Backpacker Bible: Find Your Way

Join a long line of enlightened travelers who have navigated the wilderness–and discover a whole new world that lies beyond well-marked trails and guided trips.

{ Revelation }

Don’t Go Astray

You know the borders on a USGS 7.5-minute topographic map—those wide bands of white with the lat/long hieroglyphics down the sides and the provenance and survey dates at the bottom? If you cut those margins off so only the green part remains, you can drop approximately 21 percent of the map’s weight.

You can also get profoundly lost.

On my first visit to Denali, I belonged to the hiking cohort known to rangers as most likely to die. A proud participant in about three actual backpacking trips, I was ambitious, young, and hell-bent to go far, go big, and go really light.

In my ignorance, I planned a two-week traverse of more or less the entire park. After hacking my toothbrush so short it wouldn’t reach my molars, I took scissors to the 20 or so maps I’d bought, trimming off the borders of some and carving out discrete portions of others that showed a pass or river crossing joining one quad to its diagonal mate. Since my waterproof map case would duplicate the rain-sheltering effect of my pack cover, I also scrapped that weight.

In the first three hours of bushwhacking through ultra-dense alder, my wife and I covered one mile. Not a crow-fly mile, mind you, but the zigzagging, off-course mile that the topography and vegetation permitted. Meanwhile, a steady rain drenched my topos—originally folded together in a feat of origami minimalism (the better to fit in my ultralight rucksack!).

So much for the two-week traverse. The trip turned out great, with plenty of grizzly sightings, spectacular tundra camping, and the conception of our first child. But we were effectively lost for two days, until we vectored into open, easy-navigating terrain. And throughout the hike, we often guessed at our exact location, lacking the full map data (and skills) we needed to plot landmarks. Here’s how you can avoid my mistakes:

» Get copies of Björn Kjellström’s Be Expert with Map and Compass and BACKPACKER’s Trailside Navigation. The first is the detailed bible of backcountry navigation; ours is your pocket-size field manual.

» Practice orienteering in a local forest until the skills come naturally. Learn to plot coordinates, set declination, and follow a bearing with a compass. Then add a GPS, or download our GPS Trails app for iPhone and Android (it navigates, tracks and uploads your treks, and lets you download trips from editors and other readers).

» Keep your topo’s borders. You can’t bombsite POIs or set declination without the hieroglyphics, and the margins are a good place to jot notes after you’ve studied your intended route; note challenges like thick brush and cliffs.

» Take more map, not less. It’s annoying to carry a topo that shows only a corner of your route, but what if high water forces a detour? And what if you need to triangulate your position by sighting off a distant landmark? Weight saver: Print a custom-centered map at

» Protect your topos. Limit rain exposure with a waterproof case and by folding maps so the day’s mileage faces out.

— Jonathan Dorn

Read a Topo

Looking at topo lines and visualizing real terrain takes practice. Use the two views above to match features to map.

» Check the interval (distance) between contour lines. If the elevation changes quickly—like rising 500 feet vertically over
a horizontal distance of 500 feet, you’re looking at a 45-degree slope that—in snow—is too steep to ascend without roping up.

» Study the way the contour lines come together to form ridges and saddles, key landmarks for route planning.

» Beware of climate effects: The permanent snowfield on this map might have disappeared since the map was made.

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