Before the Trip

Always try to plan for the unexpected "what ifs?" What if I get delayed? Lost? Injured? Am I prepared to cope with that?
If you don't already own a compass, select an inexpensive beginners' model. Prices start around $10. Advance to a more sophisticated compass as your navigation skills improve. Keep the original as a backup.
Learn basic map-and-compass navigational skills. Some good starting points:

Review this navigation clinic (courtesy of REI).
Take a navigation class. Check at your nearest REI store to see if any are scheduled. Community colleges or high schools with adult extension programs often offer such classes on weekends or at night.
Find a friend who really understands topographic maps and compass usage; ask that person to join you on a day hike and learn all you can.

Pick a trip, even a day hike, and study your intended route on a map in advance at home. Doing so when you're not under any pressure gives you time to become more familiar and comfortable with the unique markings of a topographic map.
Worthwhile additional items to carry:
  • Cell phone: Realize that rugged backcountry terrain often blocks cell phones from connecting to transmitter towers, rendering them useless in the wilderness. If you're fairly close to a city, cell phones may work high on an open ridgeline.
  • GPS receiver: These sophisticated units are great for identifying the points where you have traveled, but usually only a compass (some GPS models are exceptions) can tell you which direction you are facing - essential information for backcountry navigation.
  • 2-way radios: These devices customarily have a maximum range of 2 miles, though certain terrain features (steep cliffs, deep gorges) may limit their signals. They're handy for keeping track of independent explorers who insist on traveling at their own pace.
  • Glow stick or chem light: These items could make you easier to spot at night.

IMPORTANT: Let someone know where you're going, what route you plan to take and your estimated return time. If you get lost, the sooner a rescue operation begins, the better for your searchers and you, the lost party.
Tip: Make a photocopy of a map with your intended route highlighted, then leave it with a family member, friend or a ranger. Slide one more copy under the seat of your vehicle at the trailhead. (Rescuers, racing against time, may attempt to enter your car at a trailhead in search of clues to your possible whereabouts.) If you change your plans before you start a trip, call and update someone, even if you simply leave a message on an answering machine.

This clinics was borrowed from the REI website
Advisers to this clinic:
Rick Hood, director of Navigation Northwest (, a search-and-rescue education service. Bob and Mike Burns, authors of Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter and GPS (The Mountaineers).