Guidelines for a hiking adventure

Route-finding on the trail

A wrong turn while hiking can lead to... 

...Well, in fact, sometimes it can lead to to exciting and unexpected new sights, or an interesting encounter. But it can also lead to frustration, blisters, missed dinners, and perhaps an unplanned night under the stars, hoping it doesn't rain.

We're happy to let serendipity take its course now and then. But most of the time, a hiking trip is more enjoyable, and certainly safer, if you have a good sense of where you are, where you want to be, and how to get there. These suggestions, plus practice, will help you move in that direction.

Everyone should have a map and compass

Always take a map and compass when you head out hiking, unless it's an area you know well, and you're certain you won't get into new territory. (And even then, why not be prepared, in case you get the urge to explore?)

The world is full of people who went hiking unprepared because they were certain they would stay with someone who was prepared, but became separated when unpredictable events came up. They have lots of excuses. When you head out for a full day of hiking in unfamiliar territory, the only predictable thing is that something unpredictable will happen.

Don't use your compass merely to find North

Even a cheap compass will point to North, more or less. A few dollars more buys a model similar to the one shown here, with which you can often pinpoint your location if you've got an identifiable landmark in sight. Serious hikers should get a model with a flip-up mirror that enables more accurate readings.

Make a note of any other features on your compass, learn how to use them, and actually try them out. Even a feature as simple as a small built-in magnifying glass won't do you any good, if you forget that it's there one evening when the light is dim and you have trouble reading an important detail on the map. (Our Compass page explains the features shown here, and describes the process of using a compass bearing to identify your location.) 

Always know where you are

Self-evident? Perhaps. But many hikers don't pull out the map until they're thoroughly lost.

The fact is, it's usually a simple matter to continually monitor your location on a map, double-checking to confirm that you're correct. It's far more difficult to figure out your location after you're so lost that you haven't a clue.

As you hike, frequently ask yourself:

  • Are we going in the compass direction the map indicates we should be traveling?
  • Are we going uphill or downhill when expected? 
  • Are we passing through the type of terrain (open fields, forest) indicated on the map?
  • Do trail junctions correspond with what shows on the map?
  • Are we crossing roads or streams where the map shows them?
  • Are visible landmarks showing up in the direction they should be?

If reality suddenly stops corresponding to what the map tells you to expect, but everything was checking out five minutes ago, then it's easy to retrace your steps for five minutes, and see if you missed a turn. If you've been hiking along in the wrong direction for an hour, you'll have a much tougher time salvaging the situation.

Take full advantage of your map

Know all the map symbols; many will help confirm where you are. Symbols for churches and cemeteries are often helpful. Some maps show major high-tension wires; since these can be spotted from a distance, they're also useful. Many maps show terrain, distinguishing between forest and open countryside. This can be immensely helpful.

When we hike from Zermatt, for example, in the Swiss Alps, we often follow the zig-zag red trail that appears in the middle of this simplified map, going from north to south, and somewhat west. There are several clues we can watch, as we hike, to be sure we're on the trail we think we're on:

1) We should encounter sharp turns at regular (and roughly equal) intervals, as we go through those switchbacks.

2) We're going uphill. This is shown by the red arrows, which on this map indicate the uphill direction. On the actual map (less apparent on a computer screen) we can also determine this by reading the brown contour lines, and by comparing elevations shown at various spots. 

3) We should be in the forest for a period (shaded light green), during which we'll reach two switchbacks (below the H in Hermettji), one to the right, then one to the left.

4) We will cross under a tram cable (the blue line). As we pass under the cable, it will be going ahead of us and to the right.

Be cautious about relying on the locals

If you're lost, you'll breathe a sigh of relief when you see someone who seems to live in the area. Now you'll know where you are!

But asking a local for directions isn't always the best solution. Many people cannot read a map and won't know your location; nonetheless, they may mislead you in their eagerness to be helpful. Most people get around by car, and even if you're on foot or bike, they'll point you in the way they'd take by car, which may not be appropriate. Another hiker, if you see one, may be better able to help.

Share the route-finding responsibilities

Don't just rely on one hiker in front to lead the way. At least one other person in a group should always be double-checking. And really, everyone should be keeping track, for several reasons:

  • You'll be less likely to miss a turn if everyone is watching.
  • If someone strays from the group, they need to know where they are, and where they're going.
  • This gives everyone a chance to practice their map-reading skills, and to compare their conclusions against those of more experienced hikers.
  • And finally, it's fun. Route-finding is a puzzle; sometimes an easy one, sometimes more challenging. If you haven't a clue how to go about solving the puzzle, it may be boring to wait for the leaders while they work on the puzzle. But once you understand the process and get involved, route-finding becomes part of the pleasure of a day of hiking.

This page and site are sponsored by Alyson Adventures, which offers hiking, biking, and other active vacations for small groups of gay men, lesbians, and friends. This site also briefly describes vacations on which you can hike or climb with us, and we have hiking and rock climbing FAQ pages. We invite you to visit our gay trip index to see our full range of adventure travel and vacations. And before you make final plans, we invite you to read our tips for comparing gay vacation packages.


Copyright 2000 by Alyson Adventures, Inc.