Five Steps on How To Navigate a Map in the Backcountry

Five Steps on How To Navigate a Map in the Backcountry

Five Steps on How To Navigate a Map in the Backcountry


We live in a world today where exploring the backcountry is a lot easier than it once was. We have the right tools and technology to get us from point A to point B, without having to worry too much about getting lost. That being said, despite the fact we have modern conveniences like handheld GPSes, it’s still just as likely that one can get lost outdoors. Especially, if you don’t know how to figure out where you’re going.

We’re here to teach one of the most important skills of the outdoors. Follow this step by step guide and learn how to navigate a map in the backcountry. 

navigate a map in the backcountry, compass, navigation, hiking

Step One: Get Your Tools Prepared

In order to learn how to navigate a map, you first need one! Wherever you plan on hiking, get yourself a detailed topographic map of the area. It’s possible to get topographic maps at places like AAA, atlases, online, local parks, etc. The map should be “zoomed in” enough to be able to see the natural and manmade features within. Yes, some of these maps can be found online, but you want to have one you can actually hold and write on. You will also need a navigational compass, a small ruler or straight edge, and something to write with (a mechanical pencil or name pen would be best.) Of course, you’ll also need a flat surface to be able to read your map. A nice rock or boulder should do the trick!

Step Two: Find Your “You Are Here” Location

Before you get started seeing where you’re headed, you need to know where you’re coming from. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the first key when planning your trek. To navigate a map in the backcountry, you’ll need to first determine your current location. If you’re starting at a main trailhead, this should be easy peasy. Though, navigation like this is typically used when the trail path isn’t as obvious.

There, make a dot. This is your “You Are Here” (for now, of course.) Next, determine and find where it is you want to end your hike. For you, this might mean the place where you’re going to make your camp for the night. Mark that again with a dot. Bam! You’re almost ready to go.

navigate a map in the backcountry, hiking, navigation, compass

Step Three: Draw Out Your Ultimate Path

Now that you’ve marked your start and end points (perhaps Point A and Point B on your map), it’s time to essentially, “connect the dots.” Using your compass’ edge, place it between the two points, and draw a line. If the distances between the two points are too far, this is where you’re ruler comes in handy. Once you’ve connected the points and determined your bearings, take a breather. Only two steps left.

Step Four: Adjust Your Compass

To navigate a map in the backcountry, you need to know how a compass works. Keeping your compass aligned between those two points, it’s time to find your direction. Without moving the compass, rotate the compass bezel so that north dial marker on your compass (zero degrees) matches due North on your map. When you’re done, look down again. Where the large front arrow and underlying solid marker align, is the direction you’ll need to walk in to reach your destination. Some compasses have another bearing marker on there to help with this step.

navigate a map in the backcountry, hiking, navigation, compass

Step Five: Lock it in and Go!

Now, your path is locked into place, as long as you don’t touch the bezel. Lift your compass up, and prepare yourself for the last step. With your bearing locked into place, hold on the compass straight in front of you, parallel to the flat surface of the ground (it should be a 90-degree angle.) Then, align the compass’ North needle with those arrows which mark your direction. Once those are aligned, rotate YOUR BODY until the compass needle falls onto the north’s arrow outline (usually a red color.)

Now, your direction is straight ahead of you. Start walking! 

Bonus Step: Things to Keep in Mind

Remember, just because you’ve found the “straight” direction to your destination, doesn’t necessarily mean your walk is going to be straight. After all, there could be a mountain, a crater, thick vegetation, or another huge obstacle in your way. (Though, you should be able to see any of that from your map in the first place.) To solve this, it’s a good idea to “aim off” and find sub-routes, in case something gets in the way of your main route.

Another thing to remember when you navigate a map in the backcountry is that when we look at as north and what true north actually is, they could be miles and miles apart. For a short hike, this shouldn’t effect you too much. But, it’s important to know how to declinate your compass in the event your “north” throws you off a bit. Luckily, some compasses already have declination built in. Just make sure you know which compass and what kind of map you’re dealing with before you head out.

Congratulations! Now you know how to navigate a map in the backcountry. Time to put your skills to the test!


hanalarock I'm Hana- a freelance travel writer and teacher who currently lives in South Korea. I'm originally from New York, but have spent the last two years traveling and living abroad. My first time hiking in the US was when I traveled around the country as a teenager. Though, my first adult backpacking trip was a year ago, when I hiked from Thailand down to Singapore for a month. I'm looking forward to many more adventures in the future. Visit my site for more information.