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  • Writer's pictureElderberry 1

New Tricks

Having digital maps at our fingertips is pretty amazing. I'm as dependent on them as the next person, whether it's pulling up directions on my phone to get me to a place I haven't driven to before, or it's pulling up trail maps to plan for a hike or to the check that I'm on track when I'm out in the woods. But digital maps aren't entirely infallible, and there are a number of reasons why one might find themselves unable to use them out on the trail-- no signal or no/low battery, for example-- so having some sort of back up can be useful. Sometimes that's access to another digital map-- I usually have a trail map downloaded from AllTrails on my phone and Mr. P will have a downloaded area map from another platform, like CalTopo, on his phone. Some folks carry a GPS device, which can also track your trips without draining the power on your phone-- we bring an InReach mini on our backpacking trips and also when we're out on solo adventures, mostly as a safety measure and to make sure that we can keep in touch when we're out of cell range, but it does have some tracking capabilities (although the most useful parts of that will need to work on a paired phone, so it won't be as helpful if phones were out of commission).


And there are always paper maps.

Unfolded paper map showing Phoenix Arizona and the surrounding area
Where you'll end up if you take the left at Albuquerque

Paper maps! Remember those? You'd pour over them, trying to figure out the best route to get somewhere, and then forget where your turn off was once you were on the road. Whoever was sitting in the front seat was designated the navigator and they were supposed to keep track of where you were so that you didn't end up watching your exit go by. (Even with a navigator there was a 50/50 chance you were going to pass your exit) If you remember rotary phones this is how you learned to read a map, maybe flipping through a road atlas or a fold out map and dreaming of road trips.


The cover of the Lonely Planet road atlas for Thailand, Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia on top of a road map of Vietnam
The road atlas I used in Southeast Asia

If you learned map reading like I did, you probably also learned map reading for road or street navigation. While it's a starting point for looking at trail maps, matching topography of a map to what you're seeing on the trail is a very different skill set-- and not one that I learned growing up, living in cities where street navigation was needed. Which is also why, before digital trail maps that will help place where you are on the map, I spent a fair amount of time being misplaced, doing much longer hikes than I'd planned.


Late in my career of being a misplaced hiker, but well before smartphones, I found Mr. P, erstwhile orienteering champion who used to teach map reading in the military. No more getting misplaced! If Mr. P looks at the map and says it's that way, it's that way.


folded maps of the Massachusetts-Connecticut sections of the Appalachian Trail
Maps Mr. P used to navigate us on the MA section of the AT

But Mr. P doesn't want to go on all the hikes I want to go on, and I don't want to only go on hikes when Mr. P is feeling it. Smartphone hiking apps have been a fantastic solution for this, standing in for Mr. P's navigation skills when he doesn't want to come on a hike but I still want to go out. Since starting to use them I hike solo most of the time. But whether I'm depending on Mr. P or I'm depending on a digital navigation tool, I'm still depending on something that I might be in trouble without.

A hand in the foreground holding a compass with part of the person's face reflected in the mirror and five people standing in a desert landscape beyond the compass
Getting my bearings. Literally.

So I finally took a land navigation course. I don't think I'll be winning an orienteering competitions any time soon, but I did get us to the point on the map I was aiming for, which is a start, right?


Any time we go out on the trail we're committing to self-reliance. It's more obvious when you're in the backcountry, away from cell service, someplace where you haven't seen another person for hours or even days, but even when we're closer to roads or cell service or on a busy trail with lots of people it isn't guaranteed that people will come along or that your phone will have power. And it's never too late to grow our knowledge or learn a new skill.


Some places to look for navigation classes:


  • Your local college or community college

  • Hiking clubs-- there are hiking clubs all over the country and many not only organize group hikes, but also do some outdoor education. I did the map and compass course with my local hiking club.

  • Wilderness rescue organizations-- for example, Central Arizona Mountain Rescue and Taos Search and Rescue both offers courses.

  • Where you get your gear-- national retailers like REI offer workshops, as do many local retailers.

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