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How to navigate || Part 1: Navigator’s Toolkit + Navigation Mastery

Navigation is one of the most important backpacking skills, and certainly the most liberating. It allows you to drive your own adventure, rather than being a passenger.

As a new backpacker with only rudimentary know-how, I was confined to backcountry thruways like the Appalachian Trail and high-use areas like Rocky Mountain National Park, where I had the security of well worn footpaths, foolproof blazes, and accurate signage.

A pleasant footpath through the green tunnel of the Appalachians

As my navigational competence increased, so too did the adventurousness of my itineraries, best exemplified with high routes and the Alaska-Yukon Expedition. Now, I can essentially wander wherever I please, regardless of whether a trail crew, guidebook writer, cairn-building backpacker, or another person has gone before me.

Adventuring in Gates of the Arctic National Park, which is 3.4 times bigger than Yellowstone and which doesn’t have a single mile of man-made trail.

Becoming proficient: The Navigator’s Toolkit

How can you learn to navigate? To become proficient, assemble the proper maps, resources, and equipment, and then develop the skills to interpret and operate them.

Collectively, I’ll call these items as the Navigator’s Toolkit, and in this multi-part series I’ll explain them in-depth.

Taking it to the next level: Navigational Mastery

How do you move beyond proficiency, and become a true expert navigator It’s a simple matter of experience.

Of course, experience cannot be purchased, downloaded, or acquired by reading blog posts or taking a class. Instead, you must undertake trips that continually expand your navigational capabilities.

When it’s done well, navigation may seem like a mysterious art form. But, in fact, it’s just pattern recognition — i.e. the application of lessons learned from previous trips onto new scenarios.

Proficient navigators possess the Navigator’s Toolkit. But expert navigators also have a vast collection of past observations to inform their travels through new but similar landscapes.

For example, I can look at maps of areas to which I have never been in Colorado’s Front Range and California’s High Sierra, and predict where you’ll find elk and use trails, talus and tundra, lingering snowfields, safe water crossings, beetle-killed spruce and lodgepole pine, and great campsites. And in Alaska’s Brooks Range I can identify the best line (or, as is often the the case, the least bad) based on the colors and textures of the ground and vegetation.

In contrast, when a merely proficient navigator looks at these same maps or over this same landscape, they don’t have the experience to interpret what they’re seeing. Without past observations informing their options, they often take sub-optimal (and sometimes just bad) lines, as part of their learning process. The next time, they will do better.

By taking a navigation course, watching navigation videos, and reading about navigation, you can more quickly become a proficient navigator. But the only way to become a pro is through practice.

Example toolkit

On a normal outing, what’s in my toolkit?

To start, there is the thing between my ears, my brain, which I use to read my maps and resources, and to work with my equipment.

I carry three types of maps:

  1. Paper small-scale overview map, like from National Geographic Trails Illustrated or Tom Harrison;
  2. Paper large-scale detailed maps, normally with the USGS 7.5-minute or FSTopo series as a base map, created in and exported from CalTopo; and,
  3. Digital layers (always maps, and sometimes Landsat imagery) downloaded to my smartphone using GaiaGPS, as backups and/or complements to my printed maps.

For more involved trips, I hope to have several other resources. If I’m following an established trail or route, often they will be publicly or commercially available. For custom itineraries, I may create them myself.

  • Route description, especially for off-trail sections; and,
  • Databook, which lists key landmarks, mileage, vertical, and possibly water sources.

To protect and store my paper maps and resources, I bring two gallon-sized freezer bags:

  1. For materials I need right now, stored in a side pocket; and,
  2. For the rest of my materials, stored inside my backpack.

My standard equipment includes a:

  • Magnetic compass;
  • GPS watch, which records a breadcrumb track of my route and which gives me time, altitude, cumulative vertical gain and loss, and barometric pressure;
  • Smartphone with GaiaGPS, which converts my phone into an extremely functional GPS unit with maps;
  • Portable battery to recharge my smartphone and GPS watch, as well as my inReach; and,
  • Retractable ballpoint pen (plus a backup), so that I can make notes and draw bearings on my maps.
A complete navigator’s toolkit, less the skills to use these items.

Leave a comment

  • How did you learn to navigate?
  • What questions do you have about my toolkit?
  • How does your toolkit differ?
Posted in , , on August 22, 2019
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19 Comments

  1. BlueDad on August 22, 2019 at 10:17 pm

    Really looking forward to the rest of this series – thank you!

  2. Dennis van Dokkum on August 23, 2019 at 12:19 am

    I personally believe that good navigation skills prevents a lot of stupid decisions that people can make being outdoors.
    I have learned my navigation skills In the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps (18 years) and my last 10 years working as a wilderness guide, guiding people all over the world. I am working wilt a silva prisma compass, one of the best base plate compasses I have owned. This in combination with a pencil (writing on a paper map is seen as a sin in the military), a rite in the rain notebook, suunto gps watch and also a phone.
    The last couple of years I am using all kinds of phone apps to help me to visualize certain navigation skills I want to show my students while being outdoors. Recently I am using the measuring tool and height elevation chart from the app MapOut. It Works perfect, you select point A and point B and it draws a line and then you see an elevation chart, distance etc. And an other good way for students is to draw contour lines on a rubber glove. They can see the difference in a flat map and a 3d map when you make a fist. A good way to really let people understand how contour lines work is letting them draw their own contourline map. I first let them make a small mountain from some sand and I than let them draw it on paper. They have to figure it themselves out how it shows on paper. They spend time and effort and the learn a lot. Anyway thanks for your great articles, looking forward for the rest.

  3. Max on August 23, 2019 at 7:50 am

    Always thought I was pretty proficient at navigating but when I was totally turned around off trail in a thick forest a month or so ago in the Trinity Alps I got lost! Well, not really. I eventually knew where I was, it just wasn’t where I wanted to be.

    The experience I brought with me from living two summers in Denali and lots of time in the High Sierra and desert Southwest didn’t translate to a thick forest where I couldn’t get an open view of tall landmarks to compare with the topo map (always in my pocket printed on waterproof pape- not only for H2O but they hold up better when folded and unfolded dozens of times.)

    Obviously I need more practice (or a gps). On the plus side I ended up in some cool spots where few if any people ever go and was never really in danger.

  4. Jason on August 23, 2019 at 1:59 pm

    Howdy sir,

    Great content as always. Sincerely appreciate you putting this out there and am looking forward to the rest of the series. The one question I have though is relating to an apparent overlap, at least to me, on the GPS watch and GaiaGPS on the phone. My very amateur observation is, wouldn’t it just be better to leave the watch at home given Gaia can provide the same information as the watch? Or do you use both to cross-reference for some reason? Thanks again.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 23, 2019 at 3:11 pm

      If you want to run your phone all day, GaiaGPS can give you everything that the GPS watch can, e.g. hiking speed, distance, current elevation, vertical change, etc. And Gaia will record a track, too.

      However, the GPS watch is substantially more efficient, in terms of battery life. At 60-second intervals, my Suunto Ambit3 Peak will record about 200 hours of data. That’s almost two weeks if I was hiking for 15 hours per day. Battery life of your phone is model-dependent, but I’d put it more at a day or two max if you run it with the GPS on all the time, even in airplane mode.

      • Jason on August 23, 2019 at 3:30 pm

        Ahh…that makes sense. I was thinking you’d have to be charging both the phone and watch and thus the gain very little. However, 2 weeks is longer than most trips anyone takes and so charging would not even be needed on the watch. With the phone giving you maps and camera (i.e. what the watch doesn’t have), I can see why having both is a reasonable solution. Plus, some of the overlap creates a nice little failover in case one craps out. Well thought out as always, Andrew! Cheers.

      • Ginny Lee on August 23, 2019 at 3:55 pm

        Can you download a route into the watch? That’s one of the functions I like about Gaia—the ability to download a route and use it to confirm location. Super appealing to have longer battery life though.

        • Andrew Skurka on August 23, 2019 at 5:04 pm

          You can, I think, but it’s not very useful. It would not, for example, show your current location relative to your intended route.

  5. Bob S. on August 23, 2019 at 3:39 pm

    One of the topics that seems to get overlooked in map/compass/GPS discussions is using the Avenza Maps app as a companion to paper maps.

    The app has a free version and works with geospacial PDFs created with CalTopo or you can download free maps from other online resources.

    I’m not saying Avenza GPS is a replacement for an app like GaiaGPS; it’s more like Plan B. I find it useful to have a digital version of a map that works with my phone’s GPS and compass and is the same as the paper map I have in my hand.

    • Douche P. on August 29, 2019 at 2:18 pm

      Bob, I’m with you on Avenza. Its been my app for years now for geospatial pdf’s from Caltopo. In face I’ve never used Gaia. You might be delighted to learn that Caltopo has its own app now 🙂

      • Bob S. on September 2, 2019 at 5:10 pm

        @Douche P. – I use CalTopo to georeference PDF’s I convert to jpg’s and store on Flickr to create geospacial PDF’s. Works great in Avenza for conservation areas and state park maps with trails that don’t appear on electronic maps.

        I use Gaia for the property ownership layer. Backcountry Navigator has better aerial imagery.

        I could use ArcGIS to accomplish either task.

        No navigation snobbery here. My credo is use whatever works best or is quickest/easiest and have a back-up plan just in case. I hate it when I fail to download a large enough area of off-line maps when using a cell phone app worse than I hate it when wind and rain shreds my paper maps.

        Use the proper tool for the job at hand 🙂

  6. Dave Pyle on August 24, 2019 at 2:04 pm

    Great series, however there is one minor error. You say you use “large-scale overview map” and “small-scale detailed maps”. However, that is reversed. Large scale maps cover a small area, small scale maps cover a large area. For example, an overview map may be 1:80,000 or 1:126,000 or more. A large scale map, like the USGS and FSTopo maps, are 1:24,000. The scales are fractions – 1/24 is a larger number than 1/80. It’s counter intuitive I know. I always have to to think about it for a second.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 25, 2019 at 5:13 pm

      Thanks for the correction. Funny, because as I was writing it (or updating it, really) I remembered that the small-scale/large-scale was counter-intuitive. But I assumed that the original materials (this post from 2015, and Chapter 5 of the Gear Guide) were correct, because they could not possibly have been incorrect for this long without someone saying something and me fixing them. Ha, they were!

  7. Just Me on August 26, 2019 at 6:05 am

    I don’t trek as much as I used to, (old guy now), but I often found an altimeter indispensable in high country travel especially navigating in white out. I am sure there are better one’s than the old Gischard altimeter I carry (barometer based), but I’m used to it and it has been a worthy partner on many, many adventures.

  8. GD on August 27, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    Really great information as always Andrew.

    Would you have any recommendations for locations that are good starting points for people to get into off-trail walking and navigation? Obviously lots of factors come into play (density of growth, landmarks, ability to bail, tick population and so on) – but no doubt you have lots of good experience on what works for first timers in this area.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 27, 2019 at 2:16 pm

      If you are just starting, then stay local, and make use of what you have. On our guided trips, we go off-trail in every location, even though in locations like West Virginia it’s really contrived — Why the hell would you bushwhack through guard spruce when there’s a trail nearby that takes you through identical scenery? But we find that the only way that our clients learn to navigate, both on-trail and off-trail, is by hiking off-trail. When on-trail, everyone gets on auto-pilot and only wakes up when they reach a junction.

      If you are wanting to do a real off-trail trip, then any of the high routes in the Mountain West are good options. Cross-country travel in the High Sierra and Wind River Range is blissful; usually in the Colorado Rockies, too, but our forests can be a bit thicker. Rather than undertaking these routes in their entirety, which is really committing, just start with a section-hike that you can extend or shorten depending on how things are going.

  9. Soren on August 28, 2019 at 2:48 pm

    Times have changed, and of course, for the better. In 2001 when I circumnavigated the Colorado Plateau (Everett Ruess Trail), I did the entire New Mexico section (mostly CDT-although back then the NM section was a lot of CD, little T) with no map other than a AAA Road Map of the state of New Mexico (yep), combined with some photocopied pages of an early Wolf Guide for NM. That was a immersion course in dead reckoning, but also in learning that sometimes it doesn’t matter if you know where you’re at exactly, as long as you feel comfortable with your skills and gear so that you can proceed until you do know.

    Now for me it’s all Gaia and cell phone, all the time, plus printed maps using the old Nat Geo Topo! CDROMs (which I still think is the simplest and cleanest tool for printing USGS maps and drawing/importing route data). I usually draw on Google Earth, then import to GAIA and Nat Geo TOPO! for digital and printed maps.

    As I teach my daughter to efficiently and safely travel in the backcountry, she’s gonna learn paper map and instinct long before she picks up a cell phone or GPS watch or any of that. I know grown adults who are in the backcountry all the time, but couldn’t read a topo map to save their life (or more likely to simply navigate around a swollen river crossing, or to detour up a more scenic drainage), simply because they’ve grown up with the ease of gpx files, and hiking/navigating apps that point the way for them.

  10. Bob S. on September 2, 2019 at 4:17 pm

    I prefer to store my navigation/map packet in a waterproof A3 size map and document bag (about $20). They are reusable, tough as nails, and don’t leak. I use them mostly for sea kayaking to hold my charts so the larger size is preferable to me. If A3 is too big they come in smaller sizes to fit your needs.

    Plus, this type of waterproof map holder doesn’t add any weight to my personal gear. I use the D-rings to clip my map onto the pack of an unsuspecting person in front of me like a ‘kick me’ sign 😉

  11. Doug Stephens on September 6, 2019 at 7:50 pm

    Maybe you will get there but truly understanding what terrain the contours on your map represent is essential. I’ve been land surveying for 36 years, and finding my way through the backcountry longer than that, so I take this skill for granted. Learn to read your map like it was Thoreau.

    On the micro level, a couple times I’ve navigated with …. my feet. Or, rather, kept myself on an otherwise invisible trail, by feel alone. Once, as I followed a dashed line on the USGS topo map that I hoped would take me to the shelter below Stratton Mt in Vermont. It was comforting to feel that familiar depression through the forest litter after the old cart path petered out. Every several hundred yards I would find a solitary old blaze on a tree as confirmation. The other time was 15 miles up Peters Creek in the Chugach Mountains near Anchorage, AK. The trail was so overgrown with grasses, Fireweed, Devil’s Club and Cow Parsnip, over my head overgrown, that I shuffled my feet along to feel for the opening of the trail at ground level. It would have led to some horrid bushwacking to get even 10′ off that trail.

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