Getting off the beaten path, exploring terrain few have seen, and learning how to figure it all out – does that sound exciting? But…maybe you need to up your off-trail navigation skills to feel comfortable attempting a route.
Once you’ve done a thru-hike or two, you’re ready to really challenge yourself! You understand how to prepare for a thru-hike, all your gear, and basic navigation skills. Now, you want to feel confident navigating off-trail.
I’ve completed multiple long-distance routes, off-trail peak bagging, and navigated my way through some crazy terrain. These 5 steps are how I slowly built my backcountry navigation skills where I feel confident finding my way without a trail.
Basic Backcountry Navigation Skills
Being confident navigating yourself hundreds of miles on trail is different than navigating yourself through hundreds of miles of cross-country hiking.
Off-trail navigation is definitely a different ball game. And it’s meant to be.
➡️ The absolute BEST ADVICE I can give you is to consistently look at your maps and don’t zone out.
To successfully traverse trail-less landscapes, you must actively participate.
It can mentally drain you before it physically drains you. And that’s ok.
The five steps below are meant to jump start your process into being comfortable in your off-trail navigation skills. You may pick it up quickly or you may struggle and need more help.
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Moving From Basic Navigation to Off-Trail Navigation
All of these steps are best done with a few IMPORTANT SAFETY PRECAUTIONS.
- 📝 Leave a rough itinerary with a knowledgeable friend/family member. This includes where you plan to go explore, how long you plan to be out, have a call out time, and your Garmin InReach info if you have one.
- 👯Try to learn off-trail navigation with a friend or mentor.
- 🌤️ Check the weather before you go so you’re aware and pack the appropriate gear.
- 👣 Always make sure to Leave No Trace and learn how to do so properly in the terrain where you plan to explore.
- 🗺️ Aim to always have map redundancies (digital and paper map back-ups)
- 📱 Remember that all digital maps depend on battery power and can fail due to lack of battery power or water damage.
- ⚠️ Learn how to manage your risk levels and explore at your own risk.
While I wrote this post for anyone looking to get into off-trail navigation, I want it to be a good starting point for thru-hikers who have hiked other long-distance trails and want to move into something harder but maybe don’t know where to start.
Step 1: Learn How to Read a Topographic Map (Topo)
The number 1️⃣ step that I tell people is to learn how to read a topographic (topo) map.
Start learning to read a topo map at home. Grab a paper map and a Gaia GPS downloaded map on your phone and learn how to read the lines.
⛰️ Do you know which lines indicate ridges?
🌄 Do you know which lines indicate a valley or drainage?
〰️ What distance do the contour lines represent?
Try pulling up different maps at home. It’s helpful to try this on a computer where you can move different layers around. Add on satellite imagery if you’re struggling to read the topos. Try to start “seeing” drainages and ridges.
Do this multiple times.
If you’ve hiked another long-distance trail like one of the triple crown trails like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or Continental Divide Trail, pull up some of those trails with topo lines.
Find an area that you remember walking through in the past and examine what the topographic lines look like with your memory of the area.
Step 2: Download Offline Maps on Gaia GPS and Hike a Trail – Stop Often to Compare Topo Lines to Geographic Features
After you have a good idea of how to read a topo map, you’ll want to find a trail nearby to practice on.
Make sure to have a paper map and off-line topo maps of the trail you chose.
My FAVORITE phone GPS app for off-trail navigation is Gaia GPS. Once you make an account with them, you can add in GPS tracks, GPS points, make your own routes and points, and most importantly: download off-line topographic maps!
When you hike your chosen trail, keep your paper map and Gaia GPS handy. Don’t pack them at the bottom of your day pack!
Above, I provide an example of a topographic map with some clear trails in drainages, clear ridges, and contour intervals.
📱 As you hike, every 5-10 minutes use them to see where you are on the map. You can use Gaia GPS to see your exact location amongst the topo lines.
Compare the terrain you see to the lines on the map.
🗺️ Once you feel more confident, try to do it on the paper map before checking your exact location.
Repeat checking the map, your location, and match the topo lines to the geographic features around you!
