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Navigation Newbie: What Equipment Do I Need?

I'm a navigation newbie. Basically, I just head to the trailhead, look at the map there, and go. Is there essential, basic navigation equipment that I should have at all times, even on a dayhike?

Question:

Hey Kristin, I’m a navigation newbie. Basically, I just head to the trailhead, look at the map there, and go. Is there essential, basic navigation equipment that I should have at all times, even on a dayhike?

Submitted by - Will, Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Answer:

Well, you came to right place, Will. Here at Backpacker.com, we are waaaayy into navigation. Peruse this sight—you’ll see. Aside from maps of hundreds of trips, we’ve got really instructive videos on how to align your compass with your map, how to use a GPS with your topo map to get unlost, and even a review of the most user friendly new GPS system we’ve ever tested.


The Garmin 400t


OK, enough self-promotion. If you’re hiking really mellow, well-marked, and familiar trails, you can get away with slapping it like you have. But chances are, you’ll eventually want to start hiking more exciting terrain, and when you do you have a choice to make. 1) Be an idiot and keep taking your chances. Or 2) Take the opportunity to learn a new skill (that happens to be pretty dang fun) and be a responsible hiker.

Loads of people diligently carry good navigational tools—map, compass, GPS—and get a false sense of security because they have them on board. But unless you know how to use them (and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist) they’re nothing but dead weight in your pack. Which leads me back to the video tutorials I plugged above—they really are a great place to start.

You’re coming into navigation at a really good time, with GPS products getting more accessible, easier to use, and more affordable. If the Garmin Oregon 400t is too steep for your budget ($459), there are other great entry level GPSs to check out, like the Magellan Triton 210 ($199).

Or, if you’re an iPhone user and do mostly dayhikes download the MotionX-GPS app ($3) and Blackberry owner can use Trimble Outdoors ($40/year). And of course, there’s nothing wrong with going old school and getting a good compass like this $23 classic from Brunton.  Then learning how to use it, of course. (For a solid primer on compass use, check out this article on Understanding Your Compass

And let’s not forget maps! For learning navigation, the best way to go are USGS (United States Geological Survey) quads, which you can get for virtually every square inch of the country. And the bestest, cheapest navigation accessory you’ll ever find: a gallon size ziplock bag for keeping it all dry.

Happy Trails!!

1 Comment

  1. djtrekker

    I can’t add to the extensive lit out there on GPS’s. I have one and love using it. I am a fundamentals sorta guy, though – thought I’d share a tidbit. I begin every trip with a map study at home (read: learn to read maps and do manual nav via topo and compass – give yourself a knowledge underpinning before you get all techy with a GPS. Learn what those contour lines mean in terms of human effort, not just distance and direction, know how to research plantlife in your target area, some areas are impossible to navigate though a piece of cake on a map!). In my map study I get a memory picture of the general area; how far I am from roads at any given point in my trip, select possible escape routes if I need to terminate early, look at contours to figure out what to expect human-effort-wise. If I’m using established trails indicated on the map, next I make a call to a ranger or park office to verify those trails still exist (lesson learned hard way) and update my map. Realize, depending on what canyons/mountains you hike in, GPS may not receive in areas. Also, a map and compass do you little good if you have no idea where you are to begin with – don’t wait till you are lost to figure that out. In some terrain you can do what is called a resection method with compass and map and figure it out; novices don’t realize not all terrain is friendly enough to support that (e.g., in the bottom of a canyon when you’re surrounded by canyons, and trees blocking your view, you can’t perform resection with any certainty.
    Before tech and glitz comes old fashioned homework.

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