Advanced Wilderness Navigation – Map Reading, GPS and Compass Use

Wilderness navigation is no joking matter. If you head out away from civilization, where roads and pathways are clearly marked and ready to take you to your destination, you might find yourself in trouble. In fact, you could face more than just inconvenience or being lost for a while.

In addition to being stranded out in the middle of nowhere for a number of days, or more—there is the very real chance that you could face great bodily harm, or even lose your life. It’s happened before around the world, and you can bet that it will happen again in the future. The worrying part is, these types of avoidable accidents occur much closer to your home area than you probably realize. 

1. Advanced Map Reading 

The goal of this section is to make you more familiar with some of the advanced map use techniques that are out there. These can be more than just useful when navigating; they can be utterly crucial in certain situations. When you are in the city, or even on well-traveled roads, there’s little need to use the types of complex techniques you will find here. They are more for when you find yourself moving away from the beating path, and into terrain that might be hard to cross, or perhaps even dangerous. That’s where having great navigation skills will prove invaluable.

Pinpointing Where You Are 

There are a few different ways to figure out where you are, in reference to your map. And, of course, the map is a representing of the world, so these methods will allow you to find your bearings, wherever you may find yourself.

It’s useful to be able to get your bearings, not only for when you’re lost, but also so you can be sure that you’re traveling toward the right destination. Remember, going just a few degrees in the wrong direction can add up to a huge distance after you travel for some time. If you already have practice at using a map, you should be able to use the following methods effectively. Otherwise, you just need to keep practicing (in a safe area). Some of the following techniques will require you to use your naked eyes, while others will also need you to use your compass. Your map will always be valuable to you, provided that you have one.

Transit Lines 

If you can draw an imaginary line between two features that are shown on your map, and they are each also in along your line of travel, you can make a transit line. By drawing a line on your map between these two things, you will be able to keep track of this. If you can look at the two features, and see that you are in between them both, you will know you’re located along that transit line. But this doesn’t pinpoint exactly where you are, does it?

It’s a good start, and a great way to ensure that you’re traveling in the correct direction, however. If you can’t see any features that line up directly, you can draw lines extending from them, to some other linear feature, like a path or stream. This will give you a point where your lines can meet up, which you can reference.

Back Bearing 

If you’d rather use a different method than transit lines, back bearing can be utilized. This method might be useful if you can’t use sight for some reason, like in a storm or during the night. You will need to be able to see features that you can recognize, for your initial bearing, however. You will also need to get on a track that’s marked on the map. Some other linear feature will also work, such as a wall or stream.

You will take your bearing in relation to whatever direction you are traveling in, and then use that to work out where you are. Next, you will look at your compass, and find in which direction the recognizable feature is, from your location. Just point the travel arrow of your compass at your chosen feature, and then spin the housing of your compass so that the orienting line pairs up with the compass arrow.

Please remember that you will get a magnetic bearing when using a compass. This seems pretty obvious, but people still overlook the significance of this simple fact. When you’re using your map, you are looking at grid bearings, not magnetic ones. Just remember to adjust your compass, or calculate the difference if your compass doesn’t allow for the necessary adjustment. 

Let’s move on, but lining the orienting lines of your compass with the eastings lines of your map. These are the grid lines that go between the north and south. Next, slide your compass on the map, until its base plate’s edge crosses over the feature that you’re using for your bearing. Where that line is crossing the track or linear feature where you’re located, is your current position, approximately.


This is not that different from the back bearing method, but this one can be used even when you’re not on an identifiable track, or if you are traveling on open land.

The first thing you will need to do, is get three bearings, using any features that you can see from the one location. These features must also be on your map. Artificial features are great, because they have easily identified corners, sides, etc. If you can’t see any, you can use natural features, like hill crests. If you can only find two acceptable features to use, that will work to a degree. The accuracy on your bearing will be much lower, but it’s better than nothing.

Now that you have your bearings, use the same method that is used for back bearings. Do this separately for each of your features, giving you three lines on your map. As the lines cross each other, they should form a little triangle in between them. Your location is somewhere in that triangle. If you could only use two features, you will know that you are somewhere near where the two lines cross.

Using Slope Aspects

This is a method that can be used if you are actually lost, to give you some idea of where you are. You can use that information to try and get a more accurate bearing of your location. First, you must know which kilometer squared grid section you’re located in, on your map. You will also need to be near a slope.

Stand so that you are facing down a slope, as directly as possible. Take your compass and get a reading of the direction of this slope. This direction is the “slope aspect”. Make a note of this, as you will be using it further.

