Characteristics of an expert navigator: Part I — Equipped with proper tools

This is Part I of a series on the characteristics of an Expert Navigator. Read the Introduction. More installments are forthcoming.


When hiking on good trails in locations like the High Sierra -- which has distinct landforms and great weather -- I need few navigational tools.

When hiking on well maintained and heavily used trails in locations like the High Sierra — which has distinct landforms and great weather — I need few navigational tools.

Every “Ten Essentials” list I’ve seen has included a map and compass, and modern versions sometimes also include a GPS. If only the first characteristic of an expert navigator — being equipped with proper tools — were that simple and absolute.

In fact, the tools I bring — and to what degree I rely on them — changes, depending primarily on three factors:

  • Route conspicuousness
  • Topographic relief
  • Visibility

Here is an example: for a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail — which features a well-worn footpath, reliable signage, abundant alpine terrain and open woodlands, topographically distinct landforms, and ample sunshine — I am comfortable with just overview maps (e.g. 1:100,000 scale), though I like to have a watch and databook, too. However, for the Sierra High Route, a mostly off-trail route that parallels the JMT, I add detailed maps (e.g. 1:24,000) and a magnetic compass, the latter of which I typically only use in rare moments when the topography is cryptic or the visibility is reduced.

Ultimately, my purpose in carrying navigational tools is to have and gather information that will help me confirm:

  • Where I have been
  • Where I am, and
  • Where I am going.

In this post I will describe my typical kit for a navigationally challenging route, and in Part II of this series I will discuss what you should know about these tools and their uses.

When the trail is snow-covered, the topography is subtle, and the visibility is limited -- like on this trip in the Olympics -- I need more than one source of information.

When the trail is non-existent, the topography is subtle, and the visibility is limited — like on this trip in the Olympics — more tools are needed to be properly equipped.

Topographic maps

I carry two sets of maps: an overview set and a detailed set.

Overview set

At home, I use this set to plan the broad outlines of my intended route and my backup/emergency routes, and to better understand the route’s logistical implications in regards to transportation, permits, resupply, etc. In the field, I use this set when I detour off of my intended route and detailed maps, or when I’m curious about distant features.

Maps suitable for overview purposes for trips in the lower 48 are available from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), specifically the 30×60 minute series, which is printed at 1:100,000 scale. However, where available I prefer to use recreation maps from organizations like National Geographic Trails Illustrated, Tom Harrison Maps, and the Appalachian Mountain Club. These maps — which are based on USGS topographic data — are updated more regularly and they contain more information than the USGS maps do, such as official trails and trailheads, designated backcountry campsites and zones, land management boundaries, and visitor services like entrance stations, information centers, and locations of food and lodging.

From Colby Pass we were intrigued by a prominent peak on the north horizon. Using our Trails Illustrated overview map, we concluded that it was Mount Goddard, 30 miles away!

From Colby Pass we were intrigued by a prominent peak on the north horizon. Using our Trails Illustrated overview map and compass, we concluded that it was Mount Goddard, 30 miles away!

Detailed set

The gold standard for topographic maps of the lower 48 is the 7.5 minute series from the USGS. Each map (aka “quadrangles” or “quads”) — of which there are about 55,000 — covers about 8.5 miles of latitude (top to bottom) and 5.5-7.5 miles of longitude (left to right) at a scale of 1:24,000, usually with 40-foot contours.

At home, I use my detailed maps to plan my route exactly, since I can obtain more accurate distances and better proof of a route’s feasibility than I can with my overview set. In the field, I use the detailed maps for micro-level navigation, campsite selection, water planning, etc.

Screenshot from NG TOPO! of the Longs Peak area in Rocky Mountain National Park. Notice the four-corner junction of map edges on Pagoda Mountain -- when the old paper maps were digitally stitched together, the contour lines didn't always line up precisely, and sometimes names were duplicated.

Screenshot from AllTrails.com of the USGS 7.5 minute layer. Notice the four-corner junction of map edges on Pagoda Mountain — inconsistent contour lines and colors, and duplicated place names, sometimes resulted when digital scans of paper maps were stitched together.

The exception: Alaska

The specifications of USGS maps of Alaska are different than those for the lower 48. For my overview set, I use the 1:250,000 series, which has 250-foot contours. For my detailed set, I use the 15 minute series, which is printed at 1:62,500, or nearly one inch to the mile (1:63,360, since there are 63,360 inches in a mile). The compression of topographic data on these maps relative to their lower 48 equivalents is offset by the immensity of Alaska: the scales and contour intervals are proportionally appropriate for terrain features that are magnitudes bigger than those found in the lower 48.

Purchasing and printing

When available, I purchase printed recreation maps from online vendors like Amazon or locally from outdoor retailers like REI. If I need just a small portion of a Trails Illustrated map, I can get this particular data with my AllTrails.com PRO online subscription and print it locally.

