Hiking is a way of life for many people. For some, it is a daily ritual, for others, it is a monthly ritual, and for others still, it is a yearly ritual.
For some hikers, the trails are well-marked and well-trodden, making it easy to keep track of where you are going. For others, the trails are less obvious and require more navigation skills.
Whether you are new to hiking or an experienced hiker, there is always something to learn about how to hike safely. This article will discuss some tips on how to keep your bearings while hiking- even in the most unfamiliar terrain.
Keep track of how long you have been hiking for
Knowing how far you have walked is an important part of knowing where you are.
If you know how far you have walked, then when you stop for the night, or the morning, or when you reach your destination, you will know how much more distance you have to cover to get to where you are going.
This is especially important if it is dark when you stop hiking for the day. Keeping track of time can help you keep your bearings as well!
By keeping track of the time you have been hiking, and how long it has taken you to reach your destination (whether that be a camp site, a river crossing, or a destination spot)you will know what direction you were going in.
This is very helpful if you are confused or disoriented due to weather changes or other factors.
Pay attention to the surroundings
There are several ways you can keep your bearings while hiking, and some of them can be combined. One way is to pay attention to the surrounding vegetation.
How plants grow in specific areas is a good indicator of direction. For example, grasses grow parallel to the ground and their leaves grow upward. This means that the grass grows upward toward the sun and sunlight reaches it from one direction.
Trees have a similar principle. The bark grows outward, so if you look at it closely, it almost looks like it grows up from the ground. This means that its roots grow down into the ground, which indicates a specific direction.
Other plants such as wildflowers or moss growth do not grow in a specific direction, but are still good indicators of direction.
Know what landmarks you passed on the way there
It’s important to know what landmarks you passed on the way to your goal. These are the places that gave you cues as to where you were and how to get where you’re going.
Landmarks can be people, places, situations, things, or experiences that are meaningful to you. You may have met someone who helped shape your current mindset, or lived in a particular place that encouraged something new about you.
You may have experienced something that changed your perspective on something else, or bought or acquired something that was of great value to you.
These landmarks are very important because they give you a sense of direction and keep you moving forward in general. Knowing these can re-connect you with your inner knowing and keep you from getting lost.
You may find yourself hiking away from these landmarks for a while, but it’s important to keep checking back with them.
Keep track of the time of day
Knowing the time of day is an important part of understanding where you are. You can look at your watch to see what time it is, but that does you little good if you don’t know what time you woke up or what time it is now.
Knowing the current time of day can help you determine which way is north because, in general, we live our lives by the clock and the length of our day.
In the northern hemisphere, we have longer days in summer and shorter days in winter. In the southern hemisphere, this is reversed. So if you are hiking in the southern hemisphere, knowing the current time of day will help you identify which way is north.
You can also keep track of yesterday’s time of day, which may help you determine which direction is north after a few hours have passed.
Use your phone as a compass
Your phone has so many useful features, one of which is the built-in compass. You can use your phone as a compass to keep track of where you are going, which is very helpful in keeping your bearings while hiking.
Many maps now have GPS features that automatically show your location, and if you have any kind of data plan on your phone, you can look at a map to see how far you’ve come.
This is especially helpful if you’re using the map for navigation, as you can constantly check how far you’ve come and what’s ahead of you.
Having the ability to check your location and where you’re going via maps is very helpful for keeping track of your bearings.
Know which way is north
Knowing which way is north is the most basic directional awareness skill. Most navigational apps include a compass feature that helps you keep your bearings.
Many smartphones have built-in sensors that detect magnetic fields, which allows your phone to determine which way is north.
Even if your phone does not have a built-in compass, it probably has a GPS and a gyroscope, two other sensors that help determine which way is north.
A compass is the best tool for keeping your bearings, though. A good quality one will not break easily and will always point north!
This tip is important because even if you have the best GPS navigation, it does not matter if you do not know which way is north.
Try to find a natural polarizing magnetism source
All maps use a special method to indicate the north-south direction. It is called a polarizing magnetism source and it is usually a line that points to the north.
Many maps also have a line that indicates the east-west direction, but this one can sometimes be confusing since it does not point to the actual east or west. It only indicates the perpendicular direction of east or west.
So how does one find the actual east or west if there is no line for it? Well, you can find them by using other natural sources.
First, you must know what time it is. By knowing what time it is, you can then look at the sun and determine which way it is shining. If it is shining in the east, then you know that is the east side of your location.
You can also do this with the moon, but it may take more observation to tell which side of the moon is facing your location.
Create your own landmarks
The next way to keep your bearings is to create your own landmarks. When you are in a new place, explore and find your own special places.
These can be places that inspire you, uplift you, or give you a sense of peace or belonging. These can be trees you identify by shape or color, rocks that are distinctive, or ponds or streams that have a particular sound when you dip your foot in them or they flow over a particular kind of rock.
By investing yourself in these places, you invest yourself in the territory and make them part of who you are. When things get confusing, come back to these spots to get your bearings again.
These landmarks can also help remind you of where you come from and who you are—which is very important when things get confusing.