Written by 5:45 pm Wilderness Navigation Masters

30) How to choose your hike itinerary

Hello and welcome to this lesson of the online course Wilderness Navigation Masters, where the fun stuff starts to show, at least for me.


Because you will finally learn, how to choose your hike itinerary.

What route choices I have?

In the wilderness, most of the time, you will have to choose between:

  • the shortest route
  • the fastest route
  • the one with beautiful views
  • the one with the least amount of effort
  • the safest route, etc.

My first advice:

And even you did learn what to choose and how, my first advice, is to start slowly.

Like the first time you’ve learned how to drive a car if you do of course.

Even you get your driving license, you did not take the first highway and start driving, or you go downtown, where there are more chances of hitting someone.

You’ve started slowly … by driving when you get full sleep and not tired … and as long as you get confidence in yourself, you start driving by night or with just one hand and a sandwich in the other one.  ….  you know how people drive after they get confident.

This is what you should do in the wilderness. Start in areas that have well-marked trails, and hike after hike, start escalating difficulties.

Now that you get an idea of how I want you to apply my advice, let’s start with what should do to navigate in the wilderness.

It’s simple, but at the same time not easy.

To navigate in the wilderness, you should:

  • 1) You should always know where you are.

I know, you are not a GPS, but you should do that by a margin of error of 300 feet maximum.

  • 2) You should know where you are going.

I think this is obvious.

  • 3) You should know how to do it.

These are the three questions that you should be able to answer before and during your outdoor activity, in order to stay safe.

To answer the first question of knowing where you are, you should follow your position like a GPS, with the help of landmarks around you and/or with the help of the directions you did follow and how much distance you’ve traveled.

And to make this easier, always orient your map to the landscape, as you’ve learned before.

One thing that I want to clarify is, when I say you should follow or track your position like a GPS, I don’t mean it inch by inch, but having a general idea.

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For example, if I hike following this homestead Hill trail … I can’t know exactly that I am at this point or at this point, but I can know that I am at the starting point, if I am at the first quarter, at the second one, third or fourth one or exactly here, because it’s a turn or a trails intersection.

So, as long as you know your approximate location by 300 feet maximum, you are still safe.

Why I can’t give you one technique to hike in the wilderness, because there isn’t.

Outdoors have multiple situations, one where you should navigate by the night, sometimes in winter, sometimes by the coast, sometimes you should get out of a storm, and in every situation, you have different challenges that require different techniques.

But, the common thing between these situations, is that you should always search for the easiest, sure solution, that will take you where you want.

Wilderness navigation is like a habit that you should adopt, more than techniques.

What I always compare wilderness navigation to, is when I wake up at night (or when I can’t sleep a night, to be transparent with you) and I want to go to the kitchen, without turning the lights on.

How I succeed every time I do that?

I succeed because I know the turns and the distances between each one. And to turn me or to stop, I get help from other things like the lights that come from a window or I touch I chair that I know it’s the position, and measure my paces.

It’s similar to wilderness navigation. To know the turns and the distances for an area that you didn’t visit before, you should plan and analyze your route before you step outside, and when you want to make turns or to stop, you get the help of landscape features.

It’s that simple.

The next piece of advice that I want to give you, is to always take notes of bearings, distances, and times, adjust your walking deviation with intermediate landmarks and land features, use land features that are not easy to disappear, especially if your map is not recent.

Because, if you think that having to follow a trail on your map or one that you see in front of you is sure and secure, it’s not the case.

Sometimes, trails disappear after the grass grows, sometimes you found new ones that can make you take turns before the ones that you are supposed to take.

Moreover, during your planning, choose routes that you can retrace your steps on if you have to get back to a previously known location or your starting point.

I think I did discuss why and how in a previous dedicated lesson.

Now that you’ve started seeing how we navigate in the wilderness, let’s get deeper with in-depth advice and hiking examples.

When you are planning and during your outdoor activity, you should not analyze, anticipate, and imagine just your itinerary, you should do it also for what surrounds it. Because this is how you know if you’ve made an error, quickly before you get more lost.

During your planning time, try also to see what landmarks, land features, and techniques that you can use in order to orient yourself, what are the difficult sections and areas where you should be more attentive.

At the same time, think of the different scenarios that can happen, like getting an injury or a storm in your way, etc. And how can you get back to civilization, or how rescue can reach you or just how to get out from the danger zone.

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The first example that we will practice choosing our itinerary on, is this USGS map excerpt from the ELLEDGE PEAK QUADRANGLE.

Let’s say that you are coming following this creek, and you want to arrive at this pond.

What not to do, or the risky route, is stopping at this turn of the creek, and shooting and following the foreward bearing to this pond, especially that you will enter this vegetation area, where you can easily deviate and miss your target.

The second reason to not take this route is that your destination is not that big enough to see it from far away.

For that, the most secured route is to follow this creek till here, to minimize the risk of following a bearing.

How can you make sure that you are at the center of this turn?

You can measure the paces starting from this turn.

Or, you can take the bearings of these directions then adjust your position to the center.

The next thing you should know before you walk to this destination is to count the required paces or the time frame to arrive. So, if you don’t found it in this time frame or with these required paces, that means you miss it, and you should take south to return to this creek.

The next example is this map excerpt of the same area.

Let’s imagine that I’m at this point A and I want to arrive at this guard station here.

What I can do, is to shoot a bearing and follow it, but there is a risk if I miss it, especially by the right, because there is no linear landmark to stop me.

For that, my best choice is to take and shoot the foreward bearing to this creek’s intersection, if I deviate by the left I will arrive at this section and correct my position, and if I miss it by the right I can do the same thing.

The important thing for me is this exact location is safe and easy to reach.

After that, I can shoot a direct bearing to the guard station.

Why it’s safer from this direction than from this direction, because there is this distinguishable land feature (river) that is hard to miss in case I deviate when I was walking and I did miss my destination.

The next map excerpt is from PANORAMA PEAK QUADRANGLE.

We are at point A and we want to arrive at point B.

The most ridiculous thing to do is to think that you can arrive taking this direct route.

Only birds and drones can take this route.

What you should do, is to follow this trail. And let’s say, for whatever reason, you’ve lost it or you did found that he disappeared after you reach this place.

What you should do is take the foreward bearing to this swamp and try to reach it, it’s a big land feature, there are more chances to arrive at it successfully.

If you found this section of the trail, you can follow it, it’s better, if not, you can shoot again the foreward bearing to this other swap and reach it.

When you succeed at that, get to this place next to the pond to adjust your position if you want to shoot and follow a bearing or to follow this creek up to point B.

Another route that you can follow to arrive at the point B starting from point A, is to follow this line in the direction of the peak, and stop, then follow the line of the same elevation in this direction.

But it’s not that easy to walk for a long distance on the steep side of a mountain, especially if you have a heavy backpack and you are not experienced.



In this lesson’s exercise, I want you to:

  • Open the webtool Caltopo.
  • Search for an area that you want to hike our just one that you are familiar with.
  • Adjust the base layer to get the one that suits you for this area.
  • Create a starting point and an arrival point and plan how you will hike it.
  • For example, I will follow this bearing to this intersection, then I will follow this trail, etc.
  • And do not forget to anticipate what you will found during your hike, because if you do that, you will locate yourself on your map even without opening it.

That’s all for this lesson.

Please, if you still have a question about how to navigate in the wilderness I’m here to help you.

Just leave me your question below.

Thank you and see you in the next lesson.

Updated on December 6, 2021 by Ben

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