Rather than purchase individual 7.5 minute and 30×60 minute printed maps for my entire route, I get better results — for lower cost — by using desktop software or online mapping platforms to create customized maps, and then printing them via FedEx Office on 11×17 sheets. My preferred system is still National Geographic TOPO! State Series, which was discontinued in 2012; the functionality of its online replacement, AllTrails.com, is rapidly catching up, in addition to offering new features. CalTopo.com is also worth checking out.

For more information about map printing, read this post: Creating and printing a custom mapset with TOPO!

Compass

During my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I didn’t have or need a compass of any type. Thankfully most routes are not so navigationally mind-numbing.

For routes with at least moderate compass work, I prefer a model with adjustable declination and a global needle, such as the Suunto M-3 Global Pro; the extra weight and bulk of a sighting mirror is rarely worth the additional precision. Once I adjust my compass, I no longer have to think about declination when finding or applying bearings in the field — it’s not complicated, but my bandwidth may be better applied elsewhere or may be limited at the end of a long day. In addition to being functional anywhere in the world, a compass with a global needle does not need to be held perfectly flat to rotate smoothly and to be accurate, allowing me to navigate while moving.

Even on routes that entail less compass work, I sometimes need to find north (in order to orient myself and/or my map) or to take some rough bearings. For these applications, I am comfortable using a basic baseplate compass like the Suunto A-10, the digital compass on my Suunto Core watch, or even a keychain compass.

A powerful combination -- detailed maps, a timepiece, an altimeter, and a magnetic compass with adjustable declination and global needle.

A powerful combination — detailed maps, a timepiece, an altimeter, and a magnetic compass with adjustable declination and global needle.

Watch

If you have a watch that tells time, it will work for a backpacking trip. Hopefully, however, it is easy to read (big numbers, positive display, and backlight), resistant to scratching, and not your “dressy” watch.

A stopwatch feature is unnecessary though useful, especially if you don’t care to record times in your head or on your map, or if you are hiking with a group that stops incessantly even between known points.

Altimeter

An altimeter, with which I can confirm my elevation even when I am not at a known point on my map, is most useful in topographically featured areas — think Colorado, not Kansas. While there are lightweight and inexpensive analog altimeters available, I prefer a digital altimeter watch like the Suunto Core, which is a smaller, lighter, and more easily accessible solution. Altimeter watches are available for as little as $75, but I would recommend a model with proven accuracy and with added features like history graphs and a weather indicator.

An altimeter watch

The Suunto Core, which features a clock, barometer, altimeter, and digital compass. Its big numbers are nice, but I’d recommend a positive display (white background, black characters), not negative.

GPS-enabled devices

Call me old school, but I shun handheld GPS units like the Garmin eTrex series. Every operation that can be done on a GPS, I can do with map and compass, a system that has the added perks of being lighter, less expensive, more reliable (less susceptible to breaking or soaking, or running out of batteries), and substantially more eye-friendly than a 2.2-inch low-resolution screen.

Increasingly, however, I am in favor of bringing a GPS-enabled smartphone (e.g. iPhone) with apps like Gaia GPS and US Topo Maps, which offer offline viewing of USGS topographic maps and other layers. In the unlikely scenario where I’m utterly confused about my location or need pinpoint coordinates, I can use this device to “find myself.” More likely, if I have to detour dramatically off my intended route and off of both my detailed and overview map sets, I will still have maps — albeit viewable only on a 4-inch screen and pending remaining battery life — so long as I downloaded adjacent map tiles before the trip.

A GPS-enabled smartphone can be invaluable as a just-in-case "find me" tool and as a library of infinite maps. In this photo, we're supposedly standing atop hundreds of feet of glacial ice, but in fact the glacier had receded by about two miles, raising questions about exactly where we were.

A GPS-enabled smartphone can be invaluable as a just-in-case “find me” tool and as a library of infinite maps. In this photo, we’re supposedly standing atop hundreds of feet of glacial ice, but in fact the glacier had receded by about two miles since the map was last updated in the 1970′s, raising questions about exactly where we were.

Route beta

I rely on myriad resources — including guidebooks (plus online map-based guides like the High Sierra Map), databooks, online trip reports, community forums, government databases, and knowledgeable locals — in planning my trip. To avoid carrying a library of scattered resources in my backpack, I consolidate the information into three formats:

  • A databook, which lists distances between key landmarks, the cumulative distance of the route, and perhaps corresponding map and guidebook segments;
  • Overlaid notes on my maps, made with a note-making tool, to provide short location-specific information, e.g. “Go east around lake. Impassable cliffs on west shore,” and “Cathedral Peak Pass (Class II): easy walk-up on south side; steep talus for first 250 feet on north side.”
  • A custom guidebook, where I have ample space to include more information about my route, town services, trail angels, and more.
Portion of the databook I created for the Sierra High Route, which was not included in the guidebook

Portion of the databook I created for the Sierra High Route, which was not included in Roper’s guidebook.

9 Responses to Characteristics of an expert navigator: Part I — Equipped with proper tools

  1. Mike Moniz November 11, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

    Really thoughtful overview and advice, Andrew. Looking forward to the next installment.

