Paper maps and compass have forever been the gold standard of backcountry navigation. Throw in a mapping app, like Gaia GPS, and your navigation kit is complete. But what keeps you from getting lost in the backcountry may not depend entirely on the tools in your backpack. Staying found starts with something you’re born with – the ability to pay attention to your surroundings.
Situational awareness, or paying attention to the natural world around you, is key to mastering backcountry navigation. After all, a compass bearing in the field only gives you direction. For direction to have any meaning, you’ll need to know how to expertly read topographic maps. And for topo maps to have context, you’ll need to be aware of landscape around you.
Learn these quick tips on how to use landscape awareness and natural navigation clues to find your way in the backcountry.
Start with the Big Picture on the Map
Not getting lost in the backcountry starts with your trip planning at home. Before you get out in the wilderness, get to know a place by studying its features on a map. Small-scale maps that show a big area and less topographical detail can help you see how your planned route fits in the context of the broader landscape.
You can do this for free on Gaia GPS. Start by pulling up the area you plan to visit on www.gaiagps.com/map. Use the planning tools on the left-hand side of the screen to create a route. If you don’t know how to create a route yet, you can learn by watching an 8-minute tutorial at the end of this article.
With your route drawn on the map, zoom way out to see how the route fits within the landscape of the broader region. Take note of prominent features on the map: large bodies of water, river valleys, the area’s tallest peaks, mountain crests or divides, land management details, trailheads, roads, towns, and ranger stations. This zoomed-out view of the map, doesn’t reveal much about the landscape. But consulting the map in broad scale is the beginning of the situational awareness that will help you navigate in the field.
In the map above, you’ll see a green-colored route through Desolation Wilderness, which sits at the southwestern edge of Lake Tahoe. The map shows that area is also wedged between two highways — one to the south and one to the east of the planned route. If the route starts at Lake Tahoe and heads south, the lake will generally be over and behind your left shoulder. Understanding where this big landmark sits in relation to your overall journey gives you a sense of general direction.
Zoom In on the Map to Identify Handrails
After you get the lay of the land, zoom in on the map to view your route in context of the land features within it. You can use a creek or a large mountain as a “handrail” to follow to make sure you stay on course. If your route follows a creek up to its headwaters, you can use the ribbon of water as a guide to its source. If your route takes you along a valley, you could rely on a prominent mountain at the end of the canyon as a beacon to keep in your site. The key to not getting lost is paying attention to the landscape as you move through it.
Let Water Be Your Guide in Backcountry Navigation
Rivers and creeks make predictable backcountry guides. No matter where you are in the world, you can always count on rivers to roll off the shoulders of mountains and rush toward a larger river, the sea, a lake, or a basin. Zoom in on the map to study the flow of the water in the area so that you have an understanding of where water leads if you decide to follow it.
Looking at the route in the map above, you can see a string of prominent peaks to the west: Dicks Peak, Jacks Peak, Mount Price, Agassiz Peak, and Pyramid Peak. Together, they make up a portion of the Sierra Crest, a 500-mile long ridgeline that runs in a general north-south direction along the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.
Notice that most of the route stays on the east side of the Sierra Crest and that all the water along the way, with the exception of Lake Aloha, rolls toward Lake Tahoe. In an emergency, you could follow any water drainage on the east side of the Sierra Crest and wind up at Lake Tahoe so long as the route is passable on foot. Understanding where water flows can be a welcome bit of information if you’re looking to get your bearings in the landscape. Plus, if you’re standing next to a river, you have a good point of reference on the map to find your exact location.
Use Treeline to Pinpoint Your Elevation
Elevation is another predictable navigation marker. Knowing your coordinates on the map only places you in the two-dimensional world. Elevation can help you pinpoint your location, adding a 3D context to your location. But without an altimeter, how will you know the elevation? Look for the treeline.
Treeline is the elevation at which the environmental conditions can no longer sustain tree growth. It’s important to note that treeline is different for every region depending on the weather and landscape conditions. In some northern landscapes, the weather is so harsh that trees are unable to grow above 5,000 feet. In more gentle climates, like the Sierra Nevada, treeline sits closer to 9,000 to 10,000 feet.
You’ll have to study the maps to find the treeline for the area you plan to visit. This is easily done on Gaia GPS’s flagship map, Gaia Topo, which includes tree shading to show you where vegetation grows around the world. Most paper topo maps from government sources, like USGS quadrangle maps which are included in a Gaia GPS Premium Membership, also include tree shading.
When in the field, you can use tree shading on the map to target your location. For example, if you are climbing up a slope that is clearly tree shaded on the map and all of the sudden you emerge from under the tree canopy into a slope with no vegetation. you should be able to see on the map where you’ve crossed the treeline. But be aware, treeline is not always correct on the map. It’s best to use this as an estimate.
