Hiking Navigation For Beginners

In Yosemite alone, there are 250 search or rescue missions a year. Multiply that by how many parks there are across the USA and you get an idea of how many people get lost each year. Hiking navigation skills are critical to surviving in the outdoors.

Many new hikers don’t think they need to understand the basics of navigation. However, you would be surprised at how easy it is to get off of the main trail and become disoriented.

This guide will discuss why navigation is important to your safety and wellbeing in the outdoors. You will also gain an understanding of the best hiking GPS devices and traditional navigation tools (maps and compass) that will keep you on track.

Hiking navigation: Compass, map, GPS devices, hiking watches

Types Of Navigation Tools For Hiking

Whether you plan to become a serious hiker or just do it casually, you need to know the basics of navigation. There are plenty of casual hikers who end up getting lost, even on short hikes. Navigation is a skill you’ll never regret learning because it could literally save your life down the line.

There are a few simple basics when it comes to navigation that we’ll cover in this article:

  • Map reading (and all the different kinds)
  • How to use a compass
  • Hiking watches
  • GPS trackers
  • Phone apps
  • What to do if you get lost

Knowing how all of these items work will be super helpful to keep you safe in the wilderness. Plus, it’s important to learn how to use navigation systems with and without the help of technology. There have been far too many people who relied on their devices to help them navigate only to have them fail or have the battery die and then they have no idea how to get back.

Topographic maps

A topographic map is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional landscape. Compared to regular maps, what makes topographic maps different are the contour lines that show the different elements of the earth’s surface. Not only do they include things like rivers, buildings, boundaries, vegetation types, but one of their most important features is the different elevations which are marked with solid black lines across the map. Do take a paper topographic map (in a waterproof bag) on all your hikes.

Most parts of a topographic map are pretty self-explanatory, but there are some unique features you’ll see and might not be sure what they mean. Here are just a few:

Contour lines – These are the lines you see all over the surface area of a map. In one of the bottom corners of the map, you’ll see the elevation interval for each specific line. This means that each line represents a change in elevation, which can be helpful for you planning hikes or camping. The more lines, the steeper the terrain.

Black, dashed lines – These are hiking trails.

Zigzagging trail – This signifies a switchback trail.

Black, dashed double-line – These lines show dirt roads. These can help you figure out access points as well as help you figure out where you are in an area.

Solid black line with hatch mark – These lines are railroad tracks.

Single blue hatch intersecting a stream – These lines signify a waterfall, which can also be a good sign of elevation change.

Small circle – A closed contour line means that’s the summit point on a mountain.

Starting in 1879 the USGS 7.5 minute quadrangles became the standard measurement for 1:24,000-scale topographic maps.

Small-scale maps

You’d think that a small-scale map would show a smaller area in more detail, but that’s where a lot of people get it mixed up. It’s measuring a scale instead of measuring an area. So, a smaller scale means that it’s covering a larger area.

Large-scale maps

Large-scale maps are much more detailed than small-scale maps and will give you a better idea of what specific areas look like. These maps are perfect when it comes to navigating a smaller area and knowing exactly the type of terrain you’re going to deal with. These maps give you the best idea of what is ahead of you on your journey.

These types of maps are also the ones you’ll want to use when it comes to planning your hiking route. Most large-scale maps will have deeper details for maintained trails.

Landsat imagery

Landsat satellites have created images since 1972, with each image giving us a deeper look into different parts of the world. USGS and NASA together have created these images so policymakers can see what’s happening with our natural resources, environment, and throughout different parts of our world.

Landsat imagery is a great compliment on top of topographic maps. This way, you’re able to see changes to the area you’ll be hiking/camping in so you can be prepared. For example, you’ll be able to see water changes, where landslides have happened, if roads have been changed, and so on.


Datasheets contain all the deeper data you need to know about a hike. Datasheets are a great option for hikers who want to contribute to trails or see research and markers from other people who have contributed to them. They contain different landmarks and can show how far different points are so you can figure out your pacing for each trail.


