Adventure Media

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Wilderness Navigation


James Ross using compass with map to explore Northern Manitoba, Canada 1978



More Books

are Listed



Silva Compass

Photo taken from

Cliff Jacobson's book


GPS receiver in use

with map.

Photo taken from

Cliff Jacobson's book


It isn't often you find a sign in the middle of the wilderness that points you toward your destination.

Sign to Dr. Forgey's cabin,

Northern Manitoba, Canada.

Taken by James Ross 1993


“When orienteering the backcountry, I like to think of myself as temporarily misplaced, if I lose my way. As to my thinking, lost is forever“.

- James D. Ross


Wilderness Navigation or Orienteering, is the art of finding ones way while traveling the forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, and deserts anywhere in the wild world. Knowing how to use a compass, along with reading a map, should be a skill held by anyone heading away from cities, towns, and the beaten path.


Cliff Jacobson, Author of Map and Compass,

Taking a moment to check his course.

Photo taken from his book.

The compass rose.

Taken from Cliff Jacobson's book,

Map and Compass

Diagram locating the North Star,

or Polaris, using the big and small dipper constellations.

Taken from Cliff Jacobson's book.

Cliff Jacobson


The books concerning orienteering listed on this page are by authors who have "walked the talk" so to speak. Their writing comes from years of personal experience, honing their skills over time during trips into the wild, their notes and knowledge. Some of these books were the outcome of putting together a wilderness navigation curriculum, such as Cliff Jacobson's Basic Illustrated Map and Compass (Basic Essentials Series) , as was requested by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 1979.


In his book, Cliff states "If you proceed step-by-step through the chapters, you'll have no problem finding your way in the wilderness. That's a promise."  This book is richly illustrated and information-packed, for use by the novice or handy reference for the veteran.


Other books by Cliff Jacobson can be found on the Camping, Canoeing, and Knots pages of this website, by clicking on the page title at the upper-left section on every website page.


Illustrations such as the one above, instruct the reader in how to interpret map elevation contour lines,

 to the terrain they represent. Drawing taken from Cliff Jacobson's book.


In today’s technological world, the highly advanced Global Positioning Satellite system that orbits the earth, communicating with the now inexpensive handheld GPS receivers, can make finding one’s way a simple task, or a time consuming, frustrating, completely illogical, maddening effort. Which at times can be disastrous. It’s a matter of taking the time to learn, understand, and practice using the system, as with any piece of equipment you take into the wilderness.


Using a compass has long been in use in finding ones way, and is still held in high esteem by many adventurers. Along with a map, you become more closely in tune with your environment. Once you’ve mastered using a compass, and the art of map reading and interpreting how it represents the land it was derived from, you can travel confidently, and competently anywhere within the boundaries of your map.


This diagram shows how the lines of latitude (parallel to the equator),

and longitude (running north and south intersecting at the poles),

create a grid of the earth's surface.

Drawing taken from Cliff Jacobson's book, Map and Compass.


A true story.

While backpacking the canyons of Bandelier National Monument, my partner and I found ourselves at the end of the trail, so to speak. The area we had entered was traveled very little. We had moved from forest trees of ponderosa and yellow pine, blue spruce, and white fir where the ground held a good trail, then through scattered pinion and juniper growing out of dry sand and gravel. We had camped alongside a small stream which vanished into the soil only one hundred yards from camp, as we started hiking the next morning. We were now in the arid bottom land between the southernmost mesas, with all types and sizes of rock jutting out from the sand, with cholla and prickly pear cactus growing between them, then the trail just vanished. We were nowhere near any boundaries or forest roads, but we knew the Rio Grande was to our east. The river could be used as a way out, but it only took us further from any marked trails or roads on our map, and much further from our rendezvous.