Try this on multiple trails that have different features. If you can find a trail through a valley or drainage, examine the steepness of the contours to either side of you. Likewise, find a ridge trail and look at how the ridgeline shifts and changes with what you can see on the map.
Step 3: Plot a Possible Route Between Two Trails And Go Try It (Have Paper & GPS Maps)
By step 3, you should feel confident in your ability to sight-read topo maps.
At home, grab a paper map and download your maps on Gaia GPS. If you want, you can plot a rough route on your computer using Gaia to follow. Keep in mind, that the reality of your proposed path might have a large thicket of thorns or catclaw in it that you can’t see on the map.
First, look for 2 trails to navigate in-between. This way, you start on a trail, get comfortable, then hone into your off-trail navigation skills by paying close attention as you move from one trail cross-country to another.
👯 When you’re ready to go, if you have a friend or hiking mentor, see if they’ll go with you. It’s helpful to have a companion when you jump into true off-trail navigation for the first time.
This distance does not have to be far. Try navigating cross-country between trails (or dirt roads) for ½ mile to 1 mile at first. Expand that distance on another hike.
Step 4: Find Open Public Land and Navigate Between Geographic Features
Once you feel confident in smaller cross-country navigation, let’s go a little bigger.
Here, Gaia GPS really comes in handy. With the ability to download any USGS topo map in the United States, the possibilities are huge.
Start at home looking at an area where you can explore off-trail. Sometimes, you can find areas where you start on a trail and jump off to explore public land nearby. Always make sure to leave no trace and make sure you’re not jumping into a restoration area.
Go try your proposed off-trail route. ⚠️ Please, remember to tell someone your plan and leave no trace.
Once out there, try to follow the direction you wanted to go. See what landmarks you can spot and navigate toward. Try navigating between landmarks. Investigate which terrain is easier to cross-country and which terrain really sucks to cross-country.
🧭 Make sure to make notice what the map looks like in the easier places and what it looks like in the harder places. Allow yourself to make adjustments as you go.
Finally, repeat! Try this with a new area. Try it with a new friend. And, return to steps 1 & 2 as needed.
Remember: most routes use pieces of trails and dirt roads all the time. On a route like the Grand Enchantment Trail or the Lowest to Highest, you get some navigational breaks. Feel free to navigate between 4×4 roads in the desert and see if you can connect a few of them.
Step 5: Repeat Steps 2-4 in Different Terrain
Here is the crux: repetition. If you get comfortable in off-travel navigation in the desert, try the forest. Or, if you’re comfortable navigating off trail on ridges, try canyons or valleys.
🌄 Note: GPS apps sometimes take longer to find signals in dense forests and canyons. Be patient and know how to find your location on your paper topo map as well.
On any given route with a lot of off-trail navigation you’ll hike through multiple environments. You’ll often get a mix of off-trail ridge walking, canyon or drainage following, forest hiking, or following rivers and creeks.
If you practice navigating off-trail in various scenarios, you’ll be more prepared to take on a long-distance route.
Not sure what you’re ready for? Read my post comparing the Arizona Trail, Grand Enchantment Trail, and the Hayduke Trail. (Don’t let the word “trail” fool you!)
Bonus Step: Take an Orienteering Course
If you’re struggling or need more guidance, look around your area for an orienteering course. 🧭
Check out REI, your local community college, NOLS, or other outdoor organizations. If there’s nothing near you, look for courses around an area where you would like to learn off-trail navigation and make a trip of it.
There’s nothing wrong with getting a professional to teach you the basics of backcountry navigation.
While I always have a compass on me, I personally find using it more cumbersome than sight reading consistently. However, I do pull it out and refresh my skills with it periodically.
Final Thoughts on Off-Trail Navigation
I think backcountry, off-trail navigation is a fantastic skill that every thru-hiker should at least become familiar with.
That being said, you should be extra careful in practicing it that you leave a trip plan behind with someone and practice leave no trace. Trails are developed purposely to concentrate the use in a given area, so stepping off-trail should not be taken lightly.
However, even on the best of trails, chances always exist that could land you off-trail and turned around. If you accidently get off-trail, having off-trail navigation experience will help you to get back on trail safely and effectively.
The key word there is safely. Take the proper precautions and set yourself up for success.