How to navigate when you can’t see

Wait…what? Yes, we realize this sounds a little counterintuitive, but it is actually a more common scenario in backcountry travel than you might realize. We have discovered this first hand, as recently as August, when a sudden onset of dense fog left our group struggling to see more than 30 yards in any direction while atop the highlands of eastern Canada’s infamous Long Range traverse.

Quickly changing weather conditions (think snow, rain, dense fog, etc) have a way of transforming what may have been a million dollar view a moment earlier into a blank slate of confusion. By the time you’ve pulled on that warm, hard-shell jacket that you keep in the lid of your pack, it may be impossible to locate that notable mountain peak, or body of water that had kept you comfortably oriented all day. It doesn’t even have to be weather related. Navigating in dense forests, like those often seen in the Appalachian mountains of the eastern United States, can be just as disorienting as snow or fog.

The reasons for being able to plot a bearing on a map and follow it in the field are almost infinite. This basic navigational skill may keep you moving forward with confidence on days of poor visibility, and reduce the chances of an unexpected overnight, spent pondering conditions, which may or may not change anytime soon.

Stop Moving!

“Hello…is that someone over there?” echoed through the fog as my wife, a fellow hiker, and myself navigated through the white-out. After a quick game of marco-polo, we were reunited with the thankful faces of two friends, who had left camp about an hour earlier than us that morning. After becoming disoriented in the dense fog, they had decided to stop, huddle down until conditions improved, or they had to spend the night. As it turned out, they were less than 200 yards off route, and eventually heard our group as we navigated through the area shortly after. This smart decision by experienced hikers is what kept 200 yards from becoming 2 miles off route, and likely what kept them from spending a cold, lonely night up there in the highlands. This should seem rather intuitive…if you don’t know where you are going, stop for a moment to find out. Unless there is an immediate threat to life (avalanche, rockfall, etc.), aimlessly moving forward will likely get you further lost and disoriented. Five minutes of focused map and compass work could ultimately save you hours of frustration.

Identify Yourself on a Map

In order to take a bearing on the direction you need to travel, you will first need to locate where you are on the map. With attentive groups, this can be a relatively easy process, and will hopefully be the result of consistent map checks throughout the day (staying ‘found’). Those of you carrying a gps might prefer to retrieve your coordinates from the device, and then plot them on your map (be sure that the datum setting of your gps matches that of your map). There are, of course, other ways to aid in pinpointing your position without sighting landmarks, but in our experiences, the majority of navigational confusion in foul weather does not surround knowing where you are, but instead with identifying where you need to be going.

Take a bearing on your map in the desired direction of travelNavigating with Map and Compass

Now that you have identified your position on the map, you can start to look at the direction your group was, or is now planning to travel. Take this bearing on your map by aligning the baseplate edge between your two points, keeping the direction of travel arrows facing away from your current position and towards your desired position. Slowly rotate the compass housing until the meridian lines, NOT the magnetic needle, are parallel to the grid lines on your map. The degree reading at your compass index line is now your desired bearing to follow in the field.

Search the map for boundary lines, topographical features that lie in, and preferably perpendicular to, your direction of travel 

One of the best ways to arrive at an identifiable landmark, even in the confusion of low visibility, is to establish a baseline, or landmark feature that extends considerably past where you expect to travel. In our group descent from the foggy highlands of the Long Range, we were able to identify a stream that ran for several miles perpendicular to our westward heading. Even if our map and compass skills lead us several degrees astray, in either direction, we would still hit this stream, and instantly know where we were. This same principle could be applied to a fire road or mountain ridge.

Follow your bearing

It’s now time to put your map work, and new navigational skills to use…confidently move into that grey depth! Stand with your compass just above waist height, and with your bearing set at the index line. You will now rotate your entire body with the compass until the magnetic needle is aligned with the orienting arrow. Be sure that you have already made the correct declination adjustment if your compass has this feature, or that you are prepared to add/subtract the necessary degrees of declination for your area. Once aligned, the direction of travel lines (usually two parallel arrows extending from the compass housing down the baseplate) are now pointing in the direction you need to travel.

You can now attempt to sight an object, a tree or a rock that may be visible, on that heading. Once you arrive at this object, you can simply pull out the compass again, and continue the process over again. If visibility is bad enough, you may have to hold the compass while moving to ensure that the group maintains the proper heading as you travel.


Keep in mind that sound map and compass skills will never go out of style, and that their development will only come with great practice and experience. Always try new navigation techniques in an area you know well, before relying on them out in the wild. This article is only one small example of how you might use a map and compass, but it could be the needed trick next time mother nature makes travel difficult.



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