Updated on October 10, 2021
Experienced hikers will often rely heavily on maps or GPS units to navigate along trails and through wilderness areas, whereas many novice hikers will simply try to “wing it”.
Amateurs will often reason that they can stick to well-traveled trails and forego the hard work needed to learn how to use maps. As the saying goes, ‘Good luck with that. Let me know how that works out for you.’
Sarcasm aside, you really can get seriously lost, even near clearly marked trails.
Even stepping a few yards off a trail into heavy forest has confused more than one beginner. In the absence of sun, stars or geographical markers it’s easy to get turned around. You can wind up walking even farther from the trail. Before you know it, you’re lost.
Many maps won’t necessarily help you out of that forest, per se. But you’ll usually run across another trail that, unknown to you, hooks up with the one you were on. A good map and some basic map reading skills will help you easily get back to your starting point.
So, how do you start?
Acquire a current map covering the area you intend to hike. Study it at home in a relaxed environment. You won’t be able to match the map against features you see, but it will help you understand the symbols used.
Almost all maps will have a legend. Get familiar with the symbols. They differ from map publisher to publisher.
Find out what the scale is – look for 1 inch = 1 mile or similar markings.
Don’t forget, though, that distance is only part of the story. One mile on level ground is one thing. But if 3/4 of that distance takes you from near sea level to 2,000 feet high by a steep, winding incline, that’s quite another.
To factor in the latter, you need to consider altitude. Altitude markings are usually indicated by a series of curved lines that, if ‘stretched out’ would make a circle. The distance between two curved lines around some natural feature like a large hill indicates the altitude. Often there will also be numbers printed along the lines to help you. These are sometimes called contour lines. The closer the lines are together, the steeper the terrain.
Now, look at the longitude and latitude lines. Longitude runs ‘up and down’, or north and south. Latitude runs ‘right and left’, or east and west. Those directions are put in quotes because they’re all just conventions. Maybe you’ve seen one of those maps that has the world turned ‘upside down’ with Australia on the top and Canada on the bottom.
In the daytime you can use the sun and natural features to orient yourself. The sun rises in the East and sets in the West. So early in the day, find the sun and you are facing mostly East. Late in the day, face the direction of the light and you are facing predominately West. There are variations because of coastlines, latitude, etc. It’s just an approximate starting point.
At night, you can use the stars. You can often see the sky reasonably well – most wilderness areas are relatively far from city lights. Look up about 8 p.m. at night. Look for the Big Dipper, the group of stars that looks like a cooking ladle. The two on the end of the ‘scoop’ form a line that points toward the north star, away from the scoop.
Even at night, then, if you have a flashlight to read your map by, you can get yourself back onto a trail to find your way back.