Tactical Notes – Navigation

Hiking or backpacking navigation, when properly applied, lets you know where you started from, where you are, and how you can return to your starting point. It verifies you’re on the correct route, and gives you a reasonable estimate of how much distance you’ve covered and how close you are to your destination.

Knowing where you are is essential if you have an emergency on the trail.

Only with proper directions can rescue and medical aid personnel quickly and effectively reach your location.

Navigation is something you have to learn and practice. For our purposes, the Navigation Category requires that you:

  • Attend a navigation class to learn the basics, and how to use your navigation equipment.
  • Periodically practice with your equipment to maintain familiarity and proficiency.

Required Navigation Equipment

Assuming you’ve taken the navigation class, you know it’s virtually impossible to effectively navigate without proper equipment.

To that end, a map and compass must be carried by every individual at all times on the trail. You’re strongly encouraged to carry a GPS unit as well.


Land managing agencies (Forest Service, Parks) and search and rescue groups use topographic (topo) maps to the exclusion of all others.

topographic (topo) map– A map that displays contour lines to show the elevation and relief of ridges and valleys.

Lake Valhalla Trail (Green Trails Map)
Lake Valhalla Trail (Green Trails Map)
Courtesy Green Trails, Inc.
P.O. Box 77734, Seattle, WA 98177

In addition to contour lines, a topographic map should have the following features:
  • Map Scale- A bar or linear graph, usually at the bottom, that shows what measurement on the map indicates one mile on the ground.
  • Declination Scale- The variation in degrees between true north and magnetic north. Usually indicated in the margin, or near the north arrow.
  • Your trail or route- You’d be amazed how many people embark on a trip without making sure they have the right map in their pack!
Your map should be current, or the most recent edition.

If the map is out of date, certain features may be missing, or shown on the map when they are no longer on the ground. For example, a trail may have been re-routed due to a slide or other hazardous condition, and the route change would be noted on recent maps, but not indicated on older maps.

Protect the map during the hike.

Most maps are made of paper, and should be kept as dry as possible. Commercial map cases are available, however a large zip-lock baggie works just as well.

It’s wise to a carry (in the driest, most secure place in your pack) a second copy of your primary map, just in case the original self-destructs or decides to walk away.

The Author recommends the Silva Ranger Compass (shown here).


Сильва Рейнджер Компас
The Author recommends the Silva Ranger Compass (shown here).

There are many types of compasses available. Some are excellent, some are completely worthless. It’s best to purchase, and train with, a quality compass.

With your compass, you use triangulation to find your current position if you have view of at least two landmarks you can identify on your map. Your compass displays the landmark bearings in degrees on the compass scale, which can then be plotted on your map. Your physical location is where the bearing lines intersect on the map.

Search and rescue or emergency services personnel can use your bearings to aid finding your location on the ground.

For navigation purposes, only consider a compass that has the following features:
  • Liquid-filled capsule- Dampens needle vibration and movement.
  • Declination Adjustment- Most everyone knows that a compass points north. What may not be known is that the needle points to magnetic north, whereas a map is usually set to true north. The compass should have an offset declination adjustment that sets it to true north so it can directly relate to the map. A geared or mechanical adjustment is best.
  • 360 degree scale- A 360 degree scale (the graduations around the compass ring) is consistently used by search and rescue groups.
  • Clear baseplate- Allows the map features to be seen through the bottom of the compass when the compass is laid on the map. Compasses that have clear baseplates have a ruler (very useful!) integrated with the baseplate.
  • Hinged sighting mirror- The best compasses have a hinged lid with a mirror inside. The mirror is used to obtain precise bearings, and is also useful as a signal mirror.
  • Lanyard- This allows a user to secure the compass (around neck or on clothing) when it’s in use. The lanyard’s also used to measure overall trail length on a map (trails on maps aren’t always ruler-straight!) for comparison with the map scale or baseplate ruler.

I recommend without hesitation the Silva Ranger Compass, which has never let me down since 1973.

Global Positioning System (GPS)

GPS units are rather new on the scene. They’re extensively used by the military, law enforcement, and search and rescue, and should be considered an essential item when you plan your hike.

GPS Use and Capabilities

GPS units triangulate much like a compass, but use satellites instead of known and visible landmarks. They establish your current location as a latitude and longitude. Once obtained, search and rescue or emergency services personnel can use your latitude and longitude with their GPS units to reach your location.

GPS units, unlike traditional compasses, also display elevation. A known elevation aids establishing current location when used with a topographic map’s contour lines.

GPS units have one distinct advantage over traditional compass navigation. They can be used in the dark, or in the daytime when visibility is poor. You don’t have to have visible map landmarks for triangulation as when using a compass.

A GPS has many other functions, and requires training and practice much the same as the map and compass. A good navigation or orienteering class should include instruction in GPS use and capabilities.

GPS Limitations
  • Battery Requirements– GPS units require batteries. You need to pay attention to battery strength and condition; a good practice is to put in new batteries before every major trip. Carry a spare set of batteries.
  • Poor GPS Coverage– This used to be a problem with older GPS units in areas such as in heavy timber. Newer versions have much better coverage, and work in most terrain areas. There may be exceptions, however, and coverage may be a consideration if you have an older unit. You should practice with your GPS to become familiar with its overall capabilities in all terrain conditions.

A GPS should not be regarded as a stand-alone device. Your GPS should supplement, rather than replace, map and compass use. Never leave your map and compass behind and expect to rely totally on your GPS.

GPS Affordability

There was a time when a GPS was an expensive luxury, and many opted not to make the high-tech jump. Times have certainly changed. Excellent, state-of-the-art GPS units may be had for just under $100 USD, roughly the same cost as a quality pair of light-weight boots.

The advantage of being GPS-equipped puts it on the “must have” equipment list.

The information given here doesn’t qualify you as a navigator. You MUST attend a hands-on Map/Compass/GPS class before venturing into the wild. Just reading about it and putting the equipment in your pack won’t do you any good without hands-on practice!