How Backpacking Works

Finding Your Way: Backpacking Trails

It can be confusing, but checking a map will help you find your way.
It can be confusing, but checking a map will help you find your way.
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Your backpack is packed, you're in superb hiking condition -- now it's time to set out on the trails. So how will you find your way? If you plan on sticking to well-established trails, you may be fine with a trail map. But if your plans call for backcountry hiking or hiking on unpopulated trails, you should pack a topography map and a compass, and know how to use both. Many outdoor stores offer classes on now to use a map and compass. If you're just learning, take your map and compass with you on trails that you're familiar with for practice.

Some people choose to invest in a global positioning system (GPS). A GPS unit can tell you exactly where you are, your elevation and how far you've traveled. It can't chart out the course in front of you, however. That's why you still need a map. A growing number of trails are available to download to your GPS. But, of course, if you remain on the trail you're not likely to become lost in the first place. Once you're off the trail, there's little the GPS can do to help you become reoriented. A GPS simply doesn't replace the old-fashioned map and compass.

Before heading out, make sure someone at home knows your anticipated route and when you expect to return. That way if you get lost, somebody knows it. It also helps rescuers to narrow down their search for you.

­To prevent yourself from getting lost, pay attention when you're hiking. By noting the details of your surroundings, you're more likely to notice if something looks wrong or if you're walking in circles. If you believe that you may be lost, remain calm. If you're tired, cold and hungry, or it's getting late, stop and set up camp. Things may look much different in the morning. Have a good meal and try to get some rest. If you still find you're lost in the morning, look for a drainage area or stream bed and follow it downhill. Often that will lead you to more populated trails or roads.

For more information on backpacking, camping and other outdoor sports, consult the links on the following page.

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More Great Links


  • Backpacking and Hiking for Beginners. (October 22, 2008)
  • Berger, Karen. "Trailside Guide: Hiking and Backpacking, New Edition." 1995.
  • Curtis, Rick. "The Backpacker's Field Manual, a Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills." 1998.
  • Johnston, Matt. "Packing a Pack." The Backpacker. (October 22, 2008)
  • Lundkvist, Mats. "Why Should You Use Hiking Poles?" The Backpacker. (October 22, 2008)
  • Olson, Eric. "Getting Started." The Hiking Website. 2007. (October 22, 2008)
  • McGivney, Annette. "Leave No Trace: A Guide to New Wilderness Etiquette." 2003.