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A Hiker's Guide to Basic Navigation (How to Use a Compass & More)

James is an avid outdoor enthusiast, author, and speaker who regularly chronicles his adventures: hiking, camping, and canoeing.

Simple navigation can keep you oriented on your hike.

Simple navigation can keep you oriented on your hike.

Use Natural Landmarks and a Compass to Navigate

This article discusses observing the environmental landmarks and establishing geographic boundaries or guard rails to keep you safely within your hiking area.

Simple compass navigation includes a technique to determine an accurate bearing and a back or reverse bearing to ensure a safe hike and return.

The Origins of Basic Navigation

Navigation before the advent of modern technology depended on the careful observation of the environment, knowledge of historical travel routes, and guidance from experienced explorers and native peoples. Before the compass came into wide use, navigation was based on landmarks, primitive maps, and the position of the sun, moon, and stars. Early explorers also relied on water currents, and weather conditions as navigational aids.

The masters of early navigation were the Polynesians, Vikings, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and English seafarers. After America was discovered, legendary frontiersmen and explorers such as Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, and Lewis and Clark were in high demand as guides and hunters because of their navigational skills. This approach to Natural Navigation is comprehensively reviewed in a book by Tristan Cooley.

Always keep a paper map with you on your hike.

Always keep a paper map with you on your hike.

With the passage of time, detailed topographic maps and tools such as the compass and quadrant were refined making navigation more of a science-based on mathematics and geometry than an apprenticed skill learned from experienced mentors. Current navigational methods reflect increasingly sophisticated technology such as GPS guided by satellites, radar, and computerized mapping technology.

For our purposes in this article, basic navigation:

  • Is low-tech—these techniques don’t require batteries, cell towers, or internet connections.
  • Uses methods of traveling and staying oriented in the natural environment which has been used for centuries.
A compass is a great way to stay oriented in the outdoors.

A compass is a great way to stay oriented in the outdoors.

How to Use a Compass

Basic navigation can be as effective for the modern hiker as it was for early explorers. Using a compass, you can orient yourself anywhere on Earth.

On the 360-degree compass circle or rose, the principal directions are 90 degrees apart: North at 0 or 360 degrees, East at 90 degrees, South at 180 degrees, and West at 270 degrees.

History of the Compass

The first compass can be traced back to the Han dynasty in China (20 BC–20 AD) after the discovery of lodestone, a naturally magnetic stone of iron, which, when suspended, would orient to magnetic north.

The modern compass evolved from this rudimentary device to a precision instrument for determining directions by means of a freely rotating magnetized needle that indicates magnetic north.

This is a base-plate compass.

This is a base-plate compass.

Base Plate Compass (AKA Orienteering Compass)

The base plate or orienteering compass incorporates a protractor which allows you to determine direction and distance of travel and bearings without the need to orient the map to the north.

Mastering the use of a compass and map is the foremost skill necessary to keep you oriented during complex navigation. Cliff Jacobson’s book on the subject clearly outlines all of the fundamentals.

Simple Compass Bearing

However. even without complete knowledge of map and compass, there is a simple technique that allows you to plot an accurate course (bearing) and return home with one compass setting.

For example, assume you are planning to hike a river trail that heads easterly for about five miles. Holding your compass waist high and level with the ground, aim the direction of travel arrow on the base plate to a landmark such as a large tree or bolder associated with the easterly direction you intend to travel.

Next while maintaining the direction of travel arrow position, rotate the compass dial until the red end of the needle is directly over the red needle outline on the base plate (“red in the shed”). Look across the dial and note the degree rating at the direction of the travel arrow (90 degrees). Now your compass is set for your hike east.

Back or Reverse Bearing

When you want to return to your starting point, simply turn your body until the white side of the arrow is in the shed. Follow this reverse heading of 270 degrees or due west until you reach home.

