Hiking Tips

Outdoor Navigation: How to Find Your Way in the Wilderness

POSTED ON November 16, 2020 BY Ralph S.

If you spend a good amount of time in the wilderness, getting lost is always a risk.  Outdoor navigation skills can be a lifesaver. This is especially true if you go out alone. In most cases your hike, hunt, or camping trip will start out just fine. You are enjoying nature and decide to leave the trail for a good picture.  Maybe the falling leaves or snow cover up the trail.  Perhaps it is getting dark and you are not to your destination yet.  Suddenly panic sets in and you try to retrace your steps, but everything looks the same.  You try to call someone or check GPS on your phone, but there is no signal.  You are lost and have no idea how to get back to safety.  It is one of the most frustrating and dangerous scenarios you can face.  Most people try to wander through the woods often hiking further away from help.  With your adrenaline pumping you often make poor decisions and panic.

In most cases in which people get lost in the woods, they are actually very close to the proper trail or to help.  It is vital that you stop hiking as soon as you think you are lost.  In most cases you will still be within a mile of a road, trail, camp, or building.  You must stop, calm down, and evaluate your situation before taking further action.  In some cases, the best action is to stay in that spot until help comes for you.
There are things you can do to get the attention of rescuers if you are going to stay put.  You can build a signal fire, use an emergency whistle, shine a signal mirror, or just yell out for help.  Sometimes you just need to let the light change or wait for wind to clear off the trail.  Last year I was bow hunting on my uncle’s property in the Ozark Mountains. I hunt these woods every year and had no concerns about navigation.  As always, I headed out before the sun came up and was relying on a flashlight. We always use old logging roads to navigate.

I was unaware that everything along these roads had grown up because of a very wet summer.  In addition, my uncle had cut out some new logging roads.  The landmarks and paths to which I was accustomed were completely different.  After stumbling around in the dark for a while I sat down to get my bearings.  There was no GPS or cell signal where I was.  After a while the sun started to come up.  With a little more daylight, I was able to figure out my location and make it to my stand in time to get in a full morning of hunting. Even when you know the area well, it is very possible to get lost.  This experience just emphasized how important it is to have other tools for wilderness navigation.  In this article I will cover different strategies for navigation and also reference a recent long-distance survival challenge in which navigation was challenging.

man in green jacket and blue denim jeans walking on pathway between green trees during daytime

Map and Compass

The most reliable option you have for outdoor navigation is using a map and compass.  The map is used to show landmarks like roads, trails, and bodies of water in relation to the cardinal directions.  The compass is used to orient the map with these cardinal directions.  If you have no other options, you can use a road map for this.  However, a topographical map or aerial map are better options.  These will show elevation changes as well as showing changes in terrain.  For my recent long-distance survival challenge I printed off both trail maps and aerial maps and laminated them after I added some notes of my own.  This way I knew the maps would not be ruined if they got wet.  You can also get maps like these from the parks department if needed.

To orient the map, you will either need a compass or will need to know how to build a compass.  I like to bring my clear plastic compass because I can easily see through it to orient the map.  I also have compasses built into my survival bracelet, my survival shovel, my emergency whistle, and my binoculars.  There are lots of multipurpose tools you can bring that have a compass.  I always like having more than one compass in case one gets lost or broken.

To orient the map, first place it down on a flat surface.  Then put the compass down on the map near the compass rose.  This is the indication of North, South, East, and West.  Wait for the needle on the compass to stop moving.  It should now be showing your North/South line.  Rotate the map underneath the compass until the compass rose lines up.  Now you should be able to see where landmarks are in your area.  This should help you determine a good direction of travel.

There are ways to use a compass without a map if you do not have one.  For this to work you must have a general sense of your direction of travel in advance.  When you leave the trail or road, you should check your compass and note exactly the direction in which you are travelling.  When you are ready to head back to the trail, turn around and head back in exactly the opposite direction according to your compass.  For this to work, your target location should be linear.  This includes roads, trails, streams, rivers, or shorelines.  This way you can be a little bit off and still hit your target.

