Being able to navigate with a map and compass is a fundamental skill for being safe in the wilderness. There are of course many marked trails to follow in the mountains, but to blindly follow these markings can lull you into a false sense of security. You should therefore always follow your journey on the map so you know where you are. Another important piece of advice is to look up from the map and read the landscape around you – even behind you.
A map is a good start
Maps come in many shapes and sizes. The main difference is the level of detail. An appropriate scale for navigating in the mountains is 1:50 000. Maps can be bought at outdoor stores, mountain stations, tourist boards and specialised map stores. One good piece of advice is to buy your map well before the trek since studying the map is part of the planning stage. This also means you will not need to worry about the map you need being out of stock when you are ready to start your adventure. Remember that maps have a "best by" date. Parts of the trail can change since bridges and shelters can be moved for various reasons. You should therefore make sure that you have the most recent issue for your area.
Good supplements to the map and compass are GPS (with fresh batteries) and a pair of simple binoculars.
How to handle: Map and compass
1. Hold the map so its top edge faces north.
2. Align the edge of the compass so it is between the point where you are located and your target, with the direction of travel-arrow of the compass pointing in the same direction as the target.
3. Rotate the compass housing until the North arrow is pointing toward the map's North and is in line with the map's North-South meridians (graticule).
4. Rotate the compass so that the compass needle's red tip (magnetic North) is in line with the compass housing's North arrow.
5. The compass's direction of travel-arrow is now pointing toward your target.
Identifying clear landmarks and their location on the map is an important part of navigation. Peaks, streams, TV masts, electrical lines, etc., are called ”markers” in orienteering lingo and help you find your way. Following the direction of the compass is more difficult than many people are aware, and in terms of large distances the precision of the compass can be significantly wrong. One good tip is to set a clearly visible object, for example a large stone or a distinctive tree, as your target. Once you reach this target, get out your compass again and choose a new target. This way you do not need to look at your compass all the time.
If you get lost
If, despite everything, you find that you are lost, it is important that you do not just begin to wander around aimlessly. As soon as you lose your bearings, stop, take a moment to think and look around you. Try to identify where you are and set up a plan for how to make a decision. There are several ways to identify your position. For example:
• Turn back to the "last identifiable point". This is easier to do if you looked around at the landscape while you were walking. Your senses register both consciously and sub-consciously things that are different in the terrain, which makes it easier to find your way back to the "last identifiable point".
• In soft terrain, like mud, you can follow your own footsteps, like a real tracker, and return to a place that you can find on the map.
• Use multiple senses, including your hearing. The rumble of traffic indicates a main road, gurgling water often leads to a lake. Remember, though, that sounds can bounce off of rocks, so it is not always easy to draw conclusions about directions based on your first impression.
• An old tracker-truth is that trails lead somewhere. Man-made trails often lead to houses, roads or water, while animal trails lead to places to sleep, water or feeding areas. By following these trails, you can find a place that is easier to find on the map.
• Go up to a higher altitude to get an overview of the landscape. One technique for finding your location on the map is called interception and entails using two, or preferably three, points and the compass to identify your location on the map.
• Use GPS to save a waypoint at the "last identifiable place", for example when you get out of the car, during a lunch break or at the campsite. if you get lost, you can use the GPS to find your way back.
• If you know that there is a road or big lake directly south, use the compass to walk in a straight line toward it. When you reach the road/lake, it is often easier to find your exact location.