Now, look at that kilometer square you’re located in on your map. The goal here is to find a slope that is facing downward in the same direction as your slope aspect. Once you find a match, you will know that you’re standing on that slope. You can use back bearings to help you out.

Once you’ve found a matching slope, it will give you a more accurate bearing if you get another one. Go to a slope that’s near the first one, and get another aspect slope reading. Valleys and spurs can also be used to help you narrow down where you are. You can even use such distinguished features to pinpoint your location.

Interpreting Topographic Features 

It can become impossible to find any man-made structures or features, especially if you are out in the wilderness. You might also find that certain features, like buildings, but be removed from or placed at certain locations. This could make your job of navigating more difficult. Natural features are less likely to change, at least as often, so you should certainly learn how to navigate with them.

You can use the land itself, and how it is shaped, to find your way. By looking at the contours and lines of the actual land around you, it is possible to make a mental picture in your mind. This will be useful for finding your way around.

If you’re used to reading maps of roads and suburban areas, using a map of a wilderness area is going to be quite a change for you. While maps are flat, they are created to represent a three dimensional world. This means that a lot of special map making techniques have been utilized, Understanding them is essential, because you’re not always going to have a path or identifying building to get your bearing from. For navigating the wilderness, you should have a topographic map.

Contour Lines

Topographic maps have the contour lines that you can use to navigate in the countryside. These lines show the elevation of the land, whether it’s a slope, hill, or valley, and more. If you walk over one of these contour lines, you will either be ascending or descending.

The trick to reading a topographical map is to imagine it as a three dimensional thing. For starters, you will need to remember that contour lines that are close together indicate that the terrain is steep. Contour lines that are farther apart indicate flatter terrain. These two points are some of the most important to remember. 

Some topographic maps with have shading added, to give them a more realistic appearance and help the user to imagine how the landscape looks. For example, the below map has elevation lines, shading, coloring, elevation lines, and a three-dimensional style. These aren’t too common, but it helps to demonstrate our point. 

Elevation Numbers 

The numbers on the above map are the elevation lines. These tell you how high a certain place is above sea level. The top of Mt. Passaconway is not 3,000 feet as you might think. That point is lower than the very peak. There are, in fact, four more elevation lines after the 3,000, when looking up to the peak. You can see that there are also four lines in between 2,000 feet and 3,000 feet. That tells us that there is a 2,000 foot different between these spots. If you count across, you will see there are five space between the four lines. By dividing five into 2,000, you can deduce that the space between each line represents a rise or fall of 200 feet. 

That also tells us that the peak of Mt. Passaconway is around 4,000 feet. You could have also worked this out simply by adding an extra 1,000 to 3,000, since we know that four lines makes that much. But knowing specifically how many feet of elevation each line represents, is particularly helpful. Of course, your map should tell you this information, so you might not have to work it out. 

Even if you don’t have any elevation numbers on a map, you can deduce that a certain spot is a hill, by looking at how streams might away or down it. Contour lines will also move more sharply in the direction of a hilltop. 

You can find out how rugged or steep ground is by looking at the contour lines as well, or what kind of covering is on the ground. If a spot doesn’t contain any contour lines, the ground should be relatively flat. That would make it more desirable for traveling on, or an ideal location for you to make camp. 

If you were to travel along a contour line, your current elevation would remain the same as you moved. This is helpful if you would like to avoid overworking yourself. As you cross a contour line on your map, you will be either going up or down. This type of information is a lot more specific than simply knowing which direction you’re traveling in. And those who wish to travel efficiently in the wilderness need to have access to a topographical map, and know how to use it. 

2. What If You Have No Compass?

There are ways to roughly estimate your location, or at least which way is which, without a map and compass. If you should find yourself lost, and you don’t have either of these things for whatever reason, this section will be of great help. 

Tracking the sun is a useful technique. Please don’t forget to purchase a copy, if you are in need of beginner techniques for navigation. 

Use Your Wrist Watch

You can use your wrist watch to estimate which way north is. An analog watch with hands is the best for this purpose. If you don’t have this, just try to imagine where the hands would otherwise be. 

First, remove your watch and line up the hour hand with the current position of the sun. Focus on the halfway spot between the hour hand and where 12:00 is. Next, imagine that there’s a line going directly through the center of that point. That line is going south. This works if you are in the Northern hemisphere. If you are in the Southern hemisphere, you will need to line up the sun with the 12:00 position on your watch, essentially doing this step in reverse. 

