Hikers using a map reading skills to navigate through the Maine woods Credit: Bryan Courtois

Navigation can be an intimidating topic for many people but it does not have to be. By following a few simple guidelines, you can make navigation something you are comfortable with. Here are some basic points about navigation, which is more than just reading a map or using a cell phone GPS app.

The first step in understanding navigation is getting a feel for situational awareness. This means knowing where you are and what is around you and where it is in relation to you and your environment. If you know where you are and where you would like to be the process can be easy.

Remember, in order to get from point A to point B you first have to get to point A. If you already know where point A is and are actually there you are halfway done.

Generally, most navigation, especially on an established and documented route, whether it is a trail or a road, can be done with only an accurate map. When you start to navigate “off the beaten path” is when sharp navigational skills are required. Take a minute to study your map. There will be some standard features to note. Water is drawn in blue, contour lines are brown, and manmade objects are black.

Once you have established your point A take a minute and familiarize yourself with your surroundings. Make a note where things are in relation to each other. If you arrived at that point by car make note where the road is and which side of the road you are on. Make note of the direction the road is traveling and establish which way is north. Look at your map and orient it so that things that are in front of you on the map are in front of you in the field. This may mean rotating your map so that it is sideways or even upside down.

Here are some safety tips that can save your life:

  1. Fold your map and put it in a ziplock bag with the section of the map that you want to see framed in the bag. Include a note or copy of the trail description on the backside of the map.
  2. Put a note or copy of the trail guide description on the backside of the map.
  3. You can make notes of distances and approximate times between map features.
  4. You can also make notes of any compass bearings or general directions you will be following. Have your map readily available and refer to it often.
  5. Hold your map in the direction of travel. This may mean the map will be oriented sideways or upside down. By doing this when you reach a decision point a right on the map will be a right in the field, even if the writing on the map is upside down.

As you travel your route be observant, again situational awareness is key. Watch for the map features that were noted in the planning stage. Watch for blazes or rock cairns marking the trail. Note what color the blazes are. Blazes are painted marks on trees, rocks, etc. they are generally vertical 2” by 6” and a variety of colors are used. The Appalachian Trail is blazed in white. Side trails to the Appalachian Trail are generally blazed in blue. Many other colors are used from red to violet and all the shades in between.

Also, as you travel watch for obvious signs of human activity. This can be cut trees and branches to obviously placed stone steps. You should not go more than a few minutes without seeing some sign that you are still on the trail and have not accidently ended up on a game trail. Generally, trails are well maintained and clear. If the path ahead is not clear, and you have not seen signs of human activity in a few minutes you may be off trail. One of the most difficult times of the year to find the trail will be late fall when the leaves have covered the worn treadway of the trail.

In my next article, I will cover strategies for what to do when you are not sure where you are.

Bryan Courtois is an avid outdoorsman, a Registered Maine Guide, President of Pine Tree Search and Rescue, a volunteer search and rescue responder and the Education Director and a Board Member of the Maine Association for Search and Rescue. For more information check out the following resources:

Maine Association for Search and Rescue

Pine Tree Search and Rescue

Maine Wilderness Guides Organization

Pine Tree Search and Rescue Facebook page