  2. Korpijaakko November 12, 2013 at 2:11 am #

    I’m starting to enjoy this series a lot. Good technique and sound advice. Though I have to disagree with the GPS. In some places it’s about the only reasonable way to go: think of large icecap-like glaciers or gently rolling tundra in winter and these with whiteout conditions. Compass does work to keep you going the right way but locating yourself the destination or the bearing to the destination is about impossible withotu GPS. A special case but one of my favourite surroundings – but preferably without the whiteout. :D

    • Andrew Skurka November 12, 2013 at 6:39 am #

      A very valid point for those situations. Then why is my stance against GPS so strong? Because only about tiny fraction of this website’s readers are ever going to ski across an icecap or feature-less Arctic tundra, especially in a white out. So for the rest, map and compass is the way to go, at least with current technology.

      • Korpijaakko November 28, 2013 at 4:21 am #

        Valid answer to the valid point. And even if you’d (have to) rely on GPS for navigation in some cases, mastering the good old map and compass still provides useful background knowledge. Even if you’d use GPS you should still understand how to navigate and how the systems work.

  3. D J Beagrie November 12, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    Not many people realize how important a watch is. You may want to elaborate with Naismith’s Rule: in one hour most people walk 3 miles, a 1000ft gain in elevation will take an extra 1/2 hour. A most important survival tool too.

  4. Ben Carlson November 12, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    Interesting read. I look forward to doing some trips where some of the preparation you include makes sense; I’ve mostly been on well worn trails. I do carry a handheld GPS, but it’s primary function is to track where I’ve been on these trips for historical reasons or showing friends and family in Google Earth, which is pretty neat. I like the databook – it’s something I hadn’t thought about before.

  5. MikeM November 12, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    Hi Andrew. I stumbled on this and I’m looking forward to the future parts in the series. Thanks muchly for the write-up.

    Adding to the GPS topic, I’d also be concerned about the idea of going somewhere that requires significant navigation and relying on a GPS to do it. Apart from maybe the situations noted by Korpijaakko, I don’t think serious GPS use is a great substitute in cases where a good map, a compass, navigation and location awareness skills can also work. Not to suggest that they don’t also go wrong sometimes, but good navigation is frequently a combination of many different things, and to rely entirely on an electronic battery-powered device adds to the possible things that can also go wrong.

    I do normally take an eTrex with me, but my primary motivation is fro my hobby of wanting to review an electronic track of where I’ve been rather than to help figure out where I am or where I’m going. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t use it for reassurance from time to time, but I make a conscious effort to try and figure things out on my own before reverting to what the GPS will tell me.

    All of this said, when I take a GPS device, I still prefer a dedicated device rather than a smartphone. I guess there are heaps of things to consider, but for me it’s the specialised design that results in big fat buttons that work through gloves without requiring a touch-screen, reliability in unusual temperatures and weather conditions, knowledge that I can dunk it in a river (let alone take it out in the rain or snow) and it’ll keep working, and so on. Call me old-fashioned (ironic, I realise, when discussing a GPS), but I also like the AA batteries, which makes it easy to both take spares, and perhaps even easily buy spares whilst on the road if charging isn’t an option. :)

    Plus, it’s not specifically about the location-placing task to which you referred, but smartphones often run into this type of issue, due to often-being optimised for driving rather than walking.

  6. Billy2beers November 13, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    Andrew, I am really enjoying this post, and reading it with keen interest. I concur with others that teaching your backcountry skills is the most valuable thing that you do. A book would be great, as others have mentioned, because it would reach more of us.

    Your example of using the GPS to disambiguate your position when the glacier had retreated 2 miles is brilliant. I think. GPS is likely at its best (my opinion) when the datum (map or chart) is inaccurate or incomplete. GPS can give confidence when the map is inaccurate. The datum is now the weakest part of navigation systems (a well informed opinion).

    An illustration of incomplete data might be taken from here in the Southwest: a 30′ ravine that requires special gear to cross might not show on a topomap with 40′ contour lines. I’ve borrowed this illustration from the SAR community here, and am not making it up. I am uncertain how or if GPS would help in this case.

    How might you avoid a small ravine? How did you avoid tussocks and alder thickets in Alaska? Most of my kids live in Alaska, so I really want to know.

    I digress: packrafting teaching is most welcome too.

    I have two kinds of experience in tension in my mind that I am hoping your writing will help integrate. The first kind is off trail experiences in Oregon’s Cascades when I was younger – experiences like you often describe. The second kind of experience is professional and ocean crossing. My hope is that through reading (and hopefully understanding) what you are writing I’ll be better able to integrate and hybridize these experiences.

    Your thoughts?

    Vr/2beers

  7. Kevin Kelly September 7, 2014 at 8:49 am #

    I love your website. A lot of great information here. Here’s what I’m wondering though: doesn’t the cost and the weight of printing and bringing your own maps become prohibitive on longer hikes? If you’re hiking 1000 km you’ll need about 100 sheets at 1:24000. That’s $150 and 400g. At what point is more sensible to abandon paper maps and bring a GPS device?

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