The North Star

This one is a lot more difficult, but you can find your way at night with this technique, without a compass. You need to know where Orion’s belt is in the sky. That means you should look for it in advance, so that you can practice identifying the constellation of Orion. There are three stars in the center of the belt and they create an imaginary line. This line runs from the east to the west. Orion’s sword, which is part of the constellation that leads from Orion’s belt, points from the belt, toward the south. 

3. Basic GPS Use

There are plenty of GPS devices available for sale, but they’re not all suitable for trekking through the wilderness. There is a definite difference between the smaller, handheld GPS devices that are intended for traveling on foot, and the ones that are being made for use in cars and other vehicles. You’re not going to find much use in a GPS device that only has information about roads and built up areas, if you plan to leave the well trodden path and go into the wilderness, are you? And you will certainly want something that’s on the small side, so that it fits easily in your hand as you walk, and can be tucked away neatly into a pack or even a pocket. 

Durability is another important factor; something that is tough and preferably waterproof is ideal. These devices should have a screen to display the map, so you need to consider how fragile this might be. If it were to break, the GPS wouldn’t do you much good. 

Using Your GPS Receiver

There are a few different ways you can use a GPS device to learn your location. 

Trip Computer: You could use the device to tell you the distance you have traveled, and how long it took. It’s probably the easiest to just use the trip computer and have it tell you how far you’ve walked. This is because you won’t need to worry about learning all the ins-and-outs of your GPS device. Of course, if you just wanted the easiest choice, you’d probably stick to the tourist walkways and avoid learning navigation all together. But that’s not what our goal is here. 

As a car shows the driver their speed and distance traveled, your GPS device can do the same sort of thing. Using this information, you can figure out how far you have already traveled, and how much more you have to go. When you start moving, you will need to reset this trip computer in your GPS device, however. This isn’t the most detailed way to navigate, and is best left for paths that you already know, or where there are clear signs or map details. 

GPS Coordinates: You could get your coordinates from the device, and then use those to work out your location and route using a topographic map. This mixes the old and new technology, while still keeping things interesting for you. It’s likely that your device will tell you its location using latitude and longitude. You might have a topographic map with those details, but it is going to be difficult to calculation your location this way. 

It’s easier to navigate using the grid reference system. These are those grid lines on your topographic map. This system is often written about using six digits to represent a location. 

For example, consider this number: GR 700 300.

“GR” simply indicates that this is a grid reference number. The first three numbers are then your east-west axis (horizontal location), and the final three numbers indicate the north-south axis (vertical axis). The grid system is also known as UTM, and it covers the entire world. 

You must change the settings on your GPS device so that it displays UTM numbers, if you want to use this system. 

Device Guidance: You can transfer a GPS map of the area into your GPS device, in advance, and then have the device show you where you are as you go. While this is a bit more complicated to set up, especially if you’re not good with technology, it’s pretty easy to navigate when a device is showing you the way. You can obtain GPS files that will work with your device, either online or from stores that sell such things. 

It’s best to obtain your files in advance, and make sure they’re loaded and working. You will need to refer to the manual of your device to learn how to do this. It will probably be different from the next device you might come across, depending on the make and model. The universal file format for GPS files is GPX, so this should work on most of them. 

You will probably need to use a computer to actually load the files onto your GPS device. This is done in a similar way to loading files onto any other device, or a USB storage stick, for example. You should definitely never take a brand new GPS device hiking and expect to just start using it without an initial set up, with a computer and the Internet. 

Smartphoneswith GPS

Yes, most smartphones and some portable devices do have GPS receivers these days. You might already use one in your car, to help you navigate the streets without making any wrong turns. Please remember that such devices will often only last a few hours before the battery runs dry, while using a GPS navigation app. Unless you have some sort of portable charger or a way to plug them in (like you would in your car, with a cigarette lighter adapter), you’re not going to get much use out of your smartphone on a hiking trail. 

The base map for many smartphones is probably going to be Google Maps or Apple Maps, depending on your operating system. These services are great for driving, but they’re not suitable for going away from civilization. You should really get a GPS device that can handle maps specific to walking in wilderness areas. Yes, you can get apps and map packages that do this. In that case, your smartphone would be suitable for hiking. But you still need to factor in the relatively short battery life, and make sure that you’re not left with a flat GPS receiver when you need it the most. 

It certainly helps to always have a paper map with you, just in case. 

