Maps and Navigation

One may think that in these days of GPS and satellite navigation; accurate topo maps and detailed route descriptions that map-reading and navigation skills are diminishing in importance.

 Not so - the ability to find our way has always been, and will continue to be an invaluable skill for all who venture into the backcountry.

The ability to consistently and accurately find one's way in the wilderness, brings with it a certain confidence.  This level of comfort with our navigation skills is most useful in times of crisis or confusion (at the times we most need the skills).

As with most things, confidence and proficiency can only be gained one way - through practice.  Unfortunately, it is something we tend to put aside until it is really needed, and that is often too late.

There are many people who say that they have wilderness skills.  They say that they could light a fire with a single match even after a couple of days of steady rain.  I have one question for these people ... have you read about how to light that fire, or have you actually taken that match out and got the fire going?

We should ask ourselves a similar question about our navigation skills and then act on the answer to that query:

  • Have I done enough map reading that I have developed a 'sense of scale'?  For example, when I see an island, do I recognize that it is about 300 m in length and therefore couldn't be the one I'm looking at on the map.  Do I know that the bay on the map is about 750 m across, which matches what I'm looking at in the real world?

  • Could I locate my position on a topo map by taking bearings from a couple of obvious landmarks?

  • Could I follow a compass bearing in complete darkness or through a heavy fog, both on foot or while paddling?

  • Do I consciously keep track of where I am while I paddle, occasionally glancing back the way I came to keep an idea of where I am in relationship to the route on the map?

  • Do I understand what declination is, and how it can affect compass bearings?

If we can't answer yes to these, and a whole lot more questions about our navigation skills, it's probably time for us to either learn these skills, or refresh our abilities related to these skills with some serious practice.  It's not difficult to take a map and compass out on a hike or a short trip and use some of these skills even though they aren't really needed.


The time we'll most appreciate these skills is the time on the trips that we look around and get that feeling in the pit of our stomach, when we ask ourselves "This doesn't look like the right place for the portage ..."