Home Mens Interest Raw Wilderness Navigating: Navigation without Tools

Raw Wilderness Navigating: Navigation without Tools


It may appear easy to hike on a well-marked trail at first. Many trailheads are available across the nation, and they all have a map to guide you. If you are not prepared, many people will take a picture of the map at the trailhead with their phone or draw a sketch using whatever they have on hand. Some places have dedicated navigation apps for those who want to get the most out of their adventure. Even with this abundance of options, some outdoor enthusiasts still struggle to navigate without a guide.

People often get lost when they step off the trail to relieve themselves. These soon-to be lost people often ground their gear along the trail to get out of view in a more efficient way. They travel far away from the path so that passersby cannot observe them. They confidently return to the place where they think they’ll find their gear and the trail. But this is when they get into trouble.

Above: Taking a short detour from the trail may appear harmless at first but can lead to an unpleasant experience.

The individual who is now lost may not feel disoriented immediately, but they will soon realize that the walk back takes much longer than expected. But once they realize the trail isn’t where they thought it was, they are hit with an overwhelming feeling of dread. As they desperately search for the path, panic may set in. This situation can escalate quickly into a life-threatening situation if the lost person doesn’t quickly get a grip on the situation or take the appropriate actions. What should someone in this situation do? Let’s learn some easy ways to prevent becoming lost, even if you are left with nothing but the clothes on your back.

Plan Ahead

It is better to plan than to be unprepared. Planning can help you avoid a worst-case scenario, such as being unable to use any tools in the wilderness. It’s much like setting out on a road trip – you wouldn’t start without knowing your destination, right? It’s important to know your route and identify any hazards or key features before you leave. A good map reconnaissance This will provide you with information on the terrain, water resources, and landmarks. It is important to know how to interpret and read maps. There are many places to learn this skill.

Photo of a topographic map being analyzed for wilderness navigation.

Above: Even a crude map at the trailhead can help you get a better sense of your destination and prevent you from getting lost. As a rule, always carry a copy on paper and a photograph in your phone.

Although there are no printed road signs in the wild, certain geographic features will be more visible than others. Establishing a road system Emergency bearing – a direction leading to a large, noticeable feature or civilization – before you head out is key. If all else fails, this is your last resort. It is also very easy to do. You may see a city or town near your destination on the map. Or you might notice a river or powerline. You could find lifesaