I almost never use my compass. I always have one with me in my essentials bag but I almost never pull it out. The reason is because I rarely encounter travel days with limited visibility, or am traveling off trail in a deep forest.
A compass is an invaluable tool that can be a lifesaver in specific situations, but most of the time a good topographic map with the help of landmarks, backstops, handrails, and triangulation are all I need to locate my position, and is a much faster navigational method.
A landmark is any notable terrain feature found along your route. Rivers, peaks, prominent cliffs, and other trails are some examples of good landmarks. Landmarks are the easiest terrain features to utilize when traveling. Spend some time with your map to identify where these landmarks are found. Then, when on the trail, you can gauge your progress based on which landmarks you pass. Landmarks are especially important when they mark descent routes (on peaks and canyons). Look behind you every once in a while when hiking: if you need to retrace your steps, it helps to have some familiar markers.
What is a Handrail? What is a Backstop?
Handrails and backstops are terms that describe notable terrain landmarks in relation to your position and direction of travel.
A handrail is something that parallels your course, often times a river or ridgeline. Just as you would use a railing to help walk down a flight of stairs, you use handrails to aid your navigational knowledge by keeping you on track.
Here are a few examples of handrails on a topographic map. I like to mark landmarks with an open O and handrails with a bracket [.
1) Use this creek that you know will be on your left side -- when the creek moves away from the trail, you have an exact position.
2) A prominent ridgeline which helps you stay moving in the right direction.
3) A river that you cross, changing handrail sides -- each time you cross you have a landmark, and the river can be used as a handrail in the interim.
So what's a backstop then? It's a clear ending landmark signaling that you are either at your destination, you need to change course, or you have gone too far. Lakes, cliffs, rivers, ridges, valley, and trails can all form excellent backstops.
Let's look at how we would identify some backstops on a map. I use an X to mark backstops.
1) When your trail junction is right before a lake -- the junction is a landmark and the lake serves as a backstop.
2) A trail leading into a cirque where you need to make camp -- the walls of the cirque are your backstop.
3) Coming down off of a summit, you can carefully use the tops of cliffs as backstops and then handrails. However, this is a potentially dangerous tactic in bad weather, so know where you need to descend.
Route Finding with Handrails and Backstops
Below is a map showing a three day backpacking trip into the John Muir Wilderness. On this map you will see the route, other trails, and campsites; along with annotation of landmarks, handrails, and backstops. Download the PDF to see things at a bigger scale. Drawing landmarks, handrails, and backstop on your map is a fantastic way to solidify you map reading ability (just make sure you can still read it under your own notes!). It's pretty fun to do, and your map ends up looking like a football playbook.
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Using Basic Triangulation to Find Your Position
Let's imagine that you are hiking along a long, open, gradual valley, such as this one:
Since the trail covers multiple miles without obvious landmarks, you can use a technique call triangulation to estimate your location.
Triangulation uses two notable landmarks and measures the angle between them to locate your spot. Since you are following a handrail (often a trail) you already have one leg of your angle established.
The next step is to identify a valley, ridge, or peak to use as your second marker. Some of the most accurate markers are when you are looking straight up a valley.
When you are in-line with a ridge.
Or when a prominent peak is relatively perpendicular to your route.
Draw a line down from the valley, ridge, or peak at the appropriate angle. Where the two lines intersect is your rough location.
So what happens if you aren't following a handrail? Let's take away the trail and river from our example.
Now you have to use two ridges, valleys, or peaks to triangulate with. Here are a couple examples.
1) You can see very clearly up two valleys
2) You are even with a peak and not quite in line with a ridge
These methods will give you a rough estimate of your location, but for more accuracy it's time to pull out that compass.
By thinking through your route ahead of time and frequently checking in with your current location on the map, terrain features allow you to quickly estimate your location and identify when you need to course correct.
Download the workmaps for more practice. Follow the route and draw in landmarks, handrails, and backstops. Then check your answers by viewing how I annotated the same maps.