© Christopher Earls Brennen



Navigation is more important when one ventures off the beaten track. On the maintained trails it is usually sufficient to carry several trail maps and to stop regularly to try to identify your location. On adventure hikes, navigation becomes much more important and significantly harder.


The first essential equipment in locating yourself and the trails is a collection of trail maps that should be studied in detail before setting out. Simplified or shaded maps are of little or no value on adventure hikes. In the National Parks it is usually possible to purchase a detailed topographical map (``topo'' map) on which the maintained trails have been imposed. Alternatively, you should obtain 7.5 minute series US Geological Survey maps (``topo'' maps) for the area(s) covering your hike. One problem with the USGS topological maps is that the information on the trails marked on the maps may be very out of date. Many of the trails that are marked have long vanished, either because they were washed away or because they have become completely overgrown. Other, newer trails may not be marked.

Whichever type of topographical map you obtain, it is valuable to practice reading the topology (the mountains, canyons and other identifying features) from these maps as you hike along. Initially, it is not easy to look at a topographical map and to relate it to the scenery around you. But, with a little practice, this becomes second nature and greatly aids in your navigation, to say nothing of your peace of mind. You should also equip yourself with a compass that will allow you to adjust the map to the same orientation as your surroundings. It is important to make a habit of stopping at high points on your hike to consult your maps and the topology of your surroundings. Try to fix the principal features and landmarks in your mind for later reference.


The adventure hiker will come to learn that many of the negotiable canyons contain ``use-trails'' beaten down by some combination of animals and humans. These are often useful, particularly when you must find a way around a waterfall or other obstruction. Moreover, the absence of a use-trail is usually a sign that a major obstacle lies ahead.

Altimeters and GPS Units

Another useful navigation device is an altimeter watch which you can now purchase for about $80.00. If this is properly adjusted to the known elevation at your starting point, it can tell you your altitude to within about 40ft. Not only is this valuable for its own sake, but, in combination with a topographical map, it can greatly help you locate your position. By identifying the contour corresponding to your known altitude and following it on the topo map, you can often factor in other observations (such as a compass bearing to a nearby peak or knowledge that you are in a particular canyon) to closely identify your position. Of course, GPS positioning units can now be purchased for less than $150.00 and are highly recommended for those who are not confident in using the more primitive methods. In combination with a topographical map, a GPS unit can locate your position to within a few tens of feet. The only circumstance in which the GPS unit might fail to operate is in a deep canyon where line-of-sight with one or more of the satellites can be lost.

Retracing your steps

Another simple rule of navigation that is often overlooked by the novice hiker is the ability to retrace your steps. One of the essential and enjoyable elements of adventure hiking is the challenge of venturing into the unknown. But a necessary corollary is the chance that you might encounter an obstacle that you cannot surmount. Then, it may be necessary to retrace your steps though you had not initially planned to do so. You might also need to retrace your steps in the event of an accident. Therefore, it is a basic safety measure to ensure that you can do this without running the risk of taking a wrong turn and getting lost.

There are several simple steps that you should always take to minimize this danger. First, when travelling down a canyon you can easily pass the mouth of an adjoining canyon without noticing it. The result can be that, when retracing your steps on the way up the canyon, you may not be able to decide which canyon to follow. Therefore, take note of any such junctions while hiking downstream. In particular, when you pass such a junction, look back and fix the right path in your mind. If you are in any doubt mark the entrance to the correct canyon with a ``duck'' or ''cairn''. Ducks are readily-recognizable human-generated markers created from naturally occuring materials. Most frequently they take the form of a prominently displayed pile of two, three or more rocks sitting unnaturally on top of one another. A series of ducks spaced 20-50yds apart is often used to mark a trail that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to follow. Alternatively, as suggested here, you can use occasional ducks to mark your trail. Other variations can include a row of rocks and/or logs placed to make an arrow. Such a signal should be used to mark the place where you should leave a trail or a canyon on the return journey. Markers that should not be used are any that may damage plants or animals; do not, therefore, carve marks on trees or break limbs from trees and bushes in order to mark the way; even excessively large ducks should be avoided. In summary, visualize your return by looking backwards fairly frequently and leave markers wherever necessary to remind you of the correct route.

Cross-country hiking

There are several other factors that should be considered when choosing a route through the wilderness. It is clear that, in a rugged and mountainous area, the canyons and ridges form the most natural cross-country routes and, in general, the larger canyons are less brushy and usually allow easier travel except in the more narrow sections. Often one must find a route from a canyon to a ridge or vice-versa. Then, the steep ``transverse'' ridges or gullies form the most natural routes with which to accomplish such a transition. Again, the best choice is usually the largest gully you can identify and follow. Though you may have to climb over many boulders and waterfalls you are usually saved from the need to plough through bushes. Often such lateral gullies will have the largest cliffs or waterfalls near where they join the main canyon and you should be prepared for this possibility.

Another factor to keep in mind when selecting a route is that the vegetation of the north-facing slopes in the Southwest is often quite different from that of the south-facing slopes. The former often consist of oak or pine forest which coat the ground with an accumulation of soil and leaves that is much easier to travel through than the harsh rock cover under the bushes and scrub of the south-facing slopes. This difference is valuable to remember in plotting a cross-country route. Moreover, the south-facing slopes are more frequently exposed to fire and for this and other reasons tend to be more unstable.

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Last updated 1/1/00.
Christopher E. Brennen