Authored by Adam Sherman
How to Keep Your Bearing While Hiking
in Unfamiliar Terrain
If you’re an adventurous kind of person, you probably know the feeling of hiking through unfamiliar terrain all too well. And if you’re like us, you’re pretty exhilarated by it. It's the best form of exercise, and after all, how good does it feel to marvel at the beauty of the great outdoors? Or to explore new territory, with the wind in your hair and nature’s beauty spread out in front of you like a vast and scenic canvas? Nothing better!
That said, we all know accidents can happen while you’re out in the wilderness. It’s best to be prepared for just about anything, in order to keep your bearings as best as possible — especially while hiking in places that are new and unfamiliar to you. Whenever I'm hiking, I like to take any and all precautions. You can never be overprepared in the wildnerness.
There are several factors you should bear in mind (see what we did there?) in order to do so. First, you’ll want to wear the right shoes — that’s where we come in! Next, bringing the right tools along with you on your journey — such as a compass and topographic map, among other essentials to keep you and your body safe — is just as important.
Other crucial things to remember include what your top priorities should be in the event that you get lost, as well as what the international emergency signal for distress is. Keep reading to find out more.
Check the Weather Ahead of Time
First things first, you’ll want to check the weather forecast ahead of time. It goes without saying that if it’s supposed to rain or snow, you’ll want to think twice before hiking in extreme conditions. Always good to be aware!
Plan the Hike
Before you reach the trail, always make sure you take a look at a map (any maps on your phone are fine) and have a general understanding of what your current hike looks like. Try to note major locations and natural landmarks such as rivers, lakes, and mountains – these points and landmarks will later help you keep your baring during your hike. As you hike, its always a good idea to check in with your map during your hike and note your progress – this will minimize your chances of getting lost while hiking. It’s also good to check your map at any point you reach a fork in the path, and mark which trail you’ve opted to take. This type of planning will only help you in the long run.
Pack the Ten Essentials
This might sound overly simplistic, but it’s a really good idea to bring the right equipment and tools on your hike, especially if it’s going to be a lengthy one. Not only that, but be sure you actually have a practical working knowledge of how to use them. After all, we’ve gotta be real here — if you get lost out in the wilderness, having and using these items properly could mean the difference between life and death. This especially rings true if you're the type of person who doesn't have a strong sense of direction.
According to adventure writer Mark Jenkins, “People who get lost and die in the wilderness often have all they need in their backpack to survive.” They just don’t know how to use them.
So what exactly should you have in your backpack in order to stay alive while exposed to the elements? Jenkins writes for The Guardian, “These items are commonly called the “10 essentials”: pocketknife, matches/lighter, map and compass, headlamp, sunglasses/sunscreen, raincoat, extra clothes, food, water (and purification), first aid kit (with whistle).”
That’s not even considering modern tech essentials like a GPS app for your phone, personal locator beacon, and more. Google Maps also allows you to download and save an area from your map onto your phone, so that if you lose service, you can still navigate your location. It keeps track of where you are in the world. This will help you mark your starting point and find your final destination. Having the knoweldge that your phone knows where you are, it may lessen the stress of getting lost in the forest. Ah, the wonders of modern technology! I always have a map of the area I'm hiking in downloaded on my phone with several different apps: AllTrails, Maps.me, and Google Maps. You can never be too cautious! That way, if one map doesn't know where I am, then I know one of the other two will.
And if you really want to be prepared, plan your route ahead of time and print out two copies of your itinerary; one to leave with a friend or loved one, and one to leave under your car seat in the event of an emergency. Hike with a partner if you can. Hiking with someone else lessens the stress of potential mishaps or dangers. Besides, I always have the deepest conversations while out in the wildnerness.
But before we digress, back to the essentials! REI tells us that the original Ten Essentials list was “assembled in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization for climbers and outdoor adventurers, to help people be prepared for emergency situations in the outdoors.”
Today, many consider the list with a “systems approach”, instead of individual items, like we listed above. The system approach goes as follows:
- Navigation: map (or app on your phone), compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger
- Headlamp: plus extra batteries
- Sun protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen
- First aid: including foot care and insect repellent (as needed)
- Knife: plus a gear repair kit
- Fire: matches, lighter, tinder and/or stove
- Shelter: carried at all times (can be a light emergency bivy)
- Extra food: Bring more food than you anticipate you will consume during your trip
- Extra water: Beyond the minimum expectation
- Extra clothes: Beyond the minimum expectation
We’d also recommend adding an external battery pack for your phone, just in case.
Want to learn more about the updated Ten Essentials? Read all about them here.
Wear the Right Shoes for Hiking
Of course, you’ll want to wear the right shoes on your adventure. This will ensure you’re hiking in comfort and style, regardless of whether or not you know the terrain you plan to traverse.
The Napali Women’s Hiking Sandal
The Napali sport sandal is stylish, durable, and comes with an easily customizable fit. This women’s hiking sandal features straps that are adjustable for just about any width, as well as a cushioned EVA foam midsole with ergonomic arch support — meaning these sandals will absorb impact and provide extra cushioning and comfort.
