Learning how to navigate was one of the most important and liberating skills that I have developed as a backpacker. On my earliest trips, when my navigation skills were at best rudimentary, I was unable to safely or confidently leave the security of obvious footpaths, foolproof blazes, and accurate signage. I also struggled to reliably find great campsites and precisely plan my water consumption.
Remarkably, I was still able to complete the entire Appalachian Trail and Colorado Trail, and with some additional skills the Sea-to-Sea Route and Great Western Loop. Unfortunately, by the end of this streak I was bored with trails, yearning for real adventure, and frankly lucky that my navigational incompetence had not cost me more than some backtracking, lumpy sleeping spots, and a greater appreciation for water.
In the subsequent years I learned to efficiently hike anywhere I wanted, even on routes that have never before seen a trail crew, guidebook author, cairn-building backpacker, or even another person. In fact, now I normally prefer that they haven’t, as these types of trips feel turbo-charged — more aesthetic, more mentally engaging, and more physically challenging. The Sierra High Route, Hayduke Trail, and of course the Alaska-Yukon Expedition seemed much more like an adventure to me than anything I’d done prior.
The five characteristics of an expert navigator
Regardless of whether you are planning a basic trip on a popular thoroughfare, or an advanced route through wild territory, you’ll be able to successfully complete your journey with greater safety and confidence if you know how to navigate, at least proficiently if not expertly. (You will also need to know other skills, but those are beyond the scope of this series.)
What makes an expert navigator? In teaching myself and hundreds of others, I’ve identified five characteristics, listed below, and I’m going to expand on each one in a blog series over the coming weeks.
- Part I — Equipped with proper tools, e.g. topographic maps, magnetic compass, watch with altimeter;
- Part II — Proficiency in the understanding and uses of navigational tools, e.g. knowing how to read a map, and use a compass and altimeter;
- Attentive, e.g. noting of time, hiking speed, passing of obvious geographic landmarks;
- Anticipating, i.e. predicting what will happen ahead and when; and,
- Experienced, i.e. massive library of observations about geology, botany, wildlife behavior, hydrology, etc. that can be extrapolated to new routes and areas.