• Backpackontrack

Navigation basics

Updated: Sep 23, 2019

So, you are out in the wilderness and you want to hike through an area with different varieties in vegitation.

From forest to meadows straight into the mountains. Most hikers have specific points where they want to pass by. Maybe to find water, get to a save space to camp, sightseeing spot,... But how do you get there without getting lost?

There are plenty of high tech GPS tools available in the outdoor stores, and we all have a GPS function on the smart phone. This can already help a lot when you find yourself a bit lost. I prefer to bring a map of the location that I'm traveling to. A simple trail map can be handy for short trips, but I prefer the details of a topographic maps.

The illustrations on a standard map are mostly flat and 2 dimensional. They have walking roads and viewpoints marked out. This is ideal if you follow a road on a well-defined trail system.

A topographical map tries to create a 3D effect by adding shades in the drawing. The contour lines will tell you the elevation details. Tightly spaced contour lines indicate steep sections. This way you can choose to walk around a hill in order to get up to the top via a more accessible side instead of crawling on hands and feet to the top on a steep section. Topo maps also show peaks, ridge lines, valleys, roads, paths and landmarks. They are always the best choice for wilderness travel.

Understanding Topo maps

The layout on a topo map will enable you to plan the best route to travel between 2 points.

Terrain description

Contour lines connect points on the map that are located on the same elevation. This provides you with a 3-dimensional perspective of the environment. If they are placed close together, they indicate steep terrain. Contour lines will never intersect.

Contour interval

The contour lines are separated at a specific elevation interval. The elevation distance between lines can vary from 5m to 50m, depending on the map. The amount of interval remains constant throughout the map.

Index contour lines

On almost all maps the fifth contour line is a bit bolder and the elevation number is printed in between. This shows you how high that point is placed above the sea level.


The scale on maps can be very different. A scale can be very useful to calculate the hiking distance between points. Remember this: 1:24,000 is a larger scale than 1:250,000, since the fraction 1/24,000 is larger than 1/250,000.

Colors and shades

Lighter colors like beige mainly suggest open terrain, Light colors like green indicate vegetation. Darker colors like shades of gray represent dense vegetation.

Magnetic declination diagram

This can be found in a diagram on the map and shows the difference between the magnetic North and true North. This is needed in order to calibrate your compass. Magnetic North is often marked with a "MN" symbol and true North by a star symbol.


The grid lines can be used to determine your location. It's easier to share your location based on these lines.


This is the most basic tool you can get, but it is still the best.

The basic function of a compass is pointing towards the magnetic North.

It also allows you to assign a numeric value (called a "bearing") to any direction in a 360° circle around you. The accuracy that this function provides enables you to navigate more precise, safe and fast.

An example: If you follow the less accurate North East direction instead of the actual direction, you will probably miss the spot that you were aiming for. If you follow a bearing with just 1° off, you can end up with an error of 100m after 5km. In the wilderness, this means that you can easily mis a marked campsite or landmark at the end of a hiking day.

How do these bearings work?

Sometimes it's easy to follow a map based on the trails that are illustrated. Sometimes it's easy to focus on a huge rock in the distance and orientate your map based on that landmark.

However, if you are lost in a dense forest, or in the dense mist in the mountains you will feel more comfortable if you know how to use a compass.

How to start

  • Identify your position and your objective on the map. Connect these two points and draw a line between them on the map.

  • Align the edge of your compass with that line.

  • The bezel should be rotated so its orienting lines run parallel with the orientation lines of the map (these point to the true north). This means that the actual bearing is captured at the front of the compass.

  • Turn your body around until the magnetic needle lines up with the orienting arrow on the compass.

  • Off you go! You're now facing the direction that will lead you to your destination.

You can also reverse the process and take a bearing off an object in the field. It must be an object that is marked on your map. You can use this landmark to find your position on the map.

You can do this as following:

  • Aim the front of the compass at an object in the distance, whether this is the top of a hill, the edge of a lake,...

  • Rotate the bezel until the magnetic needle is aligned with the orienting arrow of the compass.

  • Locate the object on the map and place the edge of the compass on that object

  • Keep the edge of the compass tight against the object, don't touch the dial and turn the entire compass until the orienting lines within the bezel line up with the orienting lines on the map.

  • The edge of the compass forms a line on the map, and you know you are somewhere along that line.

  • Draw that line on the map and repeat the process with an other landmark. You are located on the intersection of those lines.

Magnetic declination

The needle of a compass points towards the magnetic North, but the map in your hands will be oriented towards the true North. Depending on you location there can be a difference of -10° to 15°. This difference is called declination. If not adjusted on the compass you, can end up at a totally different location.

How to compensate this deviation

  • Find the magnetic declination diagram on your map. It's usually located in the lower right corner.

  • Align the compass with the true North. Use the needle that points to the magnetic north.

  • Adjust the needle to the degree that is indicated on the magnetic declination diagram on your map. Use the degree lines on the edge of the bezel.

  • Find the declination degree on your compass bezel. Mark this point with a marker, or a piece of tape. If you have an adjustable compass, move the orientation arrow to this point.

  • Make sure that your needle isn't pointed at the true North, but to the magnetic North.

Always double check your result before heading into a certain direction. Don't forget to check your position during the trip as you probably won't walk in a straight line towards your target.

Don't only look at the degrees on the compass, but keep an eye on the landmarks that you can see in the distance to ensure that you are heading in the right direction.

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