Characteristics of an expert navigator: Part II — Proficiency in the understanding and uses of tools

This post is part of a series on the characteristics of expert navigators. I’d recommend first reading the Introduction and Part I, and then returning to this latest installment.

My map-reading skills were honed during early-season and off-trail travel in the Mountain West, which normally has distinct topography and good visability. Selden Pass, High Sierra.

My map-reading skills were honed during early-season and off-trail travel in the Mountain West, which normally has distinct topography and good visability. Selden Pass, High Sierra.

Within a few days of starting my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2002, I began dead-reckoning using my watch and the Databook. With surprising accuracy, I now had a method of monitoring my hiking pace, pinpointing my location in between known landmarks, and predicting the time it would take to reach upcoming points of interest like water sources, shelters, and road crossings.

While I quickly picked up this skill, it took many years until I achieved fully the second characteristic of an expert navigator: proficiency in my understanding and uses of my tools.

The scope and pace of my learning was mostly driven by my route’s conspicuousness and by the location’s topographic relief and visability — the very same factors that determine which navigational tools I carry and to what degree I rely on them. Bushwhacks through East Coast forests, for instance, forced me to master the compass. My map-reading skills were honed by on- and off-trail travel in the Mountain West. And skiing across Alaska’s featureless Arctic Coast gave me reason to learn GPS.

In Part I of this series I described the navigational tools that I use. In this post I will explain:

  • What you should know about these tools, and
  • What you should be able to do with them.

I will not, however, teach these things. For example, I’ll list the compass operations you should know, but I won’t explain how to perform them. Instead, for this next step, you should find in-depth resources about individual topics, take classes offered by a local outdoor club or retailer, or consider joining me on a guided trip.

Alaska's Arctic Coast gave me reason to learn to use GPS. In this featureless and frigid landscape, a GPS was faster and more reliable than map-reading and dead-reckoning.

Alaska’s Arctic Coast gave me reason to learn to use GPS. In this featureless and frigid landscape, a GPS was faster and more reliable than map-reading and dead-reckoning.


When I exclusively used guidebook maps, trail-specific maps, and recreation maps, my map-reading skills struggled. On such maps, it’s often difficult to identify anything but the most obvious and broad features, due to small map scales, large contour intervals, limited color palettes, and the overlaying of copious information at the cost of clarity (e.g. topographic detail obscured by boundary shading or place names). Moreover, these maps are often presented as narrow strips, lacking topographic information beyond the immediate trail corridor.

These maps were sufficient for following obvious trails but not for traveling off-trail, on poorly maintained trails, or in early-season conditions when the trails were snow-covered. In retrospect, I should have taken detailed maps on low-risk outings in order to improve my map-reading skills for when I really needed them.

What should you be able to discern from a map? Ideally, you want it to come alive — you want to be able to virtually see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the area it depicts. But for starters, you should know:

Scale. What is a map’s scale, and how does it correspond to real distances (e.g. inches on the map per mile)? Can you measure distances on the map? Can you envision the size of a topographical feature in the field after seeing it on a map, or on the map after seeing it in the field?

Contour lines. What are contour lines? Using them, can you quickly identify peaks, ridgelines, valleys, mesas and other features? Can you tell whether adjacent lines represent increasing or decreasing elevation?

Relationship of scale and contours. If you use the same map series frequently (e.g. USGS 7.5-minute maps printed at 1:24,000 with 40-foot contours), you will learn the relationship of scale and contours, which is useful in, say, determining the best approach to a trailless summit, the feasibility of a mountain pass, the steepness of a slope, or prospective locations for good campsites.

Background coloring. In general, what do the background colors of green, blue, and white represent? And how are these colors interpreted for a specific location? For example, in New Hampshire, what colors are used to depict natural ponds, beaver ponds, open swamps, and forested swamps? In Colorado, how would you explain white background near the top of an 11,000-foot ridge, immediately below very tight contour lines at 10,000 feet, and in the bottom of a wide valley at 9,000 feet?

Legend symbols. Can you correctly interpret symbols and colors on the map? For example, how does a map depict seasonal water sources, springs, marshy areas, man made structures, land management boundaries, prospects, sinkholes, jeep roads, and more?

When you look at this map, can you quickly identify features (e.g. peaks, valleys), determine increasing and decreasing contour intervals, visualize the ground cover (e.g. forest, alpine) based on shading?

When you look at this map, can you quickly measure distances (assuming 1:24,000 scale), pick out features (e.g. peaks, valleys), determine increasing and decreasing contour intervals, estimate slope steepness based on the relationship of scale and 40-foot (left half) or 20-foot (right half) contour intervals, predict ground cover (e.g. forest, alpine) based on shading, determine points along the ridgeline (other than Colby Pass) that are passable, and identify lakes, glaciers, and swampy meadows?