Another way to use a compass without a map is just to maintain a heading.  On my recent survival challenge there was a portion of the trail that had several unmarked intersections.  In addition, falling leaves covered the trail making it difficult to follow.  To be sure I did not take any wrong turns, I kept my compass out the whole time.  Every 30 minutes I would check my cardinal direction to be sure I was still travelling Southwest.  By using my compass on a regular basis, I was able to keep on the proper trail and make it to my destination.  You might think that using an established trail eliminates the need for navigation.  You would be wrong.

You can also utilize a map without a compass if needed.  Your map will have lots of landmarks listed on it.  Several of these should be visible from a distance.  You can use those landmarks as a guide to figure out your location and your cardinal directions.  Find a high point such as a ridgeline, hilltop, or mountain peak.  You can even climb a tall tree to get above the canopy.  From this point you should be able to see roads, lakes, mountains, towns, and rivers.  You really need to have two or three visible landmarks to triangulate your position.  Once you have found your landmarks, find them on the map.  Then rotate your map so that the locations match up with what you are seeing in front of you. You should then be able to determine a good direction of travel.

round black compass and white and blue map

Using the Sun

For millennia man has been using the sun to determine cardinal directions.  I have been doing it long enough that I normally know my cardinal direction without checking my compass.  The direction and length of shadows shows me this information.  The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  If I am hiking in the morning and the shadows are pointing directly to the left, then I am hiking due North.  Of course, this is just a rough estimate.  Around noon and on cloudy days it gets a bit more difficult.

A more accurate way to determine your cardinal directions is by building a sun compass.  Find a straight stick about two to three feet long.  Drive it into the ground so that it is perfectly vertical.  Then mark an ‘X’ in the dirt at the end of the shadow.  Wait about 20 minutes and draw an ‘X’ at the end of the new shadow.  Then, draw a line between your two marks.  This is your East/West line.  Draw a perpendicular line through the middle and you now have your North/South line.  You have now determined all of the cardinal directions and can orient a map.

outdoor navigation via the sun

Build a Compass

When you need to be sure about your direction of travel and do not have a compass, you can build your own.  Find a container that will hold water like a cup or a plastic bottle cut in half.  Add some water to the bottom.  You will next need a float like a piece of cork, a piece of styrofoam, or a dry leaf.  Last, find a straight and thin piece of metal like a needle or a straightened paper clip.  Brush it or hit it with another larger piece of metal like a knife or shovel.  This will magnetize the needle.  Set it on your float, place it in the water, and wait for it to stop spinning.  Be sure you place it on a flat, solid surface.  You now have your North/South line.

Follow the Water

All over the world, civilizations gather around water sources.  These bodies of water provide transportation, food, drinking water, and a place to bathe, but they can also be a help in outdoor navigation.  They include lakes, rivers, streams, or ocean shorelines.  Typically, small water leads to big water.  This means that following a stream will often lead to a river or lake.  The larger the body of water is, the more likely it is you find people there.  To find a body of water, just get to a high point from which you can see in every direction.  You may just be able to spot large bodies of water like rivers, lakes, or ocean shorelines.  If not, look at the areas with the lowest elevation.  This is typically where water will gather.  If it is dry, look for areas where the trees and brush are greener.  Even if you find a dry stream or river, you can often follow that to an active body of water.

You can also use animal activity to find a water source.  Normally animals will travel to a primary water source a few times each day.  They will follow the same path every time, so a game trail starts to form.  There may also be tracks or droppings indicating that the trail is active. Follow the game trail towards a lower elevation. Eventually you will find where they have been drinking.

If you want to be proficient at these techniques, they must be practiced.  I try to avoid using GPS when hiking or hunting and practice these methods instead.  I also like to do scavenger hunts and other orienteering games with my son, my nieces, and my nephews.  It can be a lot of fun.  You can find groups that get together and use these methods to complete orienteering courses.  Eventually you will get to this point at which this is all second nature.  If you ever find yourself lost in the woods, you will be glad you took the time to practice.

outdoor navigation following streams

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Outdoor Navigation: How to Find Your Way in the Wilderness

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Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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