Basics of Backcountry Navigation


Whether you are an experienced or beginning hiker, getting lost in dense and maze-like backcountry settings is always a possibility, especially when you are exploring new regions. This makes learning backcountry navigation skills vital for every wilderness trip.

Modern GPS navigation systems are great tools when it comes to finding your way in the wilderness. However, as with most devices, GPS systems can fail when you need them most. Understanding different backcountry navigator techniques can help you get back on track even when you find yourself in the most confusing locations.

In this article, we will focus on helping you improve your backcountry navigation. By the time you reach our overview, you should be a better backcountry navigator.

What Gear Will You Need for Backcountry Navigation?

There are some pieces of hiking gear that you need to invest in to become a better backcountry navigator. In this section, we will talk about the gear you need.

If your goal is to explore the backcountry near populated areas, a smartphone featuring a GPS signal should prove sufficient for your backpacking trip. However, for improved accuracy, you should consider investing in a dedicated hiking GPS unit.

If you plan to go into remote areas or off-trail, purchasing a compass and maps is extremely vital. High-quality compasses can be purchased online while maps can be purchased from the local camping store. To keep your map safe when you are out in the wilderness, consider investing in a waterproof map sleeve or case.

Steps to Follow When Navigating the Backcountry

1. Understand Where You Are

At this point, we are assuming that you already have a map in your hiking backpack. Grab your map and try to determine where you are by using the recognizable symbols on the map and relating them with the landmarks you can see around you. This is referred to as orienting the map. Once your map is oriented, you should have the ability to identify north, east, west, and south and stay “connected” with the map as you travel.

If you do have a properly-configured GPS unit, determining your current location should be much easier. You will simply need to use the coordinates appearing on the unit and those on your map to estimate the distance between you and the closest tic marks.

2. Determine Where You Want to Go

Once you figure out where you are currently, the next step will involve taking a few moments to determine where you would like to go next. Using the same map, identify the next major landmark (river, valley, intersection) and the most ideal route. Elevation, distance, type of terrain, and even skills will all come into play when choosing the most ideal route.

3. Take Advantage of the HACC System to Get to Your Destination

Taking advantage of the obvious landmarks, via the HACC system, will help you ensure that you are on the right track. It can also help you figure out how quickly you are currently traveling. Below, we will explain the HACC system:


These are well-established features that any backcountry navigator can follow easily for extended periods, allowing for fast travel during the big scale navigation. Before putting your map back in the backpacking backpack, look for handrails such as rivers, hydro lines, lake perimeters, etc.

Attack Points

These tell you when you are getting close to where you are going. They let you know when it is time to switch from the big scale backcountry navigation to the detailed navigation.

Collecting Features

These are clues you pick up along the way that help confirm you are still on the right track. In addition to helping you avoid getting off-track, collecting features can help increase your confidence and also let you know the speed at which are you are currently traveling.

Catch Features

These are recognizable landmarks that can stop you from going off the map or overshooting your destination. These are ideal for keeping you from going too far off the course.

While traveling toward your chosen destination, be sure to have a catch feature in mind – this will warn you to turn back if you happen to miss your target. The catch feature can save you hours of frustration, especially if you are navigating under challenging conditions or in a new area.

Using a Compass in Backcountry Navigation


Orienting Your Map

This is extremely important when you cannot see any obvious landmarks around you. To learn how to orient your map using a compass, follow the steps below:

Turn the dial on the compass so that its North is set at the top close to the travel arrow direction.

Place the compass on the map so that the North-South lines on the compass align with the North and South on your topographical map.

Holding the compass and map flat in front of you, turn your body until the compass’s magnetic needle is “in the house”. At this point, you will be facing north and the map will be oriented correctly so that you know which direction you need to follow.

Taking and Following a Bearing from Point A to B

If fog just rolled in and you would like to get off the ridge safely, you can use the compass to take a bearing so that you can know you are following the right direction. The steps below will help you:

With the edge of the compass, draw a line from A to B. Make sure the compass is pointing in the direction of travel to avoid creating an off-bearing.

Holding the compass base flat on the map, turn its Bezel (this is the compass dial that moves and lists cardinal signs north-south, west, and east) so that the North-South lines are lined with the North and South on your map, with the North at the top. This will calibrate the compass to your bearing.

Step away from your map, hold the compass correctly in your hand and then turn your body until the needle is “in the house”. This will be the direction of your travel. Sight using a landmark that is far away (for example, hill, tall tree, rocky outcropping, etc.) and then start heading to that landmark.

Globo Surf Overview

If you have been trying to become a better backcountry navigator, this article has everything you need to know. For your navigation to be successful, you need to ensure that your travel backpack has all the necessary navigation gear.

If you intend to use a GPS unit or a compass watch, be sure to learn how to use it beforehand – different brands will have varying instructions. Understanding your gear will help you avoid issues on the trail.

More Backpacking/Hiking Reviews:


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Globo Surf
My name is David Hamburg. I am an avid water sports fan who enjoys paddle boarding, surfing, scuba diving, and kite surfing. Anything with a board or chance I can get in the water I love! I am such a big fan I decided to start this website to review all my favorite products and some others. Hope you enjoy!