Forget learning how to start a fire or tie a bowline knot: The first step to feeling more confident outdoors is learning how to read a map.
When most of your outings are with a group, a designated trip leader, or your significant other, it’s easy to fall into step and let someone else take the lead on navigation. That can be great when you’re just starting out. But after a while, you might start to feel left out of some of the decision-making, or like you wouldn’t know what to do or where to go in case of an emergency. Self-doubt can creep in.
That lack of confidence can keep you from really getting the most out of your experiences outdoors. In time, it can hold you back from planning your own trips, or chiming in when you have an opinion about what direction the trip should take.
Next time you go out, take a deep breath, step forward, and ask to be the one to hold the map. It can be scary, but taking that one step will benefit you for the rest of your life. Trust me.
Case Study: What Happens When a Beginner Takes the Lead
When I started backpacking, my biggest goal was to go unnoticed.
My first real trip was a short weekend loop in Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia, with a couple of friends from my college chemistry class. I loved every minute of it—the sunshine, the stars, the wild ponies roaming the hills—but I spent most of the weekend my head down. I was too focused on keeping up with the boys to absorb much knowledge. Sure, I was in good shape, but they had more experience and sleeker gear. I felt out of my element.
That weekend, I learned about white-gas stoves, but I let someone else light them. I learned about topo lines, but definitely didn’t volunteer to try reading them. I didn’t want my friends to realize how little I knew. And I didn’t want to fail in front of all the people I looked up to. It took me a full year of backpacking—about a dozen more trips—before I realized that I didn’t know how to light a fire, and I’d never been the one holding the map.
Then one day our group’s usual leader bowed out of a trip. I found myself as the next-most experienced member. Suddenly, everyone was looking to me.
I spent a night poring over the maps, figuring out where the water sources and campsites were. And then, when we started hiking, I felt that everything had changed. For once wasn’t terrified of falling behind, because if I did, I’d know exactly where I was.
When bad weather started to roll in, I wasn’t worried. The map showed me where to find intermediate campsites in case we had to stop early. I knew whether the next road crossing would make a good bailout point, and whether I had enough water to skip a fill-up.
This time, I wasn’t hiking with my head down. I didn’t have time to worry about keeping up: I was too busy looking for mile markers and signposts, and the next good view.
Why You Should Be the One Holding the Map
1) Your input matters.
For safety reasons, it’s advisable for all members of the group—regardless of experience level—to know the plan. That way everyone can provide input and voice concerns equally. Putting too much trust in one person’s expertise—a phenomenon known as the “expert halo”—can be just as dangerous as putting a total beginner in charge. Never underestimate your own instincts.
2) Emergencies happen.
If the trip leader gets sick or injured, it might fall to you to find a way out. The best way to get a firm grasp of where you are and where you’re going is to take a turn with the map or GPS. There’s no better way to learn than by doing.
3) The outdoor world needs more kinds of leaders.
Outdoor leaders come in all shapes and sizes, but historically, in mixed-gender groups, the more experienced hiker or backpacker is often male. In mixed-ethnicity groups, that leader is often white.
If you’re a woman or another person from an underrepresented background, we need you. One way to fight the outdoors gender gap or diversity gap, get more diverse people educating diverse people, and make sure those around you are gaining the confidence they need, is to take the lead yourself. Step up and learn how to navigate, and you’ll be able to start planning your own trips and mentor others in the outdoors.
Navigation Tips for Beginner Backpackers
Navigation is the one skill every backpacker should know. It puts you in charge of your itinerary, and improves your peace of mind. Plus, it gives you confidence that you’ll always be able to find what you need—and find your way home.
1) Learn how to read a topo map and use a compass.
Ask someone you know to teach you. You can learn a lot online, but there’s no substitute for hands-on instruction. It can be helpful to ask your friend for a one-on-one lesson on a day hike so you don’t feel rushed or put on the spot.
Another good alternative is to look for a class near you. Gear shops, local outdoors clubs, and guiding services often offer inexpensive navigation classes.
2) Download a GPS navigation app.
Using a map and compass is a must-have skill, and it’s always smart to bring them as backup and know how to use them.
However, modern GPS technology, which you can find in your smartphone, can show you your exact location on a digital map. Even better: GPS navigation apps like Gaia GPS work even when you’re offline and out of service. They’re a great resource to have for everyday navigation. They can also be invaluable for finding your way in emergencies.
3) Plan your next trip.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a day hike or a week-long backpacking trip: You should be the one to plan it. Do some research, find a trail you’re excited about, and sit down to plan your route. Take charge of the whole trip, from your driveway, to the trailhead, and back again. You might mess up, but as long as you take proper safety precautions and an experienced buddy, it’s okay.
It’s okay to miss a turn, or get flustered, or take a really long time to decipher the map. Taking ownership of a trip is invaluable, both for your confidence and your skill development. And you’ll learn way more from trying and failing than from never trying at all.