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Navigating From Lost To Found

How one perpetually disoriented hiker found her bearings, thanks to some backwoods navigation pros.

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As I stand on a bump of open ground in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest, trying to match the landscape with the brown, squiggly contour lines on my topo, I remember the kind words that I overheard last night in the USDA Forest Service campground:

“It would take all the intelligence of a cow to do what backpackers do. They sweat under all that gear, following each other down the trail. My God! What if there was no trail? Where would they go?”

The late-night comedian, his identity hidden by the dark, was one of several hundred self-assured, nationally ranked orienteers who’d driven from as far away as New York to compete in the Rocky Mountain 1000. It’s the most important orienteering meet in the West for folks who pride themselves on their backcountry navigation skills.

Last night, I felt like marching over, introducing myself, and suggesting that Mr. Humor could kiss my compass. But now, in the light of day, as I struggle to match landforms with lines and steer my way through an intermediate-level course in the Rocky Mountain 1000, I wonder if I should moo instead. While I’m no trail-dependent simpleton who lacks the chutzpah to venture off-trail, I do have a history of becoming directionally confused. I also find the mathematical gymnastics of figuring declination and triangulating about as appealing as brussels sprouts dipped in peanut butter.

And that’s why I’m here, surrounded by some of the best orienteers in the land. If anyone can teach me how to stay found and help me raise my navigational IQ above that of a Holstein, it’s these guys.

“Position the map in your hand so it’s facing the exact way you’re facing,” Peg Davis tells me. A few hours after my bovine soul-searching experience, I’m standing next to Davis on the course I had tried earlier to complete, each of us holding topos like choristers with sheets of music. Davis is the top-ranked female orienteer in my home state of Arizona, and she’s agreed to show me the errors of my ways.

“You have to constantly orient your location with the map using the landscape features around you. There’s the drainage, there’s the hill,” she says as I struggle to find a “you are here” spot on my map. It takes me longer than it did Davis, but once I turn the map so it lines up with the direction I’m facing, the contour lines and drainage shadings suddenly spring to life. Normally, my topos face “right-side up” so I can read the words. But standing next to Davis, I realize that instead, I should turn the map around and “read” the land, not the printing on the paper.

Retracing the course we’d both just run separately, we head up a forested hill. While dodging tree branches, Davis glances down at the map, sliding a tiny compass attached to her thumb across the contours to verify her direction. The “thumb compass,” preferred by champion orienteers, isn’t much more sophisticated than a Cracker Jack prize; there’s no dial with numbers, just a floating arrow.

“You don’t use compass bearings?” I ask. I’d long thought that expert navigation was all about taking an exact compass bearing at Point A, then following that reading in straight-as-an-arrow fashion to Point B. That’s what I’d done this morning–at least until I got lost and bailed out to a road.

“I don’t take numeric readings,” she replies. “I simply read the landscape and look for those features on my map, like that ravine over there.”

A little research after the Rocky Mountain meet turned up more expert navigators who emphasize map-reading skills as much as or more than compass-reading expertise. Even Green Berets in the U.S. Army’s Special Forces rely little on compass bearings for most of their land navigation. Instead, their training regimen focuses on the use of pace-counting techniques and “catching features” like ravines, mountains, and streams that serve as barriers to wandering off course (read “Planning Your Route”).

This is not to say that we backpackers should put our compasses out to pasture (that’s a cow joke, of course). In remote, forested locations, for example, sophisticated compass techniques may be essential to staying found (see “Bearing It All”). But the truth of the matter is that wilderness travelers will do just fine in most backcountry situations by using the compass merely for monitoring direction–as long as they read their topos carefully.

Hiking down the far side of a hill, then through a field beyond an abandoned road, Davis hits every spot she’s targeted on the map. Backcountry navigation is an entertaining puzzle to her, to be solved piece by piece. The biggest challenge, and what distinguishes the champion orienteers from the mediocre, is the ability to “redirect,” or get unlost. Earlier, when my compass bearings didn’t pan out as I navigated the course alone, I had committed an orienteering no-no: I kept hiking so I wouldn’t lose ground, naively hoping I’d somehow get back on track.

“When you think you’re off course,” says Davis, “you have to suck it up right away and admit it. You have to backtrack to a place you can identify on the map and then start over.”

Sharon Crawford, one of the top orienteers in the nation had given me similar advice before this meet. “You have to stay in control!” she said with the enthusiasm of an evangelist. “You can’t rely on trail signs!”

Although Davis acknowledges that many backpackers (herself included) want to relax during backcountry jaunts, she says she’s always aware of her location along the trail.

“When I’m hiking or backpacking, I have a different attitude. I like to be brain dead,” she says as we slog through knee-deep mud to cross a ravine. “But orienteering has caused me to have a level of common sense I didn’t have before. I keep track of where I am mentally, sometimes even subconsciously. I’m always on the lookout for features that signal I’m off course.”