Navigate with the Sun for Direction of Travel
Paying attention to the way the sun moves across the sky can help you determine general east-west directions. Everywhere in the world, with the exception of the Arctic, the sun rises on the eastern horizon and sets in the west. During the day it moves across the sky in an east to west pattern. If you pay attention to the sun’s movement, it’s easy to tell the general east and west directions in the morning and evening hours when the sun lies low on the horizon.
But what about high noon when the sun is up in the sky? In midday, the sun can clue you in to north-south directions. In the northern hemisphere, the sun will be directly to the south of your position when it reaches its highest point in the sky. Reverse that order for the southern hemisphere, where the sun sits directly north at its highest point in the sky. However, don’t expect the sun to guide you at the equator or near the earth’s poles, these locations are the exception to the sun’s north-south rules.
Use Shadows For Clues on Cloudy Days
On cloudy days, look for shadows for clues on direction. Shadows will cast in the opposite direction of the sun’s location. This means if you are traveling in the northern hemisphere, the sun at its highest point will be directly south but all shadows will cast to the north. Reverse that order for the southern hemisphere: look for shadows to be cast to the south.
Sometimes, the sun is completely obscured. When this happens, you have to rely on other navigation clues in the backcountry.
Use the Stars to Navigate North and South
Constellations can tell us a lot about direction in the backcountry. In the northern hemisphere, Polaris is known for showing us the direction of true north, hence its nickname — the North Star. The North Star lines up with the earth’s rotational axis above the north pole. From the vantage point in the northern hemisphere, the North Star remains almost motionless in the night sky. All the other stars seemingly rotate around it. Polaris’s relatively static position in the northern night sky has guided navigators for more than a millennia across landmasses and oceans alike. It remains a guiding star in modern navigation as well.
How to Find the North Star
Finding the North Star on a clear night is easy. It’s the brightest star in the Ursa Minor constellation, also known as the Little Dipper. If you can find the Little Dipper in the sky, follow its tail to the bright star at the end and you will be looking at Polaris — and consequently in a northern direction.
If you are having trouble finding the Little Dipper, look for the famed Big Dipper, which appears as the outline of an upside-down cup or pan in the night sky. Angulate from the stars on on the end of Big Dipper’s cup to lead you to the North Star at the tail of the Little Dipper.
In the Southern Hemisphere, Use the Southern Cross to Navigate
The Southern Hemisphere lacks a bright beacon star to mark the south celestial pole. However, you can rely on the unmistakable Southern Cross to show you the way south. First, find the four stars that make up Southern Cross. Line up the star at the head of the Southern Cross with the star at the base of the Southern Cross. Now draw an imaginary line that extends out about four lengths of the cross to the south and you will be looking at southern celestial pole.
Navigate with the Prevailing Wind
Knowing the direction of the prevailing wind will help you keep track of your directions. If storms always blow in from the west, you can use that knowledge to guide you in the right direction. Hold a western course by keeping the western prevailing wind in your face. Turn away from it to travel to the east, and keep it to your left shoulder to hold a northernly direction. Turn around and let the wind lap at your right cheek to travel south.
Wind can be a great tool to give you a general sense of direction, especially in a whiteout when you can’t see landscape. But be cautious and don’t rely on the wind direction too heavily. Use it only as a navigation aid and not a decisive guide.
Wind is shifty. As storms pass, so does the wind’s prevailing direction. Confirm that the wind is actually coming from the prevailing direction by matching it up with clues on the ground. Wind-battered trees will often be leaning away from the prevailing wind or they will be missing branches on the windward side.
Find North and South with Moss
In a pinch, moss can offer consistent directional clues in the backcountry. Generally speaking, moss cannot survive in direct sunlight without water. Because of its sensitivity to sunlight, moss will typically grow on the shaded northern side of trees and rocks in northern hemisphere and on the shaded southern side of trees and rock in the southern hemisphere.
This is a general observation, though. Moss growth can be affected by the amount of moisture or humidity in the area. The story moss tells provides only a clue as opposed to the sun’s definitive directional patterns.
Pay Attention To Your Surroundings
Back before I used a compass, I relied on all these techniques to navigate through the backcountry. I think I was so terrified of getting lost that I became hyper-aware of my surroundings. My mind cataloged every turn in the landscape, the directions rivers flowed, and stand-out rock formations. Paying attention to natural navigation clues remains a key component to how I navigate today. The only difference is I also rely on a paper map and a compass as well as Gaia GPS Premium for a complete picture of where I stand in the backcountry.