Navigation is one of those really important things on your list of 10 essentials, it’s why they put it right at the top of most lists. If you don’t know where you are and how to find yourself if you’re lost, then just stop now. The remaining 9 essentials are useful, but you shouldn’t be on the trails so ill prepared.
That said, there are varying levels of navigation needs depending on where you are. Ultimately, everyone should know how to use a map and compass and carry said items with them if they’re heading into the backcountry. Do I? Eh, kind of. If I can see the hills or landmarks around me, I can sort of triangulate and get a good idea, I’ve had a handful of lessons. But I’m not going to rely on this nor teach this, and, frankly, I want to know more and I need to know more, so I’m looking for classes.
Mine the Internet
I know you can get this info online, and if you can learn that way, you do you, but I can’t, so I’m saving for this and too many other things. And meanwhile, I try to learn online and follow other principles… like traveling along known geological landmarks… the easiest example is following a river up the hill on the left, and returning with it on your right as you ascend. It’s easy to keep that river right there, and if you veer off the path because you stepped off to pee, like “Inchworm” Largay, you’ll be sure to be back on track shortly.
In my pack I do have a paper map of the area and a compass. If I can get to a summit, I can figure out mostly where I am and which way is the best way down. I’ve also got some apps running. There’s a whole world of info on GPS apps, you can go way down a reddit hole. If this is your thing, dive in. But here’s what I use:
All Trails. It’s got a great database of user identified trails, and its pro edition is a good dip into spending money on apps like this. It’s not known to be particularly reliable because its user fed data, but I have found it to be just fine for discovering some local trails. Its also generally got some recent comments on its condition.
Section Hikes and Thru Hikes
I used Guthook, now called Far Out. I believe Avenza and Gaia are its other competitors. I liked Far Out because I can download the maps I want. They go on sale, follow Far Out on insta and wait for the sales if you have time! You normally only pay about the same as you would for a paper map. Friends and family can follow you (for free) and see you check in as often as you wish. Most importantly to me was the very active user driven social feed which updated the app on water sources, bear sightings, gems in town and trail angels. This hyper up to date info while on the trail was a welcome connection to the larger community and allowed me to keep my water weight down while better estimating my hike time.
I have not yet used PLB (Personal Locator Beacons) so I can’t really comment here, but I’ve been doing some research because I think I owe it to groups I guide to be able to summons first aid quickly if need be. Its likely to be the first investment I make as my season starts to shape up. The folks at Greenbelly do a good review of the whole concept.
Personally, I don’t hike with a beacon. But as a guide, I’ll be getting the Garmin In-Reach. Not the mini, a bigger two way. But I think if I was nervous or had a nervous family, the In Reach Mini would be a good option.
Use your eyes and your ears
Lastly, I can’t move off the navigation topic without covering the basics. Use your eyes and your ears. Use all your senses actually. Know your East and West and what’s on the other side of the mountains, feel where the wind comes from, notice where the sun rises and falls each day, watch the foliage change and hear the rush of the gorge as you near it. All these can give you clues to your location and can help you or a SAR determine where you are.