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Speed of movement can be critical on a trek route, especially in an emergency situation. Making it back to a major road or to base camp when an individual is injured can mean the difference between life and death. In these cases standard navigation techniques can slow an individual down and “back tracking” may not be the most expedient path to rescue. For example, an injury on AT trail can leave individual stranded miles from the nearest help. However, if an individual as better than average Navigation skills it may be possible to cut “cross country” to a small town or highway.

For the individual who needs to avoid a dangerous situation, such as a country in turmoil, advanced navigation skills is the difference between a slow straight line heading leading through trouble areas and an bypass course to safety. In these situations there are three primary skills which assist in speed and accurate travel through unknown terrain. They are Map knowledge, Use of handrails and the use of backstops.

Area knowledge and map familiarization is the single most important thing a wilderness trekker needs to know. This doesn’t mean look at a map, it means STUDY it and understand it.  A good quality map has marginal information which gives everything from magnetic variation to manmade structures. If the map which you are relying on doesn’t have these features, get a new one.

In addition the map needs to be current, so check the date. Many USGS maps, because of limited development in an area, have dates as far back as the 60’s. In most instances this wouldn’t be a problem, but in those areas where there is a logging presence the cross country hiker can run into numerous roads which are not on the map and can lead to frustration if not outright confusion.  If more current maps are not available then it is advisable to use a program like Google earth to update the map by hand drawing manmade changes prior to the trip.

Not enough can be said about the importance of a good up to date map and familiarizing with it. EVERYTHING relies on the map and your area knowledge. All other aspects of navigation rely on this one point. In fact all other aspects of navigation including the compass, triangulation and heading determination can me improvised. A map and area knowledge can’t!

Once a solid understanding of the map and knowledge of the area are secure in the head then a trek route can be established for movement. There are two general methods of movement. The first is point to point and the second is known as “the path of least resistance”. Point to point is exactly as it sounds. Moving from one known point to another regardless of what is in the way.  For accuracy this can’t be beat, however it can lead to a long and miserable day as it can lead into drainages and straight up mountain faces.

The path of least resistance does just the opposite and allows the trekker the ability to avoid obstacle which could slow or totally impede progress. The person on foot utilizes the terrain features to “funnel” himself into the area they wants to go and uses “handrails” and Backstops to ensure correct direction. This technique works in all but the most austere and isolated instances. In most wilderness areas there are enough terrain features to quickly and easily get to the objective without beating yourself to death.

A “handrail” is a terrain feature (manmade or natural) which guides the person on foot to a desire location, or in the vicinity of it. This terrain feature can be a river, ridge line, power line or road and even though it may not be directly on course as long as the individual keeps moving parallel they will eventually make it to the destination. The best case scenario is a pair of handrails, one on each side such as a ridgeline and a river which funnels the individual to the target. Even it they are miles apart as long as the hiker doesn’t cross one or the other they will make it to the objective.

In addition to the handrails there is the “Backstop”, a known perpendicular land features that tells the individual that they are on target or have gone too far. Backstops, like handrails, can be composed of numerous manmade or natural features as long as they are easily identifiable and impossible to miss. Again a power line or major ridge line would make a great back stop; a lake on the map would make a poor one as it is too easy to bypass. Even a good size open area can be easy to miss in thick vegetation or extremely rough country.

Advanced Navigation takes practice and study. However, it can save your life in the case of a lost compass or medical emergency! Understanding the terrain and map can be the difference between getting lost or another “walk in the park”.

 Overall preparation for what nature can throw at us is not that overwhelming but it does take a little effort. USI has a wealth of information, equipment and training for everyone about all forms of mitigation so visit our web site at and if you have a need feel free to call!

USI Understands that Survival isn’t learned from books but real world experience. This is just one area which makes Universal Survival Innovations unique in the world of training and equipment.

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Author Ben Barr is a 30+ year SERE Specialist who has been a curriculum developer for the USAF Survival School, USAF Water Survival School, USAF Air Mobility Command, USMC and USN