Bearing also referred to as the azimuth is the line between the starting point and the desired endpoint. Reverse or back bearing can be easily calculated to determine the opposite direction. So, if your direction of travel is East at 90 degrees and you want to return home add 180 degrees which equal West at 270 degrees. To calculate a reverse bearing simply add or subtract a correction factor. If your bearing is between 0 and 180, then add 180 degrees. If the bearing is between 180 and 360, then subtract 180.

Geographic Landmarks

Using geographic boundaries, landmarks, and a simple compass bearing you should have little difficulty remaining oriented to your hiking environment and returning home safely. Bear in mind that a compass bearing will take you in the desired direction but does not prevent lateral drift which can only be minimized by using the geographic guard rails to indicate the outer boundaries of your hiking area. Without having established guardrails you would need to travel in a straight line by continuously lining up landmarks along the designated bearing.

A compass will always point to true north.

A compass will always point to true north.

7 Tips for Planning Your Hike

Hopefully, you have researched your hike, had a chance to study the terrain, packed up your hiking and survival gear, and filed your trip plan with a responsible person who can notify the authorities in the event you fail to return.

In reality, many day hikes are more spontaneous, subject to minimal planning, and tend to be inadequately provisioned. Not surprisingly, day hikers account for more cases of getting lost and injured than any other category. To cover such a contingency, and stay safe and oriented follow these simple navigating recommendations.

1. Carry Your Provisioned Day Pack

Leave a day pack in your car and take it with you every time you venture out. You will always be prepared even if you decide spontaneously to go for a hike.

2. File Your Trip Plan

Inform a trusted friend who can alert the authorities if you are missing. Share a description of hikers, cell numbers, license plate number, description of the vehicle, trailhead, trail, distance, time of departure and time of return, and nature of provisions. Also, leave a copy of your trip plan in your vehicle.

3. Carry a Pad and Pencil

Make notes and a rough drawing of your hiking route that includes the boundaries/guard rails and landmarks in each cardinal direction.

4. Stay on the Designated Trail

If you stay on the trail and follow your predetermined direction of travel you are likely to stay oriented and safe. Many lost hikers wander off-trail and get increasingly disoriented. Verify your route at each intersection and landmark. If you get off the trail, backtrack and use bright colored surveyor tape or blazes to mark your trail

5. Estimate the Length of Your Hike

Determine your mileage, length of your stride, and pace. For example, you are planning to hike for 9 miles, at a pace of 2 miles per hour = 4.5 hours.

Assume you are leaving at 10 a.m. you should return by 2:30 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. allowing for a 30-minute lunch stop and a couple of 15-minute rest stops. Record the time you leave and the proposed time you will return.

Based on the above example, you would turn toward home after hiking for 2 and ½ hours, which would allow you the same amount of time for the return trip home.

6. Visualize Your Hiking Trail

For example, let’s assume your trail goes through woods and grassland as it passes through the park. To the North and South are roadways that identify the park boundaries. On the eastern boundary is a river and on the West is a lake.

These landmarks act as guardrails to keep you within the area of the park where you are hiking. Encountering a guardrail will be your cue to return to the interior of the park and relocate the trail.

7. Utilize a Compass and Map

Whenever possible acquire a map from the park where you intend to hike. Outline the hiking trail and the landmarks in each cardinal direction. Carry a compass and learn how to plot a bearing and your reverse course.

Happy Hiking!

Simple methods of navigation have been used reliably for centuries and do not depend on electricity, cell towers, or internet connections. They are as effective for the modern hiker as they were for early explorers.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 James W Siddall


James W Siddall (author) from Cleveland on April 27, 2021:

Sp: Thanks for your comments. It is always nice to hear that readers find the content of an article is useful. Stay safe on the trail! Jim

Sp Greaney from Ireland on April 27, 2021:

This is really good advice for any one planning on hill walking or hiking. I never would have even though of doing half the things you mention to ensure people notice that you're missing and how they can find you if you are.

As for your tips on using the compass, I don't own one but I think it's something people should know how to use.