Hiking, the age-old adventure of stepping off the familiar path and delving into the heart of nature, offers a sense of tranquility, solitude, and wonder. But imagine you are hiking into unfamiliar terrain, what is the best way to keep your bearings? Well, then the adventure becomes a thrilling challenge. This guide is your answer to that challenge, offering you insights into the best ways to keep your bearings when hiking in unfamiliar terrain. Let’s embark on this journey together.

Understanding the Basics: Map and Compass

  1. Maps: A topographical map is the first essential tool in your navigation arsenal. These maps provide a detailed view of the terrain, showcasing all the dips, peaks, rivers, and forests. They allow you to plan your route in advance, marking the significant landmarks to guide you on your journey. Map reading can be daunting, so familiarize yourself with the key symbols and contour lines before your hike.
  2. Compass: A compass is a reliable, battery-free companion for any hiker. When paired with a topographical map, a compass can guide you effectively even in the most remote terrains. Learning to use a compass is straightforward, with the red end of the needle always pointing towards the magnetic north.

Modern Marvels: GPS and Smartphone Apps

The advent of technology has added some excellent tools to the hiker’s toolkit. GPS devices provide accurate location information and can track your path, making it easy to retrace your steps if you get lost. There are numerous hiking-specific GPS devices on the market, but most smartphones also come equipped with GPS capabilities.

Several smartphone apps offer downloadable maps that you can use offline. Some popular ones include Gaia GPS, AllTrails, and ViewRanger. These apps not only provide maps but also have features such as tracking your route, marking waypoints, and emergency alerts.

The Art of Orienteering

Orienteering is an outdoor sport involving navigation with a map and compass. It’s a skill that hikers can find highly beneficial. Orienteering trains you to keep your bearings in unfamiliar terrain, and it’s also a fantastic way to enjoy the outdoors.

Joining an orienteering club or participating in an orienteering event can be an excellent way to learn this skill. It’s like a treasure hunt, with the treasure being the knowledge of how to navigate effectively in unfamiliar surroundings.

Nature’s Indicators

Even without a map, compass, or GPS, nature provides its own set of navigational aids. For instance, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. You can use this knowledge to get a general sense of direction.

Moss growth can also serve as a rough guide. In many areas, moss tends to grow on the north side of trees because it thrives in shade, but be aware that this isn’t always the case and is less reliable in dense forests.

Stars can be your night-time guides. In the Northern Hemisphere, Polaris, also known as the North Star, remains relatively fixed and can help you determine the northern direction.

Breadcrumbs: The Hansel and Gretel Technique

Remember Hansel and Gretel’s story? They dropped breadcrumbs to mark their path, and you can employ a similar technique, sans the bread. Use natural markers like stacking rocks (cairns), tying a biodegradable ribbon around a tree, or making an arrow with sticks. Remember to respect nature and only use this technique where permitted, and always remove markers on your return journey.

Mental Mapping

As you hike, continuously build a mental map of the surroundings. Note the significant landmarks such as a mountain peak, a large boulder, or a uniquely shaped tree. Keep an eye on the direction of the flowing rivers or creeks, as these can also serve as excellent reference points.

Remember, the key to effective mental mapping is to be observant and alert to your surroundings. This strategy not only helps you keep your bearings but also heightens your appreciation of the beautiful, unfamiliar terrain you’re navigating.

Safety First: Tips for Hiking in Unfamiliar Terrain

When venturing into unfamiliar terrain, safety should always be your top priority. Here are a few safety tips to keep in mind:

  1. Plan Ahead: Research about the area you’re planning to hike. Check the weather forecasts, understand the local flora and fauna, and learn about any potential hazards like landslides or flood-prone areas.
  2. Inform Someone: Always tell someone about your hiking plans, including your intended route and expected return time. If something goes wrong, they’ll know where to look for you.
  3. Pack Essentials: Apart from navigation tools, ensure you have essential survival gear including water, food, a first-aid kit, a multi-tool, a flashlight, and emergency shelter.
  4. Stay on Marked Trails: While the allure of off-beat paths is strong, sticking to marked trails is safer, especially in unfamiliar terrain.
  5. Trust Your Gut: If something feels wrong, trust your instincts. It’s better to turn back than to risk getting lost or injured.


Hiking in unfamiliar terrain can seem daunting, but with the right tools and skills, it can be an exhilarating experience. From old-school maps and compasses to modern GPS devices and smartphone apps, from natural indicators to the art of mental mapping, there are numerous ways to keep your bearings. And remember, while the journey is the reward, safety should never be compromised.

So go ahead, lace up your boots, pack your backpack, and step into the unknown. With your newfound knowledge on navigation, no terrain is too unfamiliar, no trail too daunting. Happy hiking!