How to navigate || Part 4: Navigator’s Mindset & “staying found”

With just a credit card and reliable internet connection, an aspiring navigator can acquire the proper maps, resources, and equipment.

The final two steps to navigational proficiency require more intention, self-study, perhaps an evening or weekend course, and most importantly field practice. In other words, the process is more time-intensive, but also more fun.

These steps are:

  1. Putting oneself in the Navigator’s Mindset, and
  2. Developing the skills to interpret and operate the maps, resources, and equipment.

This is the fourth installment of a multi-part series on backcountry navigation. If you landed here first, consider reading the remainder of the series afterwards, or start with the Introduction so that this post has more context.

From a high point above Tablelands, Brian Robinson discusses the proposed route with members of the group.

Tell me a story

When teaching clients how to navigate, we regularly ask them to tell us their “navigational story.” This device helps put them in the Navigator’s Mindset, specifically to be:

  • Attentive,
  • Present, and
  • Anticipating.

The story itself consists of three parts:

  • Where we’ve been (“attentive”),
  • Where we are (“present”), and,
  • Where we’re going (“anticipating”).

We ask clients to illustrate their story on the map, and to prove it with information they glean from their map, resources, and equipment. There must be alignment — if there are discrepancies between the story and these tools, clients must revisit their story line or double-check their instruments.

Dave Eitemiller and crew get their bearings before committing to a big climb up Adventurer Col on the Kings Canyon High Basin Route.


It’d be reason to pause if:

The story is that we…

  • Reached a lake after climbing steeply west for an hour, but in fact we only climbed for 35 minutes and we were hiking east (“not attentive”);
  • Have arrived (we think) at the ford of Return Creek on the Pacific Crest Trail, but our altimeters read 8,800 feet instead of 8,600 feet, and the creek is flowing southeast instead of southwest (“not present”); or,
  • Expect to reach a junction after hiking downhill for 15 minutes, but the trail has been flat and we’ve been hiking for 10 minutes.

It’s sometimes okay to proceed when the story is not matching up entirely, but do so skeptically. If more information comes in that further questions the story, then maybe it’s time to stop and figure things out.

When a navigator is convinced that their story is correct even though it’s full of holes, it’s called “bending the map.” While you may not want to “waste” more time by getting the story straight right now, my experience is that it’s time well spent.

Case study: Yosemite High Route

To demonstrate the navigational story, I’ll use a case study from the Yosemite High Route, which is fresh in my mind since I was on it in July.

First, let’s look at the map. Suppose that we’re having this conversation at the gun sight in the middle of the map, and we’re essentially following the red dots from west to east.

Where we have been. “We walked along the east shore of Rock Island Lake, crossed Suicide Ridge, descended a steep tundra/talus gully to the head of Crazy Mule Gulch, then climbed moderately in a northeast direction for about 300 vertical feet.”

Where we are. “We’re standing on the saddle between Crazy Mule Gulch and Slide Canyon, which I can prove with multiple pieces of evidence.”

  • The description of this saddle in the Yosemite High Route Guide is very similar to how I would describe it.
  • The map depicts this saddle as being above treeline and broad. Both are true.
  • From the base of the descent off Suicide Ridge, it took us 20 minutes to get here, which is about right for hiking 0.6 miles off-trail and uphill at altitude.
  • Using my compass, I found a bearing of 195 degrees to a peak that topographically looks like Bath Mountain.
  • My altimeter reads 9,920 feet. The maps says this saddle is at about 9,940, which is within the margin of error for my altimeter.
  • Finally, my GPS says that I’m here.

What we’re anticipating. “From this saddle, the guidebook instructs us to drop southeast towards a low-volume creek, and then to use this creek as a handrail while descending 700 vertical feet on Class 2 slabs to the base of Slide Canyon.”

The right tool for the job

A navigational story is more convincing when it’s supported by multiple pieces of evidence. In the case study above, for example, I proved where we are by using every single item in my toolkit.

But the process need not be so thorough every time. One piece of supporting evidence is mandatory, and often sufficient. A second is good practice, especially when off-trail. When you’re less certain of your story, employ all of your tools until you become certain.

Leave a comment!

  • How have you learned to best “stay found?”
  • When have you “bent the map” and got yourself in some trouble? How did you recover?
Posted in on August 30, 2019


  1. on August 30, 2019 at 11:55 am

    I had an opportunity to put to use the skills you taught us on a trip I took in June. I stopped for a break after a long climb and pulled out just my paper map and nothing else.

    I knew what time I started, and for how long I had been walking. I knew that I had just passed a section of steep incline along the left wall of a drainage basin, where the terrain fell off steeply to the right of the trail and climbed steeply to the left, onto flatter ground. I knew that the sound of the water below was further away. I knew that I could see the summit of an unknown peak through the trees to my right.