The compass is an extraordinarily powerful tool. In areas with limited visibility and subtle terrain, it’s a lifeline. But even in open landscapes with distinct features, I still use it often to confirm beyond a reasonable doubt what I’d deduced already through my map-reading, especially in those occasional situations when conditions are not as favorable.

There are only five operations I regularly perform with my compass:

  1. Orient a map
  2. Take a bearing in the field
  3. Take a bearing on a map
  4. Apply a bearing in the field
  5. Apply a bearing on a map

You might notice that triangulation did not make my list. To me, this seems like a useful technique only after I get lost, and frankly I find it easier to simply stay found.

When orienting a map, and taking and applying bearings in the field, your accuracy may be notably affected by magnetic declination. You should have a conceptual understanding of declination and know how to account for it when using a non-adjustable compass or adjustable compass (my preference).

Brian Robinson offering some map & compass instruction in Yosemite, specifically how to find or apply a bearing on a map by using the compass as a protractor.

Brian Robinson offering some map & compass instruction in Yosemite, apparently how to find or apply a bearing on a map by using the compass as a protractor.


A watch can be useful in structuring the day — wake-up, rests, camps — but in specific regards to navigation it’s essential for dead-reckoning, which for hikers who stick to trails is perhaps the most useful skill to learn. It’s easy, too, since it involves only three variables:

  • Distance between two points
  • Rate (hiking speed)
  • Time

Since Distance = Rate * Time, you only need to know two in order to determine the third.

Find Distance in a guidebook or databook, or by measuring it on a topographic map. Observe Time on your watch. And know your Rate by analyzing your performance on past trips, always in consideration of altitude, vertical gain/loss, pack weight, group size, terrain, and your current fitness.


An altimeter watch calculates altitude by measuring barometric pressure, which changes with elevation and also with weather patterns (i.e. low and high pressure fronts). Changes in barometric pressure due to weather will affect the accuracy of an altimeter, and so you must know how to recalibrate it. You’ll need a map featuring landmarks with known elevations, and — for at least the first time you do it — the owners manual.

Once your altimeter is calibrated, it has three uses:

1. Contour. Avoid elevation gain or loss while still covering horizontal distance.

2. Pinpoint your location. If you match your altimeter reading with the same elevation on your map, you know you must be somewhere along that contour. If there is a second known feature, too (e.g. creek, switchback), you are at the intersection of that elevation and that landmark.

3. Hike to an elevation. If you know the elevation of a point of interest (e.g. pass, trail junction) you can stop asking, “Are we there yet?” until you have reached that elevation.

Contouring at around 10,800 feet on the Sierra High Route between Evolution Basin and Snow Tongue Pass

Contouring at around 10,800 feet on the Sierra High Route between Evolution Basin and Snow Tongue Pass


While I strongly prefer a map and compass over a handheld GPS unit, it has its place — like an off-trail route through a featureless landscape with bad visability (think Antarctica, not the AT). If you use one, you should know its four main functions:

1. Pinpoint your location. A GPS will give you the coordinates of your exact location. If the GPS is not equipped with quality maps (unlikely), you’ll need to transfer these coordinates to your paper map, which involves knowing coordinate systems and knowing how to play Battleship.

2. Create a waypoint. Before or during your trip, save the exact locations of important or interesting landmarks — the trailhead, a trail junction, a superb fishing spot, your campsites — as waypoints.

3. Navigate point-to-point. The GPS will tell you the distance and direction to saved waypoints. If you instruct it to navigate to a waypoint, it will take you on a straight-line path there. Note, however, that it doesn’t do the walking for you, and it doesn’t have the intelligence to avoid an utterly stupid route between points.

4. Create a track log. A GPS can drop “bread crumbs” along your route, so that you can follow it back to your car, repeat it on a future trip, and share it with friends.


This has been a long post with a lot of information. Do you feel I should have added anything more about the understanding the uses of navigational tools?

Also, I’m curious to know from readers: What is your level of proficiency? Are there tools with which you are relatively strong or weak?

Posted in on November 26, 2013


  1. John Going on November 26, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    I’m enjoying this series – thanks for taking the time to write these lengthy posts!

    One takeaway for me – When hiking well-marked trails I should be monitoring my progress, time, distance and learning to dead reckon.

    I would like to learn how to apply a bearing on a map. Also, I often find myself on the top of mountains surrounded by other peaks. I’d like to be able to identify the surrounding peaks using my map and compass.

  2. Billy2beers on November 26, 2013 at 11:51 pm


    You posted a photo in Part 1 that appeared to depict using a hiking pole to extend a compass bearing to a distant peak. Perhaps I misunderstood what I was seeing. Regardless, I thought that was a brilliant use of a hiking pole.

