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Master the art of navigation, and you’ll never use your way again. In our 7-part Backcountry Navigation course on Outside LEARN, you’ll learn everything you need to know to navigate on- and off-trail, from using GPS and digital maps to wayfinding the old-school way with a paper map and compass. Join the class now and learn at your own pace.
When Ryan and I were dating, I was all too happy to let him be in charge of the map. Cliché as it sounds, I would have been lost without him—especially when we ventured off-trail. But now that we’re married, my priorities have changed. I decided it was time to fill the glaring hole in my outdoor résumé and learn how to navigate without the benefit of trail signs and well-worn paths—or a guide. It was time to take the lead.
For my maiden voyage, I chose a five-peak traverse in the 12,000-foot Kenosha Mountains, which rise out of Colorado’s Lost Creek Wilderness like a fist’s knuckles. Perfect for a beginner like me, the route followed “handrails,” or easy-to-see features, the whole time. After an initial 1,800-foot climb over 2 miles paralleling a creek, Ryan and I would hit treeline, and then we’d tag the five summits on the east-southeast ridge before dropping down to the Colorado Trail and closing the loop to the car. Since the Colorado Trail traced the flanks of the peaks, all we’d have to do to bail was hike south downhill until we intersected it. All in all, 12 miles, the first two-thirds of which would be off-trail.
On a clear October day, we located the trailhead and bypassed the Colorado Trail in search of the unnamed creek we’d follow to treeline. The map showed only one blue line near the trailhead, and it tailed out between the second and third peaks of the row. I found it hidden beneath grabby, shoulder-height willows and quickly realized mistake number one: Shorts are a bad choice for off-trail hiking.
More: Get unlost with our Backcountry Navigation course on Outside LEARN
I folded the topo so it showed our current position and orientation from the perspective we were seeing. As we ascended past the lowlands, a huge, crumbling massif rose to our left; I matched it to the group of crowded contour lines I saw to the left of the creek on the topo—and realized that after almost an hour of hiking we’d traveled less than a mile. While Ryan and I typically hike at around 3 mph, the underbrush and deadfall were slowing us down considerably. By the time we hit the ridge, two hours had already lapsed; at this rate, the whole route would take us more than 12 hours.
Studying the topo, I determined that we should nix the two northern peaks, which would have added a 6-mile (round-trip) spur onto our loop. Then we got moving. Above treeline, cross-country travel was easy and fast. I pinpointed each peak with ease, and we cruised across the grassy alpine slopes before determining which line we’d follow up the 200- to 400-foot scree slopes to the summits. The route seemed obvious, thanks to the prominent peaks, but I occasionally verified our southeast bearing on a compass.
I insisted upon taking a selfie atop the last peak as evidence of my success before downclimbing to timberline. We just needed to head down and we’d eventually intercept the Colorado Trail. Shortly after we dove back into the mixed pine and aspen woods, I found a game trail. We followed it, although it didn’t head straight downhill. Instead, it cut across the slope, descending west. This wasn’t part of the original itinerary, but I relished the fluidity of a true off-trail hike—you adapt to the terrain as you go, becoming much more in tune with the conditions than when casually following a trail. Before long, the game trail led us to a willow-shrouded creek. I matched our location against the topo, determining we’d hit the unnamed creek between the fourth and fifth peaks. Continuing downhill, I felt confident we were on the right route.
And then I heard it before I felt it: the squelch of thick, brownie-batter mud enveloping my boot. Ahead of us lay a 100-yard expanse of knee-deep sludge. “Check the map,” Ryan advised. I dragged my finger down the creek toward the Colorado Trail and then my heart sank. The topo was clear: A white blob filled with blue cattails—a huge marsh—sat between our position and the trail. I had the direction right, but hadn’t checked the map for obstacles. “My bad,” I said sheepishly. We high-stepped through the mud and eventually hit the Colorado Trail, on a raised wooden boardwalk above the muck.
Consider the gap in my outdoor résumé filled. And bolstered with a little mud.
But there’s room for improvement. Next time, I’ll take into account slow travel speed and on-map marshes, but I set myself up for success with a great route that followed easy-to-identify terrain. And I learned the rewards of off-trail hiking go way beyond simply getting from A to B.
GET THE SKILLS
Read a Topo Map Plan your route and track progress on a good map. A 7.5-minute topo, on which 1 inch represents 2,000 feet, affords the best terrain detail. (A GPS is great, but you should always have a map and know how to use it.) Introduce yourself to off-trail travel with mellow terrain and short distances and branch out as map skills improve.
Use these tips to navigate successfully and avoid off-trail obstacles.
1) Plan smart. Remember that the shortest line between two points isn’t always the best route. Traveling farther on easy terrain is often faster than cutting through thick brush or hauling a heavy pack up a steep slope.
2) Be realistic about distance: Five miles or less per day is a good bet in rough terrain.
3) Follow a handrail. Identify a linear feature like a stream or ridge on your map. Use it to avoid getting off course.
4) Once you’re in the field, refine your planned route by scouting the terrain you actually encounter. Look around from a vantage point and double-check your decisions about which side of a valley to descend, where to enter the brush, and which line to take across a slope.
5) Navigate around obstacles. Blowdown, marsh, or cliff in your way? To get around the problem without losing your route, use your compass to sight a prominent object (like a tall tree, distinct rock formation, or peak) that is beyond the obstacle and lies on your original bearing. Travel to that object by the easiest path, then continue hiking on your intended bearing.
6) Save energy by navigating hillsides along one elevation instead of going up and down.
7) Know when to bail: The consequences of running into trouble can be more severe off-trail. Seriously reconsider your plans if you encounter hazards you’re unprepared for or if dangerous weather threatens.
Originally published 2015; last updated April 2022