2 Free Issues and 3 Free Gifts!
Full Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
Zip Code:
Email: (required)
If I like it and decide to continue, I'll pay just $12.00, and receive a full one-year subscription (9 issues in all), a 73% savings off the newsstand price! If for any reason I decide not to continue, I'll write "cancel" on the invoice and owe nothing.
Your subscription includes 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Or click here to pay now and get 2 extra issues
Offer valid in US only.

Also on

Enter Zip Code

Backpacker Magazine – June 2012

Master Class: Find Yourself on a Map

The best way to avoid getting lost? Always know your location. Study up on these key techniques for identifying terrain features, translating GPS data to a map, and triangulating your position.

by: Molly Absolon

(Photo by: Glenn Randall)
(Photo by: Glenn Randall)

Identify Terrain Features
Constantly check your map position as you hike. When you find a good vantage point, match key landmarks.

>> Mountains
Circular contours usually indicate high points. They may encompass many miles (ranges) or small areas (summits). Also, look for an “X” or precise elevation marking prominent peaks. Use features like secondary summits, passes, or water features to confirm your position.

>> Ridges and Valleys
U- and V-shaped lines indicate ridges, valleys, or drainages (V’s indicate sharper relief and U’s mean mellower terrain). In valleys, streams may run through the contour lines’ curves, which point uphill. Along ridges, the tips of the Vs point downhill; streams (if present) may run to the side.

>> Cliffs
Contour lines represent elevation change, so the closer they are, the steeper the terrain. Tightly packed lines indicate cliffs; examine them carefully when planning off-trail travel, as they often cut across consistent aspects or elevations. Beware: Short-but-impassable walls can fall between contours.

WARNING! Avoid Common Mistakes
Remedy navigation traps caused by inexperience and overconfidence.

>> Beginner: Over- or underestimating a map’s scale can lead you to misinterpret terrain.
Fix: Practice using maps of different scales in familiar territory (try 7.5- and 15-minute USGS quads). Guess the time it’ll take to travel between junctions or landmarks, and note your travel time. If your estimate is within a few minutes, your skills are getting sharp.

>> Intermediate: Bending the map. That’s what happens when what you expect to see causes you to misread terrain features.
Fix: Identify five distinct landforms in your field of vision before referring to your map. Match all five to your topo before proceeding.

>> Advanced: Lackadaisical map checking.
Fix: Scan landmarks in front of, around, and behind you. Match them to your topo every 15 to 20 minutes. Keep your map in an easy-access pocket (or in your hand) to remind yourself to check it regularly.

TIP: Follow Your Progress
Use your map to create a mental highlight reel of your route, and note the time you expect to hit key landmarks like rivers and passes. If you’re off-pace, stop, determine your location, and adjust your day’s plan accordingly.

Subscribe to Backpacker magazine
Sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter
Address 1:
Address 2:
Email (req):
Reader Rating: -


May 27, 2013

Best way to always know where you are and to stay found is to know where you are at the trailhead, on a map. Unless you have days of extra food and time, best way to get lost is to take Backpacker Magazine directions for granted. BM often says east when they mean west, don't trust 'em, rely on yourself to know exactly where you are.

Star Star Star
Mike Pici
May 24, 2013

The declination scale on a map is usually useless at best, and seriously misleading at worst, since most of them haven't been updated in years and magnetic north continually changes location.

Star Star Star
May 24, 2013

Yup add east. In Vt the dec is 14 degrees

Star Star Star Star Star
May 19, 2013

Cheap china jersey sale, china jersey cheap, new nfl jersey cheap, 2013 new nfl jersey sale, nfl jersey 2013, cheap baseball jerseys
sf giants jersey cheap, baseball jersey for sale, wholesale nba jerseys, wholesale nhl jerseys,
wholesale nike nfl jerseys, new nfl jersey wholesale
cheap mlb jerseys, cheap nhl jersey
cheap nba jerseys, wholesale mlb jersey, cheap nhl jerseys

AZ Hiker
Sep 27, 2012

Knowing your location on a map is one way to not-get-lost but sometimes getting lost can be easier than staying found and that's what makes short hikes the most dangerous. No matter how well they know the trail, many people never consider that they might end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors or waiting for medical help --and so they hike without the essentials. Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon) teaches essential day-hiking skills, items to pack, how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass, and how to get rescued. Learn to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. A compass doesn't need batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning --easy. This book is for all ages --parents, friends, and children can learn together. It's a fast, easy read that could save your life and will definitely make your hike more safe and enjoyable!

C. Daily
Aug 07, 2012

In taking a bearing steps 1 and 2, what is meant by boxed?

Jul 12, 2012

In my opinion, a beginner learning map reading skills should take a fix about every 20 minutes. Preparing the map makes this a lot easier. Use the scale of miles and make a mark on the map every 1/10th of a mile. Before looking for terrain features, estimate your position using timing and estimated speed from the last position.

For declination I use the saying "In the West, truth is greater than magnetism" The center is around Chicago or where the variation is zero on the map if close to the center of the country.

Steve C
Jul 10, 2012

For beginning map reading, it's important to understand that the mile grid on the map measures only a flat horizontal distance. Hiking across that mile grid in hilly terrain will add distance (vertically). If the angle is 45 degrees up or down across the mile grid, that can add about 43% to the distance, making that one mile about 1.43 miles. Add curves to the trail and the distance is longer. Not a big deal if you understand this, but a stress point if you or others expect your arrival at a certain time.

David Schlewitz
Jul 07, 2012

ADD for East and Subtract for West??!?!?!? Hmmmmmmm . . . . I thought it was the opposite?

AZ Hiker
Jul 07, 2012

Read Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon). Learn essential day-hiking skills and how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass. A fast, easy read that could save your life and will definitely make your hike more safe and enjoyable!


Your rating:
Your Name:


My Profile Join Now

Most recent threads

Health and Fitness
2014 fitness updates
Posted On: Aug 21, 2014
Submitted By: RebeccaD
MYOG Alcohol Stoves
Posted On: Aug 21, 2014
Submitted By: Tigger

View all Gear
Find a retailer

Special sections - Expert handbooks for key trails, techniques and gear

Check out Montana in Warren Miller's Ticket to Ride
Warren Miller athletes charge hard and reflect on Big Sky country, their love for this space and the immense energy allotted to the people who reside in Montana.

Boost Your Apps
Add powerful tools and exclusive maps to your BACKPACKER apps through our partnership with Trimble Outdoors.

Carry the Best Maps
With BACKPACKER PRO Maps, get life-list destinations and local trips on adventure-ready waterproof myTopo paper.

FREE Rocky Mountain Trip Planner
Sign up for a free Rocky Mountain National Park trip planning kit from our sister site

Get 2 FREE Trial Issues and 3 FREE GIFTS
Survival Skills 101 • Eat Better
The Best Trails in America
YES! Please send me my FREE trial issues of Backpacker
and my 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Full Name:
Address 1:
Zip Code:
Address 2:
Email (required):
Free trial offer valid for US subscribers only. Canadian subscriptions | International subscriptions