Having a compass, and good map of the area, along with our knowledge in using them, and having experience in reading the terrain, we were able to navigate our way close enough to where the trail should have been to complete the trip, and meet our friend with the transportation. We were a couple of hours late, but it was much better then the added day it would have taken if we followed the river. Back tracking our way out would have also added more then a day. Both of those options would have just gotten us to forest roads, nowhere near where our friend would be waiting. As you can see, having these skills can make all the difference, even during just a two or three day trip.

-James D. Ross


My backpacking partner Tom (left), of Albuquerque, NM, and myself,

atop one of the many peaks within the Pecos Wilderness area,

a part of the Sante Fe National Forest, New Mexico.


"This compass is wrong" or "Is this the right map?"


It needs to be understood that the date your map was produced, and last field checked, can impact it’s accuracy. Magnetic north versus true north declination may change over time. Rivers are known to change course due to over-running their banks during extreme rain or snowfall melt off, erosion, earthquake, or man’s building of a dam. Map markings identifying forest roads, trails, portages around rapid waters, power lines, and bridges can change or disappear from the area you are traveling. What was once an open meadow beside a small creek on the map, can change into a marshy quagmire, pond or small lake due to beaver activity. So it’s important to have the most recent information attainable on your map.

Another important aspect of choosing a map is it’s scale, and different scales can be available for the same area. Having one map covering a large area isn’t going to give you the detail or accuracy you may need. It can be of great advantage to having several maps that fit side by side and top to bottom, which equal the land area of using only one map. For example the scale on the one map is one inch equals four miles, while on the group of maps, one inch equals one mile. You’ll get richer detail where one inch equals one mile.


Other great books

Calvin Rutstrum


In the days before cell phones and global positioning systems, knowing how to find your own way in the wilderness was a vitally important skill.  As more and more people seek to simplify their wilderness experiences and return to traditional camping methods, simple straight forward and dependable methods can be appreciated anew. Calvin Rutrum's The Wilderness Route Finder: The Classic Guide to Finding Your Way in the Wild, first published in 1967, was the popular resource for anyone venturing into the woods who wanted to find their way out again. Now this essential book is available again in a handy paperback edition.


Rutstrum (1895-1982) was one of the best-known outdoorsman of his generation, and as listed elsewhere in this web-site, is the author of more than a dozen books on wilderness travel and technique. In The Wilderness Route Finder, he focuses on the tried-and-true techniques that have served wilderness travelers for generations: how to use a map, a compass, a sextant, and the sun and stars. He explains why we sometimes get lost and what we should do when we are. This is a valuable traveling companion for anyone wishing to hunt, fish, and explore wild places, camp, canoe, or simply walk through unfamiliar territory. See the Camping and Canoeing sections of this web site for some of his other books.


Other books by Calvin Rutstrum can be found on the Camping, and Canoeing pages of this website, by clicking on the page title at the upper-left section on every website page.


National Outdoor Leadership School


For wilderness travelers, good navigation ability can mean the difference between a successful day hike and an unplanned overnight stay. Based on the official curriculum of the National Outdoor Leadership School, NOLS Wilderness Navigation, -- written by Daren Wells, gives you the skills you need to confidently find your way on and off the trail. Whether you're learning to use a compass, or exploring the latest in digital navigation aids, this easy-to-follow guide is packed with essential information. This book includes using GPS and digital mappings programs, navigation by the sun and stars, reading and interpreting topographical maps, choosing the right tools, equipment and software, and entering competitive navigational events.




With Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & Gps (Mountaineers Outdoor Basics) proceed with confidence when heading off-road or off-trail. Whether you are climbing a glacier, day hiking, or roaming in the backcountry, Bob Burns and Mike Burns cover all the latest technology and time tested methods to help you learn to navigate safely. Bob Burns is a longtime member of the Mountaineers. He has also taught classes in the use of a compass, along with map reading, since the late 1970's. Mike Burns is an avid climber and has instructed climbing and navigation courses and written articles for Climbing magazine. Together, they wrote the navigation chapter of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills.