Basic hiker’s compass. These are available very cheaply and should be in your pack at all times.

I wrote the second half of this post a few days earlier, adapted from a talk I gave to our Roadtreking Great Smoky Mountains Photo Safaris group.

We were all doing a lot of hiking and exploring and the tipic of knowing your surroundings, not getting lost and being safe was an important one.

After writing this post, I took seven other Roadtrekers on an overnight hike. Our group was going to walk about 12 miles into the backcountry and meet up with another group of our campers who were doing about five miles on the Appalachian Trail. We were to rendezvous at a shelter deep in the mountains, overnight there and then walk out together as one large group.


Our hiking group. Yan is taking the photo.

It didn’t work out quite that way. The five milers made it to the shelter late in the afternoon. My group never did.

We got a later start than I had planned, the route was harder than I had thought, and the map was off a bit in the distances shown.  At 3PM we were where we should have been at noon or 1PM at the latest.  We had a call to make; press on and come in to our destination after dark, or make camp and turn around the next day.  As we were at a really nice backcountry campground by a stream, there was no rain in the forecast, and we were tired, we decided to make camp.

The next morning we got up and hiked out.  This made the second day quite a bit harder than we planned, but we had made decisions that would keep us safe.  We made decisions that would reduce the chances of injury.  We made decisions that allowed us to make camp during daylight hours, and hike during daylight hours.  Most of all, we avoided panic and making bad decisions because we were afraid of a change of plan.

Instead, we had slept to the song of a wild mountain stream, fireflies lit our night, some of our fellow hikers got their first experience in dirtbagging, and we all made great memories. That’s us crossing one of the many mountain streams on our adventure.

That’s what staying found is about.  Making decisions that let you come home at the end of your hike.

There’s also a lesson in how the folks in our larger Roadtreking Group back at the Flaming Arrow Campground  handled it when they learned we never made the rendezvous shelter the night before. They reacted fast and were ready to send out help if there would have been any more delays or had we ever been in an emergency situation.

When the five mile hikers – Jeff and Amy – started back the next morning and reached a point high enough to get a cell signal, they notified Mike back at camp via cell phone text message that our long hike group never showed up at the shelter. Mike and Jennifer headed to the parking lot where we left our cars and met Jeff and Amy when they hiked out. They talked with Rangers and were advised that if our group didn’t show in a few hours, the rangers would begin searching.We made sure that everyone knew where we were headed and what trails we planned and that made the rangers pretty confident that all was well.

But letting the rangers know that our group didn’t show up as expected was the smart thing to do. If something had indeed gone wrong, having search and rescue folks alerted to a potential problem would be very helpful.

Mike, Jen, Jeff, AMy and Rick meeting with the rangers after we did;t show up at the overnight meeting spot.

Mike, Jennifer (with Bo), Rick, Amy and Jeff meeting with the rangers after we didn’t show up at the overnight meeting spot. Always have folks back home who know where you are hiking and for how long.

Eventually, as we started back, we were also able to get a cell signal and let the folks back at the campground in Cherokee and even on our Facebook group know that all was well and we were heading back.

We were never lost, but that’s because we followed good sound bushcraft.

How many of us have gotten lost? At a guess, if you’ve ever ventured from your bedroom past your kitchen, at one time or another you’ve gotten lost.

This isn’t about how to get rescued once lost, this is about staying found so you don’t need rescue.  If you follow a few basic principles, you can stay found instead of getting lost.  It’s all about awareness, noticing and following landmarks, and using some simple, basic principles that let you stay found.

The key to staying found and knowing where you are most of the time is simply this: Stay alert to your surroundings. The best navigators stay on course by using their eyes, their ears, their noses, and their wits (as well as their knowledge of map and compass skills)—all in relationship with each other.  It’s all about awareness; I never seem to get lost when I’m outdoors, inside a mall I’m absolutely hopeless.  In a mall I tend to tune out and consequently remove myself from the changing pictures as I walk, setting myself up time and again to wonder, Where in the @#$% is the main entrance and where did I leave the car?


Align the map North with compass North by aligning all of the red arrows on the compass with the North arrow on the map.

Accurate navigation begins with 360-degree awareness 100 percent of the time. Your eyes should always be searching, seeking clues to the course you’re on. Pay close attention to trees, logs, rocks, hills, ridges, streams, and even man-made landmarks as you pass them. Make mental notes as you go.

Look over your shoulder so that you can view how the features may change as you move along.  This bears repeating – look back to where you came from and pick out landmarks for the return trip.  This is especially important at trail intersections; if you come in on a side trail it’s easy to just forge forward and miss your turn, and end up miles from your destination.

Learn the basics of celestial navigation; if you’re at all knowledgeable, you can judge North simply by glancing at your watch and noting the position of the sun in the sky. You will be a navigation god to your friends.

After your eyes and brain, the most important tool you need is a compass.  While you can spend a near fortune – my Brunton International compass retails for well over US$400 – a basic hiker’s compass can be had for US$12 to US$30 in most big-box sporting goods stores.


Find your location on the map. Here we’re starting from Clingman’s Dome.

A hiker’s compass has three main parts; the base plate, the compass housing (the round thing that turns) and the needle.  There are various other markings but in this article I’m just covering the basics.

Start by aligning your map to North.    Turn the housing so that the red arrow on the housing lines up with the red arrow on the base plate.  Now turn the entire compass so that the red end of the needle lines up with the red arrows.  Turn the map so that the North arrow on the map lines up with the compass needle.  Do not move the map after this; the accuracy of your navigation depends on the map being aligned correctly with North.

Now identify your location on the map.   Place the center of the compass (the pivot of the needle) over your location.  Turn the base of the compass until it points to your destination. Leave the compass housing pointing North.  Once this is done, don’t touch the compass housing.


Set the center of the compass (the pivot of the needle) over your starting point. Turn the base until the red arrow points to your destination. Leave the compass housing pointing North.

Hold the compass so that the needle points North.  Now follow the big red arrow to your destination.

For a thorough background in backcountry navigation, read June Flemings most excellent book, Staying Found. There are also many excellent videos available, like this one.