Outdoor Navigation Basics

More than just maps

Some people are born with a natural sense of direction, while others can get lost in a phone booth. Even if you're blessed with the orientation skills of a homing pigeon, you'll need a map and compass if you want to venture beyond your campsite. But a stack of charts and a top-of-the-line compass won't get you back safely if you don't know how to find north. Local colleges, outdoor associations and national organizations offer wilderness familiarization courses designed to give you some first-hand experience with pros before sending you off into the woods alone. What's more, you'll learn how to get yourself back safely if you lose your map.

Not So Stupid Boy Scout Tricks

If your GPS system is out of range or you lose your compass along the way, a few tracker techniques will help you orient yourself. While these tips won't point you toward true north, when used in conjunction with a map and landmarks, you'll find your bearings faster than if you wander without a plan.

When you veer off-course, instead of panicking:

  • Use nature:
    • Moss usually grows on the north side of trees.
    • Spiders tend to spin their webs on the south side of trees.
  • Use the clouds. Clouds generally move from west to east. This is a very rough estimation, but combined with distinguishing landscape features and a map, cloud movement can help you re-orient yourself.
  • Use the sun. Insert a stick vertically into the ground. Note where its shadow falls. Wait 15 minutes. Note where the shadow now falls. The line between the two points runs (roughly) east to west.
  • Use the stars. Lost at night? The North Star (Polaris) is the brightest star in the Little Dipper. Face that star and you're heading north.
  • Use your watch. If you have an analog watch, point the hour hand toward the sun. The north-south line runs halfway between the hour hand and the 12 on the face of your watch. (During Daylights Savings Time, use the 1 instead.)


While serious hikers and climbers use topographical maps, even casual day hikers need to bring some sort of a map with them. If you're hiking a well-marked and well-traveled path, a trail guide or standard park map that identifies primary landmarks and points of interest is usually enough. Regardless of where you're going and how long you plan to trek, your map should:

  • Cover the area. Do you want a small-scale map that includes only the major features of a wide area or a large-scale map that gives more detailed information on a small area? Often, a combination of maps in varying scales is the best idea.

  • Give the details you need. Do you need to know the particulars of elevation and slope or will the trail details be enough?

  • Be current. Wilderness terrain may not change as quickly as urban environments, but sections of trails can be washed away, cordoned off or extended. An up-to-date map will include recent changes.


Clouds, your wristwatch or the sun can re-orient you in an emergency, but these tricks are no replacement for a good compass. But don't just tuck one in your backpack and figure you can read the instructions once you arrive at your destination. Knowing how to locate true north is only part of the orientation equation. Unless your path is straight north, you'll need to understand relative position. Take the time to learn how to use your compass before you head out on your outdoor adventure, and don't forget to practice to make sure you've nailed the skill down.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS)

Used initially by the military to position troops, satellite technology is becoming more sophisticated by the year. Although they seem like Star Trek come true, don't make the mistake of thinking they're a high-tech replacement for the old-fashioned compass or your own observational skills. Your shiny new GPS device is only a supplement. Despite what the marketers say, these guidance gadgets have navigational limitations. Also, they don't work in all remote regions and rely on batteries that can run out at any time.

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