4. Planning a Route

Planning your trip is in many ways just as important as the actual trip itself. If you will not be following a pre-made path or road, you’ll have to route where you plan to travel. Failing to do this is just inviting disaster. You can plan with a map or GPS; it doesn’t matter too much, as long as it has accurate details that will help with traveling on foot. 

Here are the three key things you should consider when planning your route:

Use as little energy as possible. You don’t want to be walking all over the country side, going up too many inclinations, or back tracking. Going out of your way to see a particular feature is fine, since that’s half the fun of hiking. But you should always plan how much energy you will need to exert, and allow for that in time and supplies. 

Safety is a big factor. Avoid terrain that is prone to natural disasters like falling rocks, avalanches, flooding, etc. Try not to cross waterways or walk on hillsides that are often slippery with mud. There are plenty of things to be cautious of, so do plenty of research and figure out how to avoid them as much as you can. If a trip is just too difficult for your level of expertise, or the weather is bad, be willing to postpone or cancel. Safety always comes first!

Speed is also important. Are there any ways you can travel faster? Could you be going on a flat trail, instead of walking uphill? The safest route is often fastest as well, because it will be free of things that get in your way or slow you down. 

5. Advanced Compass Use

Using a compass is a honed skill, and if you don’t regularly use that skill, you risk falling out of practice. Being able to use advanced techniques, such as triangulating and sighting, is something that a responsible wilderness traveler should know how to do. 

You might already know that the accuracy of a magnetic compass will change, depending on certain things. These include not only how well built and maintained the compass is, but the characteristics of the land, and how knowledgeable the person using it is, when it comes to hiking and navigation. If you don’t understand how to factor in all the little variables, and read the land properly, your compass readings might not be as accurate as you assume. While you will not have control over certain variables, there are ways to lessen how these affect your navigation. 

Declination is one of the first things you should learn about. You are hopefully aware that north on your compass is not necessarily the same as north on the map you are using. It shifts each year, so maps go out sync with magnetic north. Luckily, there are ways to alter your readings. 

Declination can also be affected by local attraction. This results from nearby materials that influence your compass’s magnet. If there are high concentrations of nickel or iron in the terrain, for example, it will lead to an inaccurate compass reading. The bodies of cars, high voltage electrical lines, or even the batteries in electric devices, might have an impact on your compass as well. 

  • How can you improve the accuracy of your compass, in the face of so many variables? 
  • There are three steps that the advanced navigator can take to ensure that their compass readings are as accurate as possible: 
  • Ensure that you have the most up-to-date data on declination as relates to the area.
  • Use a compass that allows for declination adjustments.
  • Avoid sources of electricity, and deposits of steel such as iron.

If you’re trying to triangulate your exact location by getting several bearing lines that cross over (as discussed in the chapter about advanced map use), an object’s size and shape can have an effect. It’s best to find reference objects that are easy to see and have distinct features. This will be the most accurate way to sight a feature. In the real world, you’re going to need to accept that your map is telling you the truth, and judge by whatever you can actually see on the real terrain. This is why having the most accurate data is essential. 

The distance between yourself and a feature is also going to make a difference. If something is at least five miles from where you are, there is going to be noticeable room for errors. 

Your compass and its quality will naturally affect how accurate your readings are. It’s recommended that you buy the best compass you can afford, with advanced features, if you’re going to use these techniques.

A compass with a mirror is highly recommended. This mirror can be made with a notch at the top, which acts as a sight. Using the mirror, you can hold the compass up and not only get a clear line of sight to the feature in front of you, but also the one behind, using the mirror. This makes your bearings far more accurate and it’s worth spending the extra money on a compass that allows for this. At the very least, your compass should have a section at the front that allows for a notch, which can be lined up with the forward feature. 

Before you plan to go on an outing, you should practice using your compass as much as possible. If you have purchased a new compass, this is especially important. Take it for walks in the park, or on outings to the mall. Use it to line up features and to get your bearings. This is going to be more useful if you take a map with you as well. In more urban areas, you can simply use your road directory for practice, if you don’t have an appropriate topographical map for those areas.


Learning how to navigate in the wilderness, without the need for signs or electronic devices, is a vital and exceedingly useful task. These skills are so very important, but they are often overlooked by would-be adventurers, who can be more interested in their new gear and seeing the sights. Those things are fine to give attention to, but you do not want to be lost without a good compass and map to guide you home.  

But before you can actually make use of these two vital tools, you need to learn how to use them in a range of environments and situations. 

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