» Learning curve (+++) Some regions (think Rocky Mountains or the High Sierra) offer good visibility and landmarks, but others (like the Olympics’ dense forests or Utah’s mazelike canyons) confuse even experienced navigators.
*(+) = Low effort, low risk (+++++) = Get a lesson and life insurance
» One mile per hour is as fast as you should expect to travel off-trail. Plan shorter-mileage routes, and every time you confirm your location on the map, write down the time. That helps you estimate distances.
» Avoid bushwhacking. It’s almost always worth climbing a few hundred vertical feet if it means easier walking.
» Use social paths and game trails cautiously. “Other people go the wrong way, too,” says John Gookin of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). And who knows where the animals are going?
» Avoid long traverses on sidehills whenever possible. “It’s fatiguing,” says Gookin, and most people inadvertently drift downhill, which can cause you to get lost.
» Stay oriented by detouring to really obvious landmarks (called offset navigation).
» Colorado Almost two-thirds of Vasquez Peak Wilderness sits above treeline, and the tundra-covered summits and ridgelines make for easy hiking. Contact: fs.usda.gov/r2
» North Carolina In Birkhead Mountains Wilderness, the mature forest has thin undergrowth—and visibility good enough for off-trail travel. Contact: (910) 576-6391