Backpacking Guides

Navigation – The most important thing when backpacking

I saved this chapter for last for two reasons. First, navigation is extremely important so I want to make sure you remember it. Second, it can seem a little overwhelming for novice backpackers so I didn’t want to scare you off from this rewarding pastime before you have time to give it a fair shake. Nobody wants to get lost in the woods, but with a little practice that shouldn’t be a concern for you.

I will say that navigating using a map and compass is easy once you know how to do it. Using modern technology such as GPS (either standalone or on a smartphone) makes navigation even easier. Also, if you plan to hike well-worn trails in the beginning (which you definitely should) you may find that traditional navigation tools are practically unnecessary. The trails are well-defined and there are usually plenty of signs and other markers showing you the way.

You can practice your navigational skills on these types of trails so when you find yourself in an unfamiliar place in the future you know how to find your way to where you want to be.


Every backpacker needs to understand how7 to use maps properly. A good map is often all you need to navigate successfully on the trail and it certainly makes planning your trip much easier.

You can start using online tools like Google Maps to give you a good overview of a particular area where you want to hike. Once you have narrowed down your hiking area, the best thing to do is order specific maps for that area through local resources such as the Bureau of Land Management or the National Park Sendee (depending on where you are going).

Topographical maps are a great way to estimate the elevation changes you are likely to encounter on the trail and planimetric maps are useful for picking out certain features along a trail such as junctions, water sources, and other useful information.

There are also excellent maps available from private sources including National Geographic. These maps often include more detailed trail information than typically found in maps from public sources. Usually, a combination of different maps is the best way to get a good idea of what you will encounter on the trail. Many of these maps can also be downloaded to your computer, smartphone or standalone GPS unit for easy navigation on the trail. This is especially helpful because you can mark water sources and other waypoints before even setting foot on the trail.


Although a combination of good maps and a GPS unit make a compass obsolete, they are inexpensive and lightweight so you should have one and know how to use it in case other navigational aids fail.

A simple orienteering compass is all you need. These are nice because they can be placed directly on a map to determine direction based on your current location.

Compasses are useful when you are forced to travel across large open spaces where a trail may not be clearly marked. They are also helpful in bad weather when GPS units may not be accurate and visibility is limited.


I like using GPS even if some backpackers don’t agree. They make navigation extremely easy and I can mark important areas along my route before I even leave my house. As a novice backpacker, I suggest using GPS to make navigation easier and practically worry-free.

The apps available for most popular smartphones work well as long as you have a solar charger to keep the phone running for the duration of the trip. Standalone units usually boast better battery life but they can be expensive. Which way you decide to go is up to you. I just use my smartphone for this purpose but I still carry a good map of the area and a compass just in case.

Trail markers

Popular trails often have plenty of signs along the way to assist hikers navigating through the wilderness. Most often these signs are found at junctions (where multiple trails intersect) but sometimes you will find them along the trail as well.

More common along the trail, however, are makeshift markers usually made by other backpackers. This is especially common along rocky parts of the trail where the path may not be clear.

Markers can be small piles of rocks (known as cairns or ducks), blazes on trees, paint on trees or rocks, makeshift signs and metal badges nailed to trees. There are other markers as well but these are the most common.

While you should never add any markers of your own (sometimes this is considered vandalism), it does help you navigate difficult trail sections where the way may not be totally clear. Keep your eyes out for these markers as you hike.