Pragmatic advice for better hiking navigation

July 29, 2015

Hiking in a wild or isolated region? You'll need to know how to use a map and compass. We'll give you the basics, teach you how to use the stars, and tell you what to do if you get really lost.

Pragmatic advice for better hiking navigation

Navigate with the stars or use a GPS

  • If you need to orient yourself at night, you can use the north star, Polaris. Find it by taking the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper and making an imaginary line upwards, about 5 times the distance between the stars. Polaris will be the brightest star in that region of sky and will point you north.
  • During the day, the position of the sun can be used to give you a general idea of direction. Insert a short, straight stick in the ground. Mark the tip of the stick's shadow an hour before and an hour after noon and join the two marks together. This will establish a line running roughly east­–west. Keep in mind that the relative position of the sun varies with the season and the latitude. In midsummer, it rises and sets approximately north-east and north-west respectively. By midwinter, its path is roughly south-east to south-west.
  • A more precise way to get your bearings is with a portable Global Positioning System (GPS). These instruments use satellite signals to establish positions with great accuracy. A portable GPS is extremely useful in a large expanse of featureless terrain, such as a desert, but you should still have sound working knowledge of a map and compass.

Learn to read a topographic map

  • Topographic maps are two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional landscapes. The maps most commonly used for bushwalking have a scale of 1:50,000, meaning that one centimetre on the map equals 500 metres on the ground.
  • Contour lines that connect points of equal elevation are the most pertinent feature and every map has a specified contour interval (the vertical distance between contour lines). Because the picture is a bird's eye view, the closer together the lines are, the steeper the slope depicted, while the wider the space between lines the more gradual the change in elevation.
  • Overlaying the contours are numbered grid lines that run north–south and east–west. A grid reference is a six-figure number that pinpoints a location on a map. The first two figures identify the vertical (north–south) grid line to the left of the location. The third figure is an estimate in 10ths from the grid line to the point in question. The remaining three figures refer to the horizontal grid line below the point and an estimate in 10ths from the horizontal grid to the location.

What to do when things go wrong

Sooner or later, even the most proficient navigator encounters a moment when the terrain takes an unexpected turn.

  • Being lost doesn't have to be traumatic: the trick is to know what to do when it happens. The most important thing is to keep a cool head.
  • The moment you feel unsure about your whereabouts you should stop, rest, and calmly assess your options. Often a bit of careful scrutiny of your surroundings and the map will be enough to reorient you. If this does not work, you should consider retracing your steps to a known feature or move to higher ground.
  • In bad weather or fading light the best course of action may be to make camp or find shelter.
  • When you've exhausted your options but are still lost, stay put. Pushing on for hour after hour into unknown territory can greatly reduce your chances of being located by a rescue party.

Learn to use a compass

  • Orient the map and use a compass ­to find your position on it. Draw a line on the map from your position to your destination.
  • Place the compass base plate on this line. Rotate the compass housing­ so that the north–south lines match those on the map.
  • After adjusting for magnetic declination (by using information on your map), hold the compass and map steady, and view along the direction-of-travel arrow to sight a landmark.

Even the most intrepid explorer sometimes loses their way. Just remember these tips and stay alert: you'll be back on familiar ground in no time.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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