Traditional compasses work due to their magnet aiming toward the North. They can also be essential to have during your hikes because they don’t need technology or electricity to work (unless you’re relying on the compass on your phone or on a device). However, it can be worth it to get one that doesn’t need a battery just in case you find yourself in a situation where your battery dies and you need to navigate.

There are a lot of compass types out there, but here’s what you need to know about each one so you can decide on what works for you:

  • Thumb Compass – this is a small one usually used for orienteering. They help to orient a map to magnetic north and are small enough to attach to your thumb.
  • Baseplate Compass – These compasses have a clear baseplate so you can use them on maps. These ones are the most common ones you’ll find online and in stores. They usually aren’t too expensive and can be used at any time due to not needing a battery.
  • Lensatic Compass – These compasses have a similar build to a baseplate compass, but they also include a cover and sighting wire. When you raise the compass to eye level, you then line up a distant object with the sight wire through the open slit. This helps you set course bearings or follow a certain course, especially when paired with a topographic map.
  • Electronic Compass – If you do decide to expand your kit, there are a wide variety of electronically powered compasses that can tell your GPS, location, and direction. You should still carry a manual one as a backup.

No matter what type you choose, there are a few things you need to keep in mind when you’re hunting for one to buy:

  • Magnetized needle: The main part that points in the direction of the magnetic pole. Sometimes there is liquid around the needle and sometimes not.
  • Baseplate: Not all compasses have a baseplate, but a lot will. The baseplate usually includes additional lines and measurements so you can use it with your maps.
  • Arrows and lines: These are on the baseplate to go with the maps you choose to bring. They can help you figure out distances, navigate directions, and orient yourself. The travel arrow tells you where to point your compass when you’re taking a bearing. The index line will show you where to read bearings. The orienting arrow will help you measure the bezel with the directions on the map.
  • Rotating bezel: Outer ring with degree measurement from 0° to 360°.

GPS Hiking Watches

Hiking watches can help a lot when it comes to navigating your way through the wilderness.

Hiking watches are loaded with cool features these days.

  • Altimeter – This will tell you the altitude level you’re currently at. You don’t often have to do anything to see this as it’s a set feature.
  • Barometer – This measures air pressure, which can help you predict upcoming weather patterns, particularly if there’s a storm coming.
  • Compass – Compasses help you navigate which way is North and a good hiking watch will include this.
  • Temperature – Although you’re able to feel the temperature with your body, it can be a great additional feature if you’re in a tent or cabin and need to know the temperature in your area.
  • Heart rate monitors – This will help measure your heart rate, which can be great for people tracking their fitness goals.
  • GPS – Depending on your budget, there are a wide variety of GPS options. Some watches that cost $500+ will have storage, different apps you can download, and a ton of other features on top of everything we’ve listed here.
  • Wi-Fi connectivity/Bluetooth – A lot of watches connect through WiFi and Bluetooth so you can transfer data to your other devices, or your phone.
  • Water-resistance – Most hiking watches are water-resistant to rain or splashes, as well as a specific depth (pressure) of underwater submersion.
  • Sapphire lens – There are a wide variety of glass options. Sapphire is harder to scratch than other types of minerals, so a lot of top-quality luxury watches will have a sapphire lens.
  • Durability – Durability will be a huge factor when it comes to choosing a watch. Look for watches that meet the U.S. military standard 810.

For most of the watches, they’ll have designated spots for each of these features or they’ll have buttons so you can switch between all the different views.

Handheld GPS Devices

When it comes to GPS devices, they are just as varied as watches and apps. There are a ton out there that will give you what you need depending on what features you like. Some are different sizes, some have different buttons, but we’ll break down the basics so you know what to look for.

Buttons vs touchscreen

This will depend on the type of climate you hike in and what your preference is. For most people who hike in cold weather, a touchscreen can be questionable due to the type of gloves you wear. Even the best gloves for touch screens can fail sometimes and you don’t want to keep having to take off your gloves. For this reason, buttons are much easier to navigate in cold weather.

