How to Avoid Getting Lost While Backpacking

One of the most dangerous situations that can occur on a wilderness backpacking trip is getting lost in unfamiliar terrain. Usually, backpackers will get lost on a trip as they wander away from their camp for a day hike, in search of water, or to find a secluded place to go to the bathroom, and forget to identify landmarks that will help lead them back to where they started.

The next thing that often happens is a lost hiker gets scared. If it is late in the day, beginning to get cold and dark, panic may set in. Most cases of poor judgment result from panic, when adrenalinˇŞnot common senseˇŞtakes over the decision making process.

Once again, the answer to this problem is in prevention. Always carry a map and compass and learn how to use them. Take a class in orienteering and learn how to navigate through changing terrain. You can also take a basic map reading class, teaching you to interpret topographic maps (commonly called “topos”) that show the three-dimensional landscape in a one-dimensional format. Learn how to take a compass bearing and navigate from one point to another.

If you are new to map reading, and worried that you won’t be able to figure out how to do it, remember: you’ve probably already learned how to read various types of maps. True, “topos” look a bit different than road maps, but much of the information is the same. These maps are prepared by the US Geological Survey, and show not only roads, towns, etc., but changes in elevation, type of terrain, longitude and latitude, and a few other features you do not need on a street map.

backpacking How to Avoid Getting Lost While Backpacking

Every topo map has a legend in one corner that describes which way is north and defines the various colors, solid vs. dotted lines, etc. that are found on the map. The legend is the first thing to readˇŞ it explains all the other symbols, marks, etc. It also names the area that is described (e.g., “Little Olancha Peak”) and what the scale of the map is. The “scale” is used to convert one unit of size on the map to one unit of size on the ground. Typical scales are 1″:250,000″, which calculates out to 1 inch on the map equaling approximately 250,000 inches on the ground (roughly 4 miles), or 1:62,500, which means 1 inch on the map represents approximately 1 mile (63,300 inches) on the ground. Usually, the greater the scale, the less detail on a map, so if you intend to try some “off-trail” explorations, get a 1:62,500 or better scale map.

Once you’ve looked at the legend to determine the scale, you can estimate distances.

Notice the various lines on the map. There are grid lines crisscrossing the map, which represent latitude (running east to west) and longitude (running north to south) lines. Notice the contour lines that indicate changes in elevation. A series of concentric contour lines represents a mountain or hill. The closer together the lines are, the more rapid the change in elevation. A sheer cliff will be represented by lines spaced very close together, sometimes nearly touching one another, while gently sloping terrain will be represented by lines spaced very far apart.

Depending on the scale, each line can mean a change in elevation of 60 feet, 100 feet, 500 feet, so on. (Foreign maps and some specialty USGS maps are scaled in meters. Those are called “metric maps. The contour lines typically represent 20, 40 or 100 meter intervals.)

One way to imagine how these look in three dimensions is to mentally picture these lines as the edges of sections of earth stacked on top of one another, like the layers of a wedding cake.

Also note the various colored lines that indicate trails (typically dotted black lines) rivers, and streams, and the symbols indicating trees, buildings, lakes, etc. These symbols vary from map to map, so it’s important to read the legend. Also check the date to see if the information is current.

Practice your map reading skills during breaks along your hike. Find a good vantage point and pull out your map. Use your compass to orient the map to the direction you are facing, and practice matching up various hills, canyons, streams, etc. to the symbols on the map. Find your location along the trail, and estimate the distance you’ve come, how long it’s taken you to get there, and how much farther you have to go. Make map reading a routine part of your trip, and soon it won’t seem like a foreign language. However if you need help from an expert in the native language, you can hire someone at

When you leave your campsite, look around before you go. Identify a distinctive mountain peak, outcrop of boulders, or a/tall dead tree of unique enough shape to stand outˇŞsomething that is easily distinguishable and can be seen from a distance. Then use these landmarks to help guide you back to where you started once you’ve completed your side trip.

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