They’re also ultra-lightweight with quick-drying webbing, and can be used as a water sandal, making them an excellent choice for your off-path hiking adventures. The Napali sandals are some of my favorite sandals to hike with. Based on my experience, I can jump through puddles of mud, scramble up rocks, and trek through dirt without a care in the world. The adjustable strap makes it easy for me to change the level of comfort, and after my trek, they're easy to clean - easier than my muddy clothes!
You can purchase the Napali Sandal here.
Columbia Women’s Newton Ridge
The Columbia Newton Ridge Plus Waterproof hiking boot is an excellent choice for a rigorous day spent in the great outdoors, whether you’re on the trail or traversing a craggy mountain range. Not only are they stylish and durable, but they’re also comfortable and lightweight, which means you’ll be able to hit the ground running in these.
With a suede and leather waterproof exterior that protects from all kinds of extreme weather conditions, we can’t dispute that these are top quality hiking boots. The high-traction grip within the advanced traction outsole will protect you from slipping, while the lightweight midsole provides comfort and cushioning for impact absorption and more.
Merrell Men’s Moab 2 Mid Waterproof Hiking Boot
With a name like that, we’d be seriously remiss not to include the Merrell Men’s Moab 2 on this list. This magnificent waterproof hiker features durable leathers, a supportive footbed, and signature Vibram traction, for a superior experience out on the trail.
Stylish and versatile? Check. Lightweight? Check. Ankle and arch support? Check, check, and check. There’s a reason the Moab 2 is referred to as the “Mother of All Boots.”
Track Contour Lines
Just as important as having a topographic map on your person, is actually being able to “read” contour lines on said map. Recognizing valleys, mountains, ridges, creeks, and other important landmarks can make all the difference if you’re stranded without enough food and water and need to gauge the distance from point A to point B on limited supplies.
You should also be doing your best to match landmarks to the map as you pass them. Take notes as you do! For example, you can mark the passage of time, like how long it takes to scale a particularly steep ridge, and make it that much easier for your future self when finding your way back.
To watch a great video on how to read contour lines, check out this video:
You can also use these natural landmarks as markers or “guideposts” to find your way back — for example, the sun, the moon, and large mountain peaks are undeniable, and important to pay attention to, especially if you don’t have a compass. Be sure to take note of everything you can while you’re hiking!
When Crossing A Stream, Remember…
According to PA Hikes, some tips and precautions to prioritize while fording streams include:
Taking your time. It’s important to walk deliberately to ensure your footing is stable and secure. We all know how easy it is to slip!
Avoid taking off your boots. Traction from hiking boots, water shoes, or supportive sandals will serve you far better in this situation than your bare feet. However, if you’re wearing socks, do take those off — then put them back on after you’ve crossed. Your dry feet will thank you!
No trekking pole? No problem. Try picking up a long stick or two to help yourself out while crossing the stream.
If You Do Get Lost, Prioritize
If worse comes to worst and you do get lost, don’t panic. Try using the simple acronym, “STOP,” to figure out what to do next.
S stands for stop. Take some deep breaths. Take a drink of water, and nibble on a snack. Hopefully this will calm you down enough to be able to rationally think through this situation.
T is for think. Ask yourself: What direction was I heading in? What was the last landmark I recognized, and how long ago did I pass it? Did I take note of this on the map, or take a picture of it on my phone? Retrace your steps mentally, and see if that jogs your memory enough so you can do it IRL.
O stands for observe. Look around and take note of your surroundings: Any recognizable landmarks? How about on your map? Go through any photos on your phone or camera, and be sure to check what time you took them. How many hours have passed since you started your hike? Can you find some shelter nearby?
P is for plan. Don’t stray from your spot until you have one! Your top priorities should now be finding shelter, finding water, starting a fire, and finding a way to send a signal so that others can find you. How can you go about doing so in a methodic and observant manner?
See if you can send a text message or make a phone call. If either goes through, you can happily alert someone to your whereabouts and predicament.
Send a Distress Signal
When it comes to the international signal for distress, remember THREE of any signal. This can mean three shots, three blasts on a whistle — essentially, do the best you can, given your surroundings, in order to make three (hopefully LOUD) signals happen.
Still looking for more information?
Check out this video from REI on basic land navigation:
Or this video from REI on how to read a compass:
Frequently Asked Questions
How can you best avoid getting lost?
Planning ahead is one of the best ways to avoid getting lost. With proper planning and gear, you'll avoid any sudden mishaps that may happen. When you're unprepared, there leaves more room for error. Always research your destination and have a GPS on hand to help you gauge your surroundings. Hikers that are unprepared are usually the ones who end up in trouble!
What are some basic navigational techniques?
If you're completely lost and need a final resort, there are some things you can do to help you get back to safety. Celestial Navigation uses the moon, stars, and sun to help you determine the location and direction you want to travel in. Using this in the time of need may save your life.
How can I hike safely in unfamiliar terrain?
One of the only ways to explore a new place is to hike in unfamilar terrain. But with that comes risks. Always research the area beforehand, and look for information about weather and any potential hazards that might come your way. Make sure you know the forest fire risk and any other natural disasters that may affect the area and the trails on your route. Resources about the hiking areas, found on the internet, are always useful. That way, you're prepared for the worst. It's also a good idea to have a first-aid kit on hand, snacks, extra water, and even a fire starter should you face any trouble.