    Without using a GPS, without looking at my phone, I was able to just look at my paper map, point my finger at a spot and say, “I am here.” It was a prideful moment for me.

    So thank you.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 30, 2019 at 12:35 pm

      LOVE hearing things like this from alumni. A proud moment for me too!

    • Andrew Skurka on August 31, 2019 at 9:26 am

      Indeed, my intention in writing a 7,000-word series on backcountry navigation (in which I’ve invested about a full work week, I might add) was to sell a few more copies of a guidebook.

      You got me! It’s been totally worth it! Sales have gone through the roof!

      Or, maybe I used the Guide as a case study because (1) it’s more relevant, since most readers normally undertake a trail, route, or itinerary that has an existing mapset, route description, and possibly datasheet and (2) I have access to the source files and therefore could quickly post info without needing permission from another author or publisher.

  2. Tim on August 30, 2019 at 1:00 pm

    Great series, Andrew. For relatively inexperienced navigators, I’d highly recommend checking out a local orienteering club as a cheap, convenient, low-stakes way to practice a lot of the skills and mindset you discuss here in micro. For those who aren’t familiar, orienteering is essentially a map & compass treasure hunt. Making your way from one “control” (checkpoint) to the next is a small-scale version of the kind of navigational story describe above: “I jogged downhill from the clearing and as expected I’m now by a marsh with a creek heading roughly northeast. If I follow the creek for a couple minutes I should see a gully to the northwest, which will tell me that the control is nearby.”

    Of course orienteering and backpacking have different navigational goals/requirements/risks, but it’s a great way to develop map + compass skills and hone your intuitive sense for the relationship between what you see on a map and what you see around you. I’m a casual orienteer (2-3 events per season) but it’s definitely helped my skills and confidence when backpacking.

    A few points that may be helpful:
    – Folks in the US can check the Orienteering USA site for nearby clubs; other countries have similar organizing bodies.
    – At most events the volunteer organizers are ready and eager to show beginners the ropes, including those who have never picked up a compass before.
    – There will typically be several courses of different difficulty levels (from well-marked trails with checkpoints in easy-to-spot locations to almost entirely off-trail with subtly placed checkpoints).
    – It’s self-paced, so go at whatever intensity you’d like, from a casual family stroll to an all-out dash. Every event I’ve been to has had an enjoyably wide range of intensity/skill/experience levels.
    – Expect to pay $5-10 to register on site (which includes a map). No need to register beforehand.
    – There are often compasses available to borrow or rent; check with organizers beforehand to be sure if you don’t have your own compass.

    All of the above may vary from club to club, but they’ve generally applied in my experience (mostly in Michigan but also Long Island and New England).

    • Alex on January 31, 2020 at 3:56 pm

      I emphatically second the recommendation for orienteering races. They are fantastic navigation practice and force you to get good at visualizing where you are on a map, where and how to make navigation decisions or check-ins, and doing it quickly and on the run. Plus they are a ton of fun and you can get a good workout doing it!

      I am in Seattle and we have a super strong orienteering club here with races at least once or twice a month all year, anyone in WA should check out Cascade Orienteering club.

  3. Phil Smith on August 30, 2019 at 8:17 pm

    Superb series! Thanks for the hard work putting it all together and “out there.” Planting the seeds with these fundamentals could encourage someone, somewhere, to take the time to acquire necessary navigation savvy and perhaps prevent serious injury, or save their life. Little seeds often grow. Simply put, it cannot be overemphasized. Attending one of your comprehensive sessions/ trips is on my “want to” list!

    I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been playing high on Mt. Hood when unexpected weather moves in. In a perfect world of accurate Wx forecasts with bluebird days in drifts of wildflowers, one can plan around trekking pace, connect the dots, Zen out, and all’s well.

    Often though, the forecasts change, weather moves in, and visibility narrows so no landmarks are visible for bearing. I’ve lost count of the times I turned back when weather looked dubious. There’s a fine line between calculated risk, and recklessness for a goal.

    A marine layer moving inland can accumulate and turn everything soupy white. Every time I’ve paused in those conditions and asked myself which way back “feels” right, I’ve been grossly wrong. Descending along a natural fall line is most often deadly — the latitude and forgiveness for lateral errors is often slim. In such conditions, it’s perhaps similar to pilots flying 100% by instruments. Applying sober judgement with the aid of map, compass, altimeter, and gps can all tie together in agreement to ensure a safe return.

  4. Buck on August 31, 2019 at 8:37 am

    huh. your case study from the Yosemite high route – given the prominence you assign the guidebook as evidence for where you are and as the sole
    point of evidence for what you anticipate (“From this saddle, the guidebook instructs us…”) , it seems as if the number one tool for getting into the navigator’s mindset is to buy the Yosemite high route guide.

    As you say, a sole piece of supporting evidence is often sufficient. Just buy the guide and follow in the exact footsteps of everyone that’s come before.

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