As I discuss navigation with Davis and other orienteering champs, I begin to

realize that a sense of direction isn’t something you’re born with. Being a capable backcountry navigator is, for the most part, learned behavior. For the Australian aborigines and the Puluwat Islanders of the South Pacific, who navigate the backcountry as part of daily life, directional “instinct” results from extensive training that begins in early childhood, says Kenneth Hill, professor of psychology at St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and author of Lost Person Behavior. “Having a good sense of direction,” he says, “is based on the ability to take advantage of environmental cues, including feedback from one’s own body movements, rather than on a mysterious sixth sense.”

Or, as Davis puts it, “If the map says I’m supposed to be headed to the top of a mountain, then my legs should feel like they’re hiking uphill.”

There’s no doubt that some of the orienteers at the Rocky Mountain 1000 who have achieved the “elite” level would love to see me veer off course like a lost calf looking for its mother. I can feel their eyes on me as Davis and I approach the starting line on Day 2. What they don’t know is that my navigational outlook has spun 180 degrees in the past 24 hours. The name of the course we’re navigating today, Plains of Despair, doesn’t bode well, but I promise myself I won’t get lost.

Once we’re off and dashing through fields and forests, I constantly glance at my topo, rotating it to jibe with my direction of travel. It’s amazing how much easier such a simple act makes coordinating the map and my location. I can almost visualize myself moving across the map’s contours like a character in a computer game.

A few months later, on a solo hike through the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico, I choose a “more exciting option,” as Davis calls it: I travel cross-country instead of on abandoned logging roads. This is it, the first test of my newfound confidence in my once-questionable sense of direction. I focus on the landscape around me like never before, noticing every drainage, hill, and opening in the forest. I study the spacing of the map’s contours and anticipate the terrain ahead. Occasionally, I check my direction with the compass. Only the trees and elk witness my successful navigation, and I am incredulous. Could it be that the many times I’ve been lost in the woods were the result of something so simple as too much daydreaming and too little attention to geographic details?

Maybe someday, I’ll master triangulation and declination and all those other multisyllabic compass-related skills. But today, as I hike out of the Santa Fe National Forest and see the sun glinting off my car, I celebrate my wonderful state of foundness. I wish those elitist orienteers were with me now, because I’d like to ask them, “Where’s the beef?”

The Search For Better Maps

“USGS maps are good for hikers who want to stay on known trails,” observes U.S. Army Special Forces Instructor Sergeant Joseph McPeak, “but they aren’t accurate enough for the military because they don’t show enough detail of the terrain.”

That’s why the armed forces use special military topos, most of which detail the terrain around military bases. Similarly, orienteers use unique, highly detailed maps that cover competition courses.

So what’s a backpacker to do if he or she wants a better map? Here are some options:

If the most recent topo is outdated, update it yourself using information from recent guidebooks, land managers, and digital images that can be downloaded from the Web. A joint program of USGS and Microsoft Corporation called the Digital Backyard gives Internet users access to a variety of digital resources, including online quads, aerial photographs, and satellite images. The USGS’s aerial photographs, which are updated every 5 years, and orthophoto quads (3.75-minute-square aerial photographs modified into a maplike format) may show features not shown on topographic maps. The latter also can be used to accurately measure distance.


U.S. Geological Survey contacts

Aerial photos and orthophoto quads

Customized map publishers

  • Custom Correct Maps, (360) 457-5667; Fifteen- and 7.5-minute maps of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula
  • Earthwalk Press, (858) 456-2864. Fifteen- and some 7.5-minute series of Western national parks, plus Idaho’s Smoky Mountains
  • Green Trails, Inc., (206) 546-6277; Fifteen-minute maps of the Pacific Northwest
  • Tom Harrison Cartography, (415) 456-7940; Fifteen- and 7.5-minute series focusing on California
  • Topo!, (415) 558-8700; National Geographic topo maps. The State Series on CD-ROM includes a 7.5-minute quad map overlay and updated trail information from local hiking clubs and land managers. This series also includes Trails Illustrated maps.
  • Wilderness Press, (800) 443-7227; Fifteen-minute maps focusing on the western United States
  • Map Adventures, (802) 253-7489; Customized New England maps that range in scale from 1:10,000 to 1:50,000
  • Appalachian Mountain Club, (617) 523-0636; AMC members field-check the USGS topos of New England
  • New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, (212) 685-9699; Club members field-check USGS maps for the New York-New Jersey Long Path and New York’s Harriman State Park; scales vary
  • Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, (703) 242-0693; Members field-check mid-Atlantic region mountain trails; scales vary

Still can’t find the map you need?

Many regional trail clubs customize maps for their area. To find clubs located in the region you plan to hike, contact the American Hiking Society at (301) 565-6704 or visit

Orienteering information

For more information about the sport of orienteering or to find links to local orienteering clubs, contact the U.S. Orienteering Federation at, or P.O. Box 1444, Forest Park, GA 30298-1444.

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