Hiking is a relatively safe outdoor adventure. As true as that may be it is only safe if you are prepared and the most basic element of your ‘being prepared’ trip preparation is knowing where you are going.
The most direct and honest advice I can offer is if you don’t know how to read a topographic trail map and use a compass, then don’t go hiking. Having someone in your group that knows how to use them is not good enough. Case scenario; you accidentally get separated from the group and the trail seems to have disappeared or is now heading off in a number of directions. What do you do?
You really need to start every hike with the knowledge that you are in control of you making it back safely.
For all hikes I undertake I actually use my smart phone and hand held GPX as a quick update on my current trail position but I always plan my hikes using a scaled topographical map and I always carry a map and compass in my pack. For most hikes around Victoria I highly recommend the Outdoor Recreation guides by SV Maps. I use them every time I am hiking in the areas where maps are provided.
SV maps contain excellently detailed topographical and trail data, as you would expect, but there are a few things that set them apart from other maps I have used. One of the things I love are the distance markers defining sections of hiking trails. This reduces the need to measure scaled distances with your compass and allows for educated decisions to be made when planning your hikes.
SV’s Outdoor Recreation Guides also come with local flora and fauna information, local area history and a range of walk suggestions. This thoughtful features truly assists in hike planning as it allows you to better understand the trail you intend on hiking as well as explore trails that you may not have been aware of. I have used this features many time in order to combine trails into multi-day hikes.
I highly recommend you check out SV Maps and always carry a map with you.
Stay On Route
On many front-country (tourist) hiking routes, such as state and national parks all you need is a simple trail map of the area and a good sense of direction. Hikes of this kind are generally only a few kilometres on a well-traveled route so your chances of getting lost or injured are pretty slim. But, even there, a thunder storm, accident, or recent trail damage may force you to take a detour and lose the trail.
On back-country treks (undefined trails), understanding a topo map will help you plan where the more difficult steep ascents are, where you will have amazing views from high ridge lines or be stuck in a gully with no view but the trail ahead. By reading a topo map at home and planning your route, you can visualise what the terrain looks like even before you ever see it. You’ll know the name of a high mountain in the distance and more importantly know it is East from where you are hiking in case you become disoriented.
Your compass is the other half of the navigating tool-set that you need to bring. In some areas with enough visual landmarks, you can do just fine with a map alone. A compass alone can keep you heading in a certain direction, but you don’t know what you are heading towards. For all areas, a map and compass together can get you home along the safest of routes. Using your compass to orient yourself and your map and then identifying objects on the map in your real world will keep you going the right direction.
Global Positioning Systems are very common now, so too are mobile phones. Unfortunately, some people think they are magical devices that keep people from getting lost – Nope! They are useful tools but should never be relied on. If they run out of batteries, get wet, or break, then it is a good idea to have a compass as a back-up.
AND TO KNOW HOW TO USE IT.