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Navigation: Trip Planning & In The Field

When I'm out on backpacking trips, I always like to carry a couple of navigation tools with me. Whether hiking on-trail or off-trail these tools help me (or my group) accomplish my (or our) goals for that specific trip. They aid in everything from finding water, to campsite selection, to double checking a bearing and more. A good map and compass will never fail you so long as you know how to use it in conjunction with what’s between your two ears. These two crucial pieces of gear are a part of my Ten Essentials that go with me on every trip. Below, I want to share a little more on why I choose what I do and how it applies to my trips.

I like to carry three types of topographic maps for my trips.

1. Paper Basic Map

2. Paper Detailed Map

3. Digital Maps On Smartphone GPS App

Bonus: Additional info from other sources

On most of my trips, I use paper maps over digital maps. My smartphone or GPS device is simply used as a backup or as another source to check a bearing. I prefer paper maps to digital maps for many reasons:

- They don't rely on batteries or a recharge from a power source

- They won't break if dropped

- Can dry out if wet and won't short out and stop working

- Can be written on if I am making notations of the route during the trip

- Bigger viewing surface than looking at a small screen

Paper Basic Maps

I like to use these maps for trip planning, finding resources, travel and permits. They are usually very simple detailed only with trails, POIs (points of interest), boundaries and a North arrow (sometimes they will have declination).

I’ll go with maps I have printed from online or acquired from parks or locations over time. They may also have a mileage marker or use shade relief. I’ll often mark these up quite a bit with info or notes that I find or have found to be useful for the trip.

Paper Detailed Topo Maps

These maps are what I will use for further and final trip planning, resources and travel. They are also the maps I will use during my trip and also work well with campsite selection (if needed). They can be found in various scales (ie. 1:20,000 or 1: 75,000, etc) and also provide important details such as declination and measurements. Since they are topo, the contour lines, elevation profiles and layout helps me navigate comfortably and safely.

If printed versions are already available (AMC, National Geographic, ATC, etc) I will purchase them from an outdoor retailer. The maps carried in these stores are periodically updated to assure you that you have accurate, reliable info in your hands.

USGS 7.5-minute series topo maps I find to be some of the best out there for the U.S. so I’ll always use and carry them. These quadrangle maps are at a scale of 1:24,000 (or 24K) which means that 1 inch on the map corresponds to 24,000 inches (2,000 ft) on Earth. There are over 55,000 7.5-minute series quadrangle topo maps available. If I can't find a hard copy of one, I'll print my own using commercial software.

GPS Apps

I may be a traditionalist, but as far as technology goes I prefer to use a GPS app on my smartphone rather than carry a GPS unit. I already have my phone on me for check-ins and to snap photos while out on my trip so this made the most sense and is what I find works best for me. Smartphones these days have improved greatly and there are some great apps out there that do everything a GPS unit does. They are constantly updated, weigh only what your personal phone weighs (so no extra unnecessary weight) and you don’t need to bring a bunch of extra batteries (more unnecessary weight).

I also prefer the clarity and larger size of a smartphone screen to that of a GPS unit. If you’ve had the chance to read other blog posts I’ve written or have been out on a trip with me you’re already aware that I’ve been using GAIA GPS on my phone (pictured above) for some time now. For those who weren’t, this app does everything I need it to do along with allowing me to further plan certain trips and even print out maps of my intended areas of travel. There are a lot of great GPS app options out there (I’ve also used CalTopo, Trimble, MotionX).

Other Sources

Along with maps and a GPS app, I also like to utilize info from other sources (if available and necessary) to help with my trip planning and for when I am out solo or guiding clients. Some sources I’ll use are guidebooks, databooks, online trip reports, community forums, government databases and other maps of interest. With these other sources I can check weather patterns for the specific area, boundaries or landownership (to help with resupply, alternate routes, permits and local knowledge), possible trail closings or wildlife sightings and even nautical information (to help if I am traveling along the coast or on a kayak trip). I may also reference info I have written in the past from prior trips.


Since this is a post about navigation tools, I can’t leave out the trusty compass. My current compass of choice is the Suunto M-3 D. I prefer a compass that allows me to set a specific declination. Once I have that set with my location and maps I am good to go. I can enjoy the trip and apply my focus to everything else instead of fussing with my maps and a basic compass when orienteering is needed. Considering the majority of my trips take place in the Northern Hemisphere, I don’t find a global needle compass to be necessary. I also don’t find it necessary to carry one with a sighting mirror.

How do you plan your trips out? What navigation tools are some of your favorites to use? Share them in a comment below.

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