hand of a hiker using compass to navigate direction

Tracking Locations by Hand: Hiking With and Without GPS

Global Navigation Satellite Systems or GNSS constantly undergo testing—a battery of test under a multi-element GNSS simulator comes to mind—to ensure that they can be used as intended. GNSS testing and applications have been honed to the point that global positioning applications are now for daily use.

Hikers and nature lovers immediately adopted GNSS devices. Knowing where to go while out in the wilderness is important. New trails can be discovered and mapped out, and old forgotten trails can be rediscovered and enjoyed again. But what can hikers do if they get lost and their GNSS device fails or were left home?

Navigating with Compasses and Other Tools

Before the age of easily-accessible GNSS or GPS systems, hikers were trained to navigate the wilderness using compasses and maps. These tools are inseparable and absolutely necessary to navigate spaces without easily-discernible signs of civilization.

Hikers pop open their compass to see true north. They can check their current location and the compass’ direction against their starting point with the use of a topographic map. A hiker places their compass on top of their map to determine the direction of their path.

Reading a topographic map isn’t rocket science. Hikers need to familiarize themselves with contour lines on the map as they indicate the steepness of land areas. The girth and ridges of these lines also depict the level of land depression on land.

Bare-handed Hiking and Navigation

Hike in Glacier National Park, Montana

To get lost in the woods without any sort of tool seems like a nightmare for many people. For a trained hiker with adequate supplies, it can be a challenge. Natural navigators use the sun to orient themselves. Noontime can make this method difficult. Constructing a sundial or using an analog watch to position the sun can help hikers find true north.

At night, Polaris or the North Star is used instead of the sun. Polaris is found by finding the constellation of the Big Dipper. Hikers note the direction of the North Star by marking the ground or placing sticks and rocks in that direction before bunking for the night. By doing so, they’ll know the direction of the north in the morning.

Once oriented, natural navigators will backtrack. Hikers use the last recognizable landmark in their path to help them return to their base camp. Less confident hikers can stay by these landmarks and wait for rescue.

Responsible hikers always leave detailed plans about their hikes behind. Plans must detail the general area that they will trek, the timeframe of their plans, and the names of their hiking party. Animals like dogs should also be described. Turn around points should also be detailed alongside trailhead names to provide as much information as possible to authorities and concerned parties.

Equipment, gear, supplies, clothing details, and turn around points should also be provided. Take a picture of the prints of your hiking boots and your clothing for easy identification. Remember to add your emergency contacts and the details of the head of your hiking trip. This person can be the one that your emergency contacts will reach in case of delays. Finally, plot out your GPS coordinates at certain points of the journey. This way, your loved ones will know where to find you in case the unthinkable happens.