Hiking In Unfamiliar Terrain: How To Keep Your Bearings

7 Min Read

There’s a number of ways to keep your bearings while hiking in unfamiliar terrain. Prepare well, take a map or navigation device, and learn to use them effectively.

Pay attention to your surroundings, noting obvious landmarks like peaks or river crossings. And take plenty of photos, these will help guide you back if you get turned around.

Whether it’s a well-marked trail you’ve never walked or an empty valley, days from civilisation, the joy of hiking comes from experiencing the unknown. But keeping your bearings in unfamiliar terrain can be challenging, especially for new hikers.

Over the last few years, I’ve hiked thousands of trail miles. But recently I’ve started going off piste too.

It all started in the Scottish Highlands. Scotland’s ‘Right To Roam’ laws mean anyone can go just about anywhere. This let me hike into unfamiliar terrain – and taught me a few things.

I’ll teach some of what I learned below. We’ll cover preparation, map reading, gadgets, and more. I’ll specifically explain what to do if you get lost, too.

Now let’s say you’re hiking into unfamiliar terrain. What’s the best way to keep your bearings?

Table of Contents

1

Preparation

Knowing as much as you can about the terrain you’re about to enter. Look at a map before you go – and take a copy with you.

Topographic maps are best. They show contour lines and give an accurate representation of elevation changes.

Check the weather before you leave, too. If you don’t know the terrain, hiking in extreme weather can be dangerous. Avoid it unless you’ve got a ton of experience.

I also recommend talking to locals or other hikers about the area. They’ll often have tips and advice. They’ll also warn you of dangers you may not know about.

2

Map Reading

While hiking, take frequent compass readings. Plot your progress on a map. This helps keep your bearings as you go.

Make note of the time it took you to walk between two points, if you can. This will help you stay on track and plan your return journey.

If you can’t read a map, I recommend at least learning the basics. There’s a ton of great resources online.

3

GPS & Smartphone

Take a GPS device. A standalone gadget or your smartphone both work. GPS works using satellites and does not require phone service. Just make sure you save a map of the territory in advance if using a smartphone.

I use the maps.me app. It’s got contour lines and a good level of detail. It provides a good overview of what to expect from my hikes.

On well-known trails, I use the app Guthook. It has detailed maps featuring points of interest and comments from other hikers. It also shows water sources, shops, towns and accommodation options.

Almost every navigation app I’ve used allows you to download maps for offline use.

A standalone GPS device will tell you where you are and may also give you information about the trail ahead. Many can send messages via satellite so you don’t need phone service. They also often have an SOS and personal locator setting built-in.

Just remember, both a phone and GPS device will need charging from time to time. It’s always good to have a map and basic map reading skills as a backup.

4

Pay Attention to Obvious Landmarks

While hiking, pay attention to obvious landmarks. Peaks, valleys and river crossings are a good way to get your bearings.

After looking at the map, are they where you expected them to be? If not, you may want to make a note of that.

Remembering where landmarks are will also help you get back on track should you stray.

5

Look Behind

It’s easy to fixate on what’s in front of you. But landmarks can look drastically different from the other side. As you hike, check back regularly to get the lay of the land.

As you look back, you’ll get a better idea of where you’re moving. This makes backtracking and returning the way you came easier.

6

Take Lots of Photos

Having a bunch of epic shots doesn’t just give you something to remember the trip by. It can also be a lifesaver if you get lost.

Regularly taking photos means you’ve got a constant diary of where you’ve been.

If you get lost, photos will show how long it’s been since you were on track. They’ll also give you an idea of where to head back to… Especially if you’ve been photographing a ton of landmarks!

7

Battery Pack

Most of our navigation tools rely on electricity. Always take a backup battery with you to power them.

Your best choice is a power bank that can charge your phone, GPS and even camera multiple times. I always carry a 20,000mah battery pack with me. It’s heavy and some people call it overkill but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

8

Start Early

Everything is easier and safer in daylight — especially navigating!

By starting early, you’ll give yourself the maximum amount of daylight. Even if you think your hike should take six hours, don’t leave too late. One wrong turn and you could easily be on a nine-hour hike.

Hiking in the dark sucks when you’re not prepared. It’s hard to keep your bearings and even harder to avoid dangers.

9

Hike With a Friend

If you’re nervous about hiking in unknown territory, find a walking buddy. Two minds are better than one when it comes to keeping your bearings.

Even the calming presence of another person affects how you feel. There’s less pressure and you’ll be able to enjoy more of the hike.

10

What To Do If You Get Lost

Sometimes you can do everything right and still end up lost.

If this happens, don’t panic. Being lost sucks – but if you stay calm and find your way, you’ll feel like a boss. Trust me.

Just remember the mnemonic STOP.

S – Stop what you’re doing. Sit down. Rest. Have a drink of water and a bite to eat. Give your mind and body a chance to relax. This will help you think rationally.

T – Think. Go through the basics: which direction are you heading? When was the last time you knew where you were? How long ago was that? How far have you walked since?

O – Observe. Look around you. Is there anything you recognise? Look behind you and check your photos. Do they give you a clue as to where you got lost?

P – Plan. Don’t move until you have a plan. Can you make a call or text? Is there enough daylight left to get to your destination? If not, is there shelter nearby?

In Conclusion

Navigating in unfamiliar terrain can be tough. But it can also be rewarding.

Ensure you carry all the correct equipment and be prepared for things to go wrong. I rarely experience a hike with no problems at all!

These tips and a healthy dose of common sense will keep you on track as you hike into unfamiliar terrain.

Writer:

George P.H.

Last Updated:

April 30, 2022

George P.H.

George is the founder of Shoethority. He started testing and studying shoes after a series of sports injuries. He now shares his knowledge with Shoethority readers as a writer, tester and editor.