Route-Finding on a Hike

September 5th, 2017

Hiking is a fun and healthy way to enjoy our wonderful outdoors. However, it will be more enjoyable and safer, if you know where you are, were you want to be, and know how to get there. Here are some thoughts:

  • Many people don’t carry topo maps of the area being hiked
  • They don’t carry GPS devices and if they do, they don’t know how to use them
  • Many people don’t carry a compass or know how to use one
  • If they didn’t have an established trail or cairns to follow, they wouldn’t know where to go or how to get there
  • They don’t visualize the terrain
  • They have no sense of pace

If people get into a strange and vast wilderness area that requires route finding, a wrong turn could spell real trouble and discomfort. People tend to rely on their group or a leader to guide them.

Here are some common-sense rules and steps that every hiker should follow. Everyone should have a compass and a map and the knowledge on to use them. A wrong turn can lead to a lot of frustration and even a very cold night in the wilderness.

There a lot of people who go hiking unprepared because they were certain they would stay with someone who was prepared, but then became separated when unpredictable events occurred. The rule should be that the unpredictable can happen.

Yes, while the compass will point to North, you need to understand your direction of travel and where you are. Are you going up or downhill when expected? Are you passing through the type of terrain indicated by the map? Do trail junctions correspond with what shows on the map? Are you crossing roads or streams where the map shows them? Are visible landmarks showing up in the direction where they should be?

Get familiar with the map and its symbols. Learn to understand the brown contour lines so you know whether you should be going up or downhill. Forest areas are shaded light green. Some maps will show high-tension wires which can be very helpful.

Here are some simple rules to follow:

  1. Read the map regularly, not just when you’re lost
  2. Visualize the terrain ahead and always double-check with the map if necessary
  3. Know your pace so you know how long it will take to get to a landmark
  4. Use your compass to verify your general direction and orient yourself
  5. Never wander when you’re lost and always keep a level head
  6. Keep track of the terrain you’re hiking and any changes in direction

These are essential rules to follow. GPS devices run on batteries and they can wear out so carry extra batteries. Your GPS will have a compass plus a map. Understanding these tools can make your hike more fun and safer.