Why Every Hiker Should Take A Map and Compass Navigation Course

Whether it’s for a short day hike, or roughing it for a few days in the backcountry, there are certain essentials that most hikers won’t leave home without. Water, food, and first-aid tend to be popular on lists of backcountry essentials, but two of the most overlooked pieces of gear seem to be a paper map and reliable compass.

The age of cell phones and mobile GPS units has made the compass appear as if it is nothing more than a needless (and sometimes, heavy) piece of gear that ultralight hikers can do without. While you can download both trail maps and a compass app right on your phone, the reliability of having these physical items in your pack is priceless in emergency situations.

However, even if you are persuaded into carrying a map and compass, these items are relativity useless unless you know how to properly read them. Taking a Map and Compass Navigation course, and continually refreshing yourself on the information, is one of the best ways to keep yourself safe and confident on your next outdoor adventure. Don’t be fooled though, map and compass skills are about much more than safety. Knowing how to self-navigate puts some of the most epic and unique adventures within your reach, and allows you the freedom to roam just about anywhere. From bushwhacking adventures, to getting yourself home safely, there are tons of reasons why a Map and Compass Navigation course should be on your wilderness education wish list:

Prevent Disorientation

Believe it or not, even on a trail as well marked as the AT or PCT, it can be easy to get disoriented or even lost. It can happen from something as simple as stepping off the trail for a bathroom break and not remembering how to get back, or fog and rain decreasing visibility, causing you to unknowingly wander into uncharted forest. In fact, there are multiple cases every year of hikers becoming disoriented and consequently lost in remote corners of our nation’s long trails. Even if you manage to find your way back to the trail without being rescued, think about the considerable time and energy that is wasted while walking in circles trying to find your original route. Cell phone reception is also nonexistent in many of these remote places, so knowing how to safely navigate yourself back to safety is key to survival.

Broaden Your Adventure Horizons

It’s not all about safety – Knowing how to correctly read and use a map and compass opens doors to some of the most badass adventures on the planet. Planning to become a triple crowner? Although most of the route is blazed, the CDT still has large sections of trail that are either unfinished or unmarked. This means that thru-hikers are constantly checking their maps and navigating themselves through wilderness to reach their final destination. Or, maybe you’re looking to visit some of our country’s most wild national parks; Places like Denali and Dinosaur National Monument have very few miles of marked trail, leaving a majority of the park open only to those who know how to self-navigate. Knowing how to plan your own route to a destination ensures that you are able to experience all that these parks have to offer.

Become A “Trail Blazer”

One of the best reasons to know how to read a map and compass is to have the ability to forge your own way and explore untamed forest. Knowing how to read the contours on a map to pick out exactly where a potential waterfall or vista will be, and then navigating yourself to that location is a skill unlike any other, and can lead you to some truly remarkable places. Also, when adventuring off the beaten path, it can be hard for help to find you in an emergency situation, so knowing how to navigate yourself to safety is essential. It’s important to note however, that Leave No Trace should always be followed when going off trail; follow game and animal trails whenever possible, and never bushwhack where there is signage telling you to stick on designated trails.

Basic Safety

At the end of the day, knowing how to navigate with a map and compass is a basic wilderness survival skill that all hikers should know before spending any extended period in the backcountry. As amazing and useful as our modern GPS technology is, batteries can die (especially in extreme temperature conditions), and computers can glitch. The beautiful thing about a compass is that it relies on nothing more than the Earth’s magnetic fields, leaving very little room for malfunctions. Having your own knowledge and the correct tools readily available in case of emergency is an invaluable skill that can turn a scary situation into a minor hiccup.

Introduction to Map and Compass Navigation courses (as well as the more advanced level one and two classes) are offered through REI for a discounted rate to Co-op members. Not a member? Check your local community center, state park, or hiking club for similar courses and classes in backcountry navigation!


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