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Backpacker Magazine – January 2014

Readers' Choice 2014: Skills - Navigation

Fine-tune your navigation skills before your next backcountry excursion.

Winner: Rachael Stanford
Winner: Rachael Stanford


Rachael Stanford
Mackinaw, IL

Lack of navigation know-how regularly leads this reader into sticky situations.

Study and practice key map, compass, and GPS skills

Stanford, 28, tried learning navigation skills through books, video tutorials, and even a group course—but out of the classroom, nothing seemed to stick. “In real life, it never completely translates,” she confessed. With big plans to backpack through the Canadian Rockies or Alaska next summer on her honeymoon, Stanford knew it was time to focus. “As it stands, my backcountry navigation skills aren’t up to snuff for a trip like that,” she said.

The Makeover
We hooked Stanford up with an intensive, five-hour private outdoor coaching session with Chuck Stark, senior instructor for REI’s Chicago Outdoor School. The crash course covered key topics such as reading a topo map, taking and following a bearing, and off-trail travel, and then—most importantly—got Stanford out in the field to practice her newfound knowledge.

Orient a Map

First: Adjust your compass for declination*. Place your compass on the edge of the map with the direction-of-travel arrow parallel to map (true) north. Rotate the map and compass together until the magnetic needle lines up with the orienting arrow. What you see on the map now matches your surroundings.

Take and Follow a Bearing


Figuring out the direction you need to go to reach a destination—like a top campsite or fishing hole—is called taking a bearing. To do it, identify your current position (a) and your destination (b) on the map. Place the compass on the map with the long side of the baseplate connecting the two locations; the direction-of-travel arrow should point to your destination. Turn the dial to make the meridian lines parallel to the map’s north-south lines, making sure the orienting arrow points north. The number at the index line is your bearing.

To follow a bearing, hold the compass in front of you and turn your body until the magnetic arrow lines up with the orienting arrow. Hike to where the index line points, keeping the other arrows aligned.

Find Yourself on a Map

Not sure exactly where you are on that ridge or in that valley? Use your tools to pinpoint your location. Here’s how.

With a compass Orient your map (see page 53). Holding the compass at waist height, point the direction-of-travel arrow at a known landmark, such as a prominent peak. Rotate the dial until the magnetic arrow and the orienting arrow line up. The number at the index line is your bearing (in the example above, 100 degrees). Now draw a long line through the landmark at 100 degrees. Repeat with another landmark at least 60 degrees away from the first. Your location is where the lines intersect. (Add a third bearing for an even more precise estimate.)

With a GPS First, make sure your GPS datum (the survey grid used to create the map, i.e., WGS 84 or NAD 27) matches your map’s. Mark a waypoint and view your coordinates. If using UTM, the first coordinate (the easting) represents how far right you are from the left side of the map. The second (northing) is how far up you are from the bottom. Use your map’s blue UTM grid (visible in the margins) to estimate your location.

Estimate Travel Time

Expect to travel approximately 2 miles per hour on flat terrain; add one hour to your total for every 1,000 feet of elevation gained and 30 minutes for every 1,000 feet you descend.

The Trip
Stanford and Stark met at the Sag Valley Forest Preserve in Cook County, IL, a reserve dominated by hardwood forest, glacial moraines, and lakes. There, they used the topo map to build landscape features out of clay and compare them to their surroundings, practiced taking bearings, and hiked off-trail. “At the beginning, Rachael was hesitant,” Stark says. “By the end, she was orienting the map and pointing right to where we were. I could see she was looking at a map, not just squiggly lines.” Stanford adds: “I definitely feel more confident. Big trips seem a lot more doable now.”

Winner Wisdom

Practice on marked trails. “It lets you double-check your map skills against known landmarks, and you won’t get hopelessly lost.”

Set a backstop. “A backstop is a point that tells you you’ve gone too far past your destination. If you choose a river on your map as a backstop and then reach the river, you know you need to turn around.”

Slow down. “Keeping track of everything you need to observe is nearly impossible while hiking at a steady pace. Allot extra time and stop frequently to check your progress.”

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