Screen size

This is another factor you’ll want to consider when looking for a GPS device. Go for the best resolution and largest screen size that you can afford.

Battery life

This is an important feature. Battery life is the limiting factor of GPS devices. Look for a handheld GPS device with longer battery life so that you won’t have to charge it as often on the trail (with a solar charger).

Most of the features we covered above in hiking watches are common in GPS devices (especially: barometer, altimeter, waterproofing, compass), but there are a few features that are particular to GPS devices:

  • Waypoints – A set of coordinates. You can set them along your trail so you know when you’re heading toward one or have reached your location.
  • Wireless data transfer – Used for tracking your location and sending information to a device.
  • Preloaded maps and third-party maps – You’ll find that some devices have a preloaded map / come with one, or you’ll have the option of loading your own.
  • Internal memory capacity – Picking a GPS device with good internal memory space can help save you a ton of headaches. That way, you’re able to load as much as you need for your journey.
  • Memory expansion slots – If that is still not enough space, a lot of GPS devices have memory expansion slots so you can store even more information.
  • Geocaching features – If you plan to use a GPS device for geocaching, the most important thing is finding one that can enter in a good amount of waypoints because the most important thing is finding the hide and seek containers. Some specifically made for geocaching will also include options for field notes or Pocket Queries.
  • Digital camera – Some GPS devices also include a digital camera.
  • Two-way radio – This is a helpful feature for communicating with other hikers or anyone else you’d need to get in touch with during your journey.
  • Connection options – This may or may not matter for you, but some GPS devices use USB and some older ones use different adapters. Make sure you bring the right attachments and look into the different options so you’re not stuck somewhere without the ability to load your data.
  • Channels – Almost every new GPS device out there has access to the 12 parallel channels.

Mobile Phones + Hiking Apps

One advantage to using your phone and hiking apps is that most of them are free or relatively low in cost. For example, Google Maps is a great app that can help you navigate almost anywhere. And you can download any map from Google to your phone so that it works when you do not have a signal.

Some of our favorite apps and their features include:

  • Hiking Project – This app shows you the best hikes near you, offers GPS route info, elevation profiles, interactive features, 74,000 miles of trail, and more.
  • AllTrails – 60,000 curated trail maps, sorted by options such as dog-friendly or kid-friendly, community photos, ability to track your stats, GPS activity tracker, and more.

You can download and print maps with the premium version of most hiking apps.

What to do if you are lost?

This is a topic you might not think you need to know, but the best thing you could do is to know what to do before it happens. We’ll break down exactly what you need to do if you find yourself lost.

  1. Stay calm. The last thing you need to do is start to panic because that won’t let you think clearly. Take a few deep breaths and know you’ll figure this out.
  2. Stop where you are. Don’t start to panic and walk in a direction you think is the right one. This could end up making you even more lost.
  3. Try your devices. If you’re getting service or have enough battery life, try to use the technology you brought with you. If possible, get in touch with someone or pull up your GPS technology right away.
  4. Sit down and create a plan to figure out where you are and where you need to go.
    • Use your maps and tools. Try to figure out where and when you got lost and see if you can recognize anything that will give you an idea of where you are.
    • Can you retrace any of your steps confidently?
    • Can you recall any obvious landmarks or any parts you have gone past?
  5. Find a nearby high point. As mentioned earlier in this article, a circle on your topographic map means a peak. Can you use this to pinpoint one near you and help you figure out where you are?
  6. Use a shadow compass to use the sun to determine your position. You can create one by simply using a stick on the ground. Here’s a tutorial if you’re interested in learning this tactic here.
  7. Use the plants around you. Some of the flora, plants, and trees are a good indicator of direction. For example, in the Northern Hemisphere, there is typically more moss growth on the Southside of trees or rocks, and it’s the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere.
  8. Wind direction. There’s a direction that winds generally go in for each hiking area, and knowing which direction that is can help you orient yourself. Typically, grass, plants, and trees typically lean that way.