    Vr/ 2beers

    • Andrew Skurka on November 26, 2013 at 11:54 pm

      Yes, that is exactly what we did — we had no other straight-edge available of that length.

  3. Jan aka BeeKeeper on November 27, 2013 at 7:03 am

    I’m a novice and have lots to learn. I have spent a lot of time over the past few years improving my map reading skills, but am extremely deficient with compass skills. I need to go on a few solo trips to improve these skills as it seems when I’m with companions they are impatient and either just want to hike or use GPS. We do a fair amount of off trailing and find ourselves in terrain we could have / should have avoided had we don’t better route planning.

    Thanks for the info and basics. I need much more indepth learning but am happy to gobble up available resources.

  4. Rocky on November 28, 2013 at 12:01 am

    I’m pretty good at dead-reckoning on well-maintained trails using recreation-style maps. Except my hiking pace just jumped from 2.0 to 2.4-2.5 mph for reasons that aren’t entirely clear yet, so I’m recalibrating.

    I’m pretty good at staying oriented, and being able to orient a map using a compass or observed features. I learned a lot of ship navigation in the pre-GPS days, and I’ve spend a lot of time navigating rivers on raft trips, so most of these skills are second nature to me.

    I virtually never go off-trail, so I don’t need a lot more map-and-compass skills. In theory, I could recall those skills from a decades-ago basic mountaineering course, but I have my doubts.

    My Suunto Vector altimeter won’t stay calibrated, despite recalibrating several times per day at known elevations. After wandering 1 mile down the wrong trail because the altitude was several hundred feet off, I no longer trust it. Others seem to like Vectors, maybe mine’s bad.

    I highly recommend that people take courses to learn outdoor navigation. Very few will be able to learn from blog posts or books.

  5. dana on November 28, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Most off-trail experience is here in midwest ; through heavy forest cover and minimal elevation change. So I rely on compass and watch to gauge when I should arrive. Using an altimeter is new to me- my garmin gps has it built in but I found it innacurate even after calibrating next to a lake. So I never really used it as a navigation tool. I am curious to know how much accuracy do you rely on/achieve? +\- 100 feet perhaps? Thanks for the informative post. Will be neat to apply map skills to an off trail western state route someday.

    • Randy Martin on November 30, 2013 at 2:22 pm

      Altimeter usage in the midwest or wherever elevation gain/loss is minimal is going to be not very useful. My Garmin 60csX measures accurately to within 50ft generally. In a place like Colorado that is plenty accurate. Somewhere like the midwest, 50ft in elevation could be miles apart.

  6. samh on December 4, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    Howdy Andrew, firstly I hope you’re getting a cut from people who click through to the Hasbro website. Secondly I’m very appreciative of this high-level instructional posts. They contain enough info to convince the reader to learn more through further reading or through seeking out in-person instruction. Lastly, I’d say my navigation skills are acceptable but I’d like to become more proficient in speed and accuracy.

  7. Luke Schmidt on December 4, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    I have triangulated on two occasions when I was not technically lost but I wanted to confirm my position. In one case my friend and I were wading through deep snow to reach a rather narrow pass on a forested ridge. We really didn’t want to get off course and waste time.

    Another time triangulation came in handy was on a recently rerouted section of the Colorado Trail. The official trail had few markings and it was hard to tell from the stock trails so at one point we weren’t sure if we wandered off course or not. I triangulated off two peaks and convinced my friend we were on the correct trail and did not need to backtrack.

    I agree you probably don’t need to triangulate often but I think its a useful tool to have just in case.

  8. Dave Spady on December 8, 2013 at 1:02 am


    With google maps, google earth and photoshop, it is very easy to create your own accurate and free topo maps. The advantage of this is that you can include features on the map such as the trail, and mile markers along the trail, an elevation graph, large magnetic north lines, precise elevation information to calibrate your altimeter at key points such as lakes and mountain crests.

    The most useful feature that can be added (on the backside of the map) are 3D pictures from google earth with the actual trail overlaid. Several pictures from different angles and positions can give the user a very good feel for the elevation and the trail and greatly increase the utility of the map. In fact, the 3D trail pictures become more useful than the topo map itself.

    Anyway, I did a five day hike in the Canadian Rockies last summer and the map was easily the most useful map I had ever used. With a very little bit of competence in photoshop and google earth, I think it’s well worth the investment in time.

    Check it out here (2 sided 11×17 map):

    Just thought I’d share.

