Adventure Upgrade: Navigate Off Trail

Open up a new door to adventure–by leaving the well-trod route behind.

Reader Carla Danley, 50, Portland, OR
» Problem “I’d like to see even more pristine places when basecamping. I know I need stronger map and compass skills, but I don’t want to have to rely on my GPS. What other tricks can I use to make off-trail travel easier?”

Expert Bruce Crawford, wilderness navigation instructor for The Mountaineers
» Solution “First, perfect your map and compass skills and learn to build a mental picture of real-world terrain by reading key landmarks on any type of map. Then plan smart, so bushwhacking doesn’t overwhelm you, and so you can stay on course, even in rugged or difficult terrain.”

Pick Your Path
Find the Easiest way around.

» Follow game trails. In over-grown areas frequented by large species, follow animal paths to increase your pace. Climb or descend by stair-stepping between trails, which often run parallel across slopes.
» Skirt vegetation. Avoid dense flora in wetlands and draws. Instead, travel on ridgelines or above treeline, if possible. In general, vegetation is thicker on northern and windward slopes.
» Contour around hills. Save energy by navigating hillsides along one elevation (use your GPS altimeter). Contour lines on maps may not expose impassable cliffs or other hazards, so look ahead to avoid tough or dangerous terrain.

Stay On Course
Use the land to guide you.


» Follow a handrail. Identify your target (X) and a linear feature that leads toward it, like a stream or ridge, on your map. Guide your direction of travel by hiking parallel to it until you’re near your goal.
» Reference a nearby land feature. Identify a prominent landmark within half a mile of your target destination, like a lake (A). Hike to that point via the easiest route and then use your map and compass to fine-tune a bearing and calculate the distance to your goal. Pace count on that bearing to get there.