You Are Hiking Into Unfamiliar Terrain. What Is The Best Way To Keep Your Bearings?

If you click and purchase with one of our links, we earn a commission. Thanks.

Hiking is a popular hobby and a great form of exercise. While most hikers will stick to well-established trails, eventually every hiker finds themselves hiking in unfamiliar terrain. The simplest way to keep your bearings is to find a landmark that you can see. And you want to constantly look behind you because you want to be able to backtrack if necessary. Next is to use a GPS system either an app like AllTrails on your phone or a dedicated device like a Garmin eTrex 30. A compass is a good backup but most people don’t know how to use them properly. Next, make sure that someone back home knows where you plan to go and when you’ll be back so if necessary they can alert search and rescue. Finally, if you ultimately do get lost and need to be rescued, it’s important to not panic but sit down and wait for rescue.

Let’s now look at this answer in detail.

Stick To Well-Marked Trails

My friend Dr. Tom, every year goes on a weeklong camping trip into the remote parts of the Grand Canyon. GPS barely functions so he has to use a compass and map to navigate. Dr. Tom is also an expert in venomous animals. And knows more about outdoor survival than 99.99% of humans. He can go anywhere he wants to go.

But if you don’t know how to keep your bearings and are not confident with a compass, stick to well-marked trails in areas where GPS works well.

There is plenty of trails you can hike out there with minimal risk of getting lost.

Pay Attention To Landmarks

Look for landmarks that are on the track you want to follow. You can use any stationary object that you can see as a landmark. This could be a really tall tree, a water tower, a cellphone tower, a mountain, or even a tall building. As long you can see the landmark, then you know you are heading in the correct direction.

Constantly Look Behind You

Every few minutes, stop and look behind you. This is because if you feel that you are lost, the best thing to do is turn back and go back to a known location. However, the trail looks different going the other way.

Thus, you need to constantly stop and look behind you. This way the trail will look familiar to you if you have to circle back.

Tell Someone Back Home Where You’re Going And When To Expect You Back

Whenever you go hiking or camping, it’s important to make sure that someone back home knows where you are going and when to expect you back. This way if something happens and you don’t return home within the expected time, help can be summoned. Since the person back home can give Search and Rescue an expected location, it will make it easier for them to find you.

In particular, if you are not only lost but injured.

Go With A Hiking Buddy

It is safer to go hiking with at least one more person. Having another person hiking with you will help stay on trail. And if you do get lost, having another person with you allows you to brainstorm to get back on the trail. If you are hiking in bear country, hiking with multiple people reduces the chances of a bear encounter. In particular, if there are more than 2 people. To my knowledge, there has never been a bear attack involving a group of 3 or more people. When hiking in bear country it’s easy to make sounds by talking or doing sing-a-longs with your hiking pals. If you make a noise like talking, it gives a chance for a bear to flee.

Finally, having a trail buddy is important because if one of you gets hurt, the other can go get help.

Bring A GPS

An essential piece of gear for hiking is GPS. You can either use your phone or a dedicated device. Your phone GPS will continue to work even if you don’t have cell or WiFi signal. Apps like AllTrails work really well in marking hiking trails.

But you might want to bring along a dedicated GPS device because they often do a better job.

And if you’re afraid that the battery will die while out hiking, then bring along extra batteries or battery chargers with you in your pack.

Compass And Map

With some training, you can learn how to navigate with a compass and map. While some people will swear by compass and map for navigation, they fail to account for 2 things.

First, navigating by compass is a skill. And unlike a GPS which even a child can learn to operate with a few minutes of experimenting, learning how to use a compass requires several hours of training and practice.

Plus you need a current map. And because of GPS, maps are not updated as frequently as they were in the past.

Thus you can’t just rely on a compass and map for navigation.

Though I would recommend investing in a quality compass, spending some time learning how to dead reckon and practice. That way if you are hiking and you do lose your GPS, the compass can help you navigate via dead reckoning back to safety if you get lost.

Mark Your Trail

When hiking in unfamiliar territory and the trail is not well marked, bring along a way to mark your trail. You can use pre-made trail markers or make your own. Pre-made trail markers are small pieces of plastic that have reflective colors on them and on one end there’s a clip that you can use to attach to a tree-limb.

But you can improvise your own. The best way would be to bring along a bright colored bandana. Then cut it up into small strips. You could use a t-shirt as well. If you have a survival blanket, you can shred it and use the strips to mark the trail.

The trail markers are very useful in backtracking or in the worst-case scenario, Search and Rescue tracking you down.

Be Prepared -- remember glow light and whistle

The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared” and this is something that all hikers should follow too.

When you go out on your hiking trip make sure to bring along at least the following:

  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • First Aid kit
  • A way to make fire such as a Bic lighter, candle, and waterproof matches
  • A good knife or multi-tool
  • A good headlamp
  • A poncho
  • 2 brightly covered bandanas or an orange-colored 3XL t-shirt.
  • GPS and/or Compass with Map
  • Plenty of water
  • Something to eat
  • Additional weather appropriate clothing
  • Glow sticks
  • A whistle
  • A survival blanket
  • Some cordage like paracord

If you have these on hand, then if something goes wrong, you will be prepared for most emergency scenarios such as unexpectedly having to hike at night.

The glow sticks and whistle are to assist with signaling Search and Rescue. The survival blanket can be used not only as a blanket to keep you warm. You can use it to create shade during the summer. Or even as a signaling mirror for Search and Rescue.

Don’t Panic

My friend Will went on a day hike with his friends at Turner Falls, Oklahoma. If you think of Oklahoma, you might be envisioning flat grasslands. Which is a correct vision for most of the state.

But Turner Falls is in a set of old mountains and is heavily wooded with many well-marked trails. Will saw a tree that was off the trail and he wanted to go see it.

Once they got to the tree, Will realized that he didn’t know how to get back to the trail. And the night was coming.

He didn’t panic. Instead, he had remembered to bring along a way to make fire with him. And he got a campfire lit. This helped keep them warm and made them feel safer. Thankfully, it didn’t rain and they were teenagers. So they got through the night without any harm. And found the trail in the morning.

While they should have stayed on the trail, anyone can find themself lost on a trail. In particular, if you’re hiking on a trail that hasn’t been well-maintained.

And Will did the most important thing - he didn’t panic. He kept his wits together and didn’t make the situation worse. Instead, he built a fire and make sure they had a safe place to rest. It wasn’t the most comfortable camping but they all survived without harm.

Hiking is a great form of exercise and an even better way to see the great outdoors. While most trails are well-marked, sometimes you might find yourself in an unfamiliar area. Use the tips in this article to make sure you can hike without getting lost.

Related Articles

Pinterest image for You Are Hiking Into Unfamiliar Terrain. What Is The Best Way To Keep Your Bearings?