re hiking with others, make sure everyone understands the route plan before you set out. Also decide as a group on what time you’ll turn around if you don’t end up moving as quickly as expected. Sticking to a turnaround time ensures you avoid summit fever and get home before dark.

When you’re on the trail, avoid separating, even if you hike at naturally different paces. Instead, work together to double-check turn-offs and route directions.

How to Stay on Track

Avoid losing your way with these tips.

  • Be prepared. Familiarize yourself with your route and the surrounding terrain before you leave home, and pack proper navigation gear.
  • Check the map often. On trail, reference it at every intersection, as well as every time you take a break. Off trail, check every 30 minutes or so—less often if you have a clear landmark ahead of you, and more often if you’re in deep woods or brush.
  • Be conservative. If you come across terrain you don’t expect—like a raging water crossing or some surprise fourth-class climbing—turn around. It either means you’re off-route, or you’re unprepared for the terrain—a sure recipe for having to call in a rescue.
  • Leave waypoints. Record a track or drop waypoints in your phone or GPS unit so you have a breadcrumb trail to retrace if you get lost. This is especially useful in unreliable weather or poor visibility.

How to Get Unlost

Things starting to look a little unfamiliar? Try these strategies.

  • Take a seat. Search and rescue experts say that, as soon as you think you might be lost, you should sit down and eat a snack. You’ll make better decisions with a clear head, and research shows that doing a few rote tasks like making tea or digging out your trail mix can help restore your calm.
  • Determine your location. If you have a GPS app or device, turn it on and find a spot with a clear view of the sky so the device can pick up your coordinates. If you have a map, find a spot with a clear view of your surroundings, and triangulate your location:
  1. Look at the terrain around you. Then, match nearby landmarks like peaks or streams to the topo lines on your map
  2. Take bearings to each landmark.
  3. Transfer those bearings to the map. Your location is where those lines intersect.
  4. Use your location to find a new bearing back to the right trail.
  • Backtrack. If you’re on trail, or know which direction you came from, turn around and hike back to the last place you knew where you were. Most lost hikers get into further trouble by pushing ahead when they start to feel uncertain rather than cutting their losses and turning back.
  • Stay put. If you’re off-trail, have no idea which direction you came from, or notice dusk setting in, get comfy. Moving puts you at risk of wandering even farther from your route, lowering the odds that rescuers or other hikers will find you. This strategy can be less effective if you haven’t left word of your whereabouts with anyone, or if you’re in a remote or little-traveled area. Usually, though, it’s the safest thing to do if you’re totally lost.

    If you need to camp out and wait for help, here’s how to do it right:
    1. Find the closest safe place to camp, preferably near both water and an open clearing where rescuers will be able to spot you.
    2. If you have a working means of communication, send word to family members, friends, or authorities of your whereabouts to get a search started.
    3. Find sufficient shelter to spend the night. That could mean putting on all your layers, building a lean-to, or setting up your tent.
    4. Wear bright-colored clothing, build a trio of large brush piles, or lay out stones in a large X shape to make yourself even more visible.

Free Downloadable Navigation Safety Checklist

Download and print out this checklist. Keep it handy when planning for your next trip.

Click here to download.