It seems that every month there’s another story of a hiker lost in the woods. A person who simply vanished into the wilderness. Maybe they turned up battered and bruised but alive. Maybe others recovered a body months later.

Hiking, backpacking, and other outdoors activities are amazing and fulfilling, but there is always risk. How can we prevent our worst nightmares from coming true?

Wilderness navigation is vital, but many people seem to ignore old school navigation in a world filled with GPS and internet devices. And navigation goes far beyond a simple map and compass too. It’s a state of mind. With time and experience, we learn to read the terrain around us.

With that type of experience we can eventually become both comfortable and safe, even in the wildest reaches of the world.

1. Don’t Panic!

Fear is a survival instinct, honed by evolution for hundreds of thousands of years. Fear will keep us from danger, but panic, or fear out of control, can kill us. How is this? I’ve seen many, many people on a navigation course lose their position for a moment.

How do they react?

They speed up, stop looking at their map. These people (and I’ve been one of them too) seem to believe that their salvation lies over the next little ridge or creek. In reality, their salvation lies within them.

If you’re out hiking or trail running and suddenly find that you are uncertain of your position… stop! Take a moment to compose yourself. Drink a bit of water and eat a snack if you have one.

There’s almost never a reason to rush out in the wilderness, so slow down for a moment. Look at your map and your surroundings and try to match them to each other.

If you do panic, you’re only more likely to get lost for real. So if you have to, try backtracking for a few miles. We’ll go over exactly how to read a map and compass a bit later, but those pieces of equipment are valuable aids for anyone out in the field.

2. Basic Risk Management

Learning to manage risk is one of the most vital back country skills, and not only for navigation too. Whatever you may be doing at a particular moment, it’s important to calculate risk in your head. Crossing a small stream in the Rockies is low risk, but a solo crossing of the Popo Agie River in the Shoshone National Forest may be unwise.

Lake canoeing is fairly safe, but whitewater canoeing on a river with sweepers, not so much. Learn to see both risk and reward, and remember that in most wilderness cases, there is almost always a safer route if you just look for it.

While navigating, try to have an understanding of the risks of getting lost. Are the nights where you are cold? Is the wildlife dangerous? Do you have enough water?

One of the great risks in the wilderness is, of course, running low on water. So have some way to filter of purify local water if possible. Dehydration will slow your thought process and only make you more likely to make poor navigational choices.

If you come up against some major risk out in the backcountry, it’s okay to turn around. Notice a bear guarding a dead elk calf? Might be best to call it a day and go home. River swollen from snow melt or rainfall? Again, going on ahead could get you hurt or worse.

Possibly the biggest factor in controlling risk is pride. We need to keep our egos in check out in the field. Remember, even an expert can drown if they try to cross a river that should not be crossed.

3. Know Yourself

A very long time ago, the Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Wait, how does this apply to wilderness navigation?

If you don’t know your own capabilities, you are bound to fall afoul of some problem you cannot solve. Worse, you will overestimate what you can or cannot do, and run into issues from that. You need to have an honest assessment of your physical fitness.

How many miles of trail can you really run? How many vertical feet can you climb without rest? Can you really complete that entire route in one day before darkness sets in?

No one wants to end up like the Donner Party, starving to death in the Sierras after grossly overestimating their wilderness skills. So make your first wilderness trip a limited one, and see how you perform with reasonable goals.

Once you have a solid grasp of your personal skill level, and the skills of those in your group, should you attempt more ambitious adventures.

4. Know your Gear

This is another big issue in the back country. People will quite often wander off into the woods, comforted by the fact that they have a GPS. But they don’t actually know how to use it. A GPS will not operate itself, so if you choose to carry one (I don’t), please read the instructions. And then test it around your neighborhood.

About three years ago, I was on the Crow Pass Trail, in the Chugach Mountains of Southcentral Alaska. I was hiking with my uncle and we came across a group of three. These men had no paper maps, no compass, and no clue where they were. The GPS, being a computer, had told them for the last twelve miles to simply walk in a straight line.

Oops.

I showed them our map and gave them some advice on the worsening snow conditions around Cross Pass itself before continuing on my way. They made it, and we had them over for dinner two days later when they finished the traverse.

They were great guys, and they were really quite smart, but relying on a GPS without first learning to use it is a grave error. This isn’t a technical piece on how to use a GPS, especially since I don’t own or use one myself, but if you do get one, try it out in civilization first!

And that’s not the only piece of kit you need to understand and master before serious use. Learn to read a map. What are contour lines? What do the colors of a map mean? What is terrain association? And with your compass, how do you read it? What is declination?

These are important questions for another article, but the point stands. You need to test your gear out before a big back country excursion.

5. Have a Plan and Share It

So you’ve learned your equipment, taken stock of your own abilities, what next? Well, you need to make a route plan of course! Where are you planning to go out to? What trails, if any, will you take? How long will you be out?

Write your plan out in detail and share it with all members of the group, especially kids. If you’re hiking with children, I can guarantee that they will resent being left in the dark as to the plan.

Also, make sure to leave a copy of your plan with family or friends staying at home. This way, they will know that if you have not returned by a set time, they can contact emergency services. It’s typically a good idea to say something like, ‘I plan to be home on Friday by around 5, but wait until noon on Saturday to call for help.’

This way, you have a window of time that allows for some error.

Of course, you’ll want to tailor that window to the activity. If you’re going on a two hour trail run, you may want to tell your friends to call for help one hour after you meant to return. Whatever you do, let others know where you’re off to and when you’ll be back.

Even better, you can often file trip plans with a local fire department or other emergency group. I’ve even checked out a VHF radio from them for use in emergency.

Not all departments will offer this service, but it’s really worth looking into. Some places require you to file a trip plan, many do not. But whether or not it’s a requirement, forward thinking like that can save lives.

6. A Personal Anecdote

So now that we’ve been over the basics of wilderness navigation, here’s a time when I did it all wrong.

Government Peak, at the very southern edge of the Talkeetna Mountains in Alaska stands out as a great first hike in the area. The trail climbs up the south face of the peak for about 5000 vertical feet and the peak itself grands amazing views. That part of the hike went great!

And then my uncle and I decided to descend the north face of the mountain towards the Independence Mine, and meet our pickup there. Remember what I said about route planning earlier? Well, we did it wrong. We had a map, but we had misread it.

A contour line on a map is a line indicating elevation change over distance. Dense contours means steep terrain, far apart contours means not as steep.

We had seen that right before reaching the mine, we would have to cross Fishhook Creek, which looked quite small on the map. But the contour lines along this creek were very dense, indicating steep drop in the terrain.

7. A Serious Error

Also, we failed to see that the creek actually drains quite a large valley. And the snow was in peak melt that May. So when we arrived at our little creek, we found a raging torrent of white water.

I looked at my uncle and he looked at me. We both knew we could not cross this, even though we could see the road less than a football field away from us!

So we stopped and rested for a few minutes. Good navigators still make plenty of mistakes, but they recover from them well.

So we re-read our map and saw that the creek split in two about a mile upstream, so up we went. We crossed the smaller inlet stream over a ruined beaver dam and found a spot on Fishhook Creek where the water braided out into multiple channels.

And there we made our crossing.

So in the end our trip was a success, but it was also a teachable moment. We had failed to predict that the creek would be uncrossable where we planned to reach it. But we self-corrected properly. We mitigated risk, whereas a less experienced group may have shrugged and tried to cross dangerous white water.

So plan ahead, prepare, and be ready to adapt yourself and your plan to changing circumstances!