    I enjoy your blog,

  9. Dogwood on January 12, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    I’m above average in map and compass navigation but still in Kindergarten in regards to proficiency with hand held GPS units use in the backcountry in featureless or limited visibility scenarios. I know I have to improve my GPS skills though because I want to do more long distance hikes in similar featureless conditions as you did on Alaska’s Arctic Coast but in jungle environments/deserts, etc(S. America, Australia, China(Gobi Desert), Siberia(hopefully one day). I barely got by with map and compass navigation doing a couple of longer featureless stretches on a Hayduke Trail thru-hike in flat remote areas. I’ve gotten better at map and compass navigation since than though.

    I very much appreciate that you are constantly looking to improve at everything I see you publically doing. It’s noticed in this series of topic. Even with your accomplishments in a variety of endeavors you don’t project “I have arrived ” attitude. I find that refreshing.

  10. Sted on February 8, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    I read your blog for this type of post (or series). UL Gear info has passed saturation, but the skills to do more than walk seem to be more and more rarely talked about.
    I’ve done a couple thru-hikes on well blazed trails, and while you still certainly befall adversity and unexpected obstacles, there comes a point where it barely qualifies as adventure(it’s mostly just walking after a while). I was super impressed with Junaid and Luke this past summer, and would like to plan something like that myself for 2015. My day hikes on the front range mostly involve trail-less terrain, and I’m working on it but I’m smart enough to know that I need to know more before planning a massive backpacking route myself.

    Point is, I like the series so far. Keep the skills and knowledge coming.
    Also, and maybe this would come at the end, I hope you’ll throw out a recommended reading list since you don’t have a skills and preparation book yourself.

  11. Jim Milstein on February 21, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    I have the new DeLorme inReach SE GPS/Iridium two-way texting device, principally for safety/emergency use, but it supplies the user with geo-coordinates and pairs via bluetooth with display devices.

    I use a 5th gen iPod and Gaia GPS for mapping using the SE’s GPS signal. The iPod has a super-good hi-res display for USGS topos and aerial photos. The iPod’s touch screen is not the best in cold temperatures, but I’ve learned to use it in very cold and wintry conditions. iPod weighs only 80g and includes a pretty good camera. Both devices can be recharged from a cheap Energizer gadget that uses 3 Li AA cells. The recharger with AAs weighs about the same as the iPod. Total weight for SE and iPod and charger is thirteen oz. For long trips, take extra Li AAs at 15g each.

    I use a Suunto MC-2 G baseplate compass with global needle. I amputated its mirror. Also use a Suunto Vector for time and altimeter functions. The Vector has a digital compass, but it’s very rough and no easier to use than the mechanical one.

  12. Jess on February 23, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    The breadcrumb feature on a GPS is really the only reason I’ll put up with carrying them. For a search and rescue mission the tracks will often be downloaded and overlayed so the IC can see what areas were actually searched. I could also see using the feature to collect data on a longer trail with an eye toward writing a guide.

    I agree on the compass skills. I will leapfrog on an exact bearing occationally, but it’s almost never nessisary and certainly isn’t the fastest approach.

    For actual day to day navigation I think paying attention to the sun, handrails, and drainages to be the most useful. Over-emphasizing gear makes it harder to practice when you’re just wandering around in daily life. A good map does make a huge difference though.

  13. Callum on March 18, 2014 at 11:14 pm

    Map and compass. Every time I head into backcountry, whether in Scotland, Iceland or the Faroe Islands, I bring detailed topographic maps of the area we’re visiting and a declinated compass. They are always at hand and constantly used as conditions can quickly change from clear to foggy with low visibility.

    While the Faroes are small, it’s easy to hike around and know where you are in good weather, even without map and compass, however, the mountains are networked with long and precipitous stretches of slick basalt cliffs, stacked one above the other in a sort of labyrinth, with massive gorges of steep cascading waterfalls intersecting them. Taking a tumble could lead to a dramatic fall into the crashing surf, hundred of feet below.

    Taking, noting and marking nearby feature (20m) back-bearings in those labyrinths is useful regardless of the weather, as finding the way back could mean missing an entry point and leading you to a dead end. We heard from a Faroese bus driver on a day we were heading out to hike that a couple had to be rescued for the same reason just described, they were stuck on a ledge in thick fog and could not find their way back.

    This type of navigation can be exhausting, but all that being said, I’m content to be proficient in map and compass skills for hill fog and night navigation conditions, especially since I’m always hiking with my better half. Teaching her map reading and compass skills benefits us both too. It helps instill what I know and gives us a chance to build skills together.

  14. Russell Johnson on July 7, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Just curious … was Part II the final installment of this series or were more posts forthcoming?

    • Andrew Skurka on July 7, 2014 at 9:59 am

      Other commitments have gotten in the way. I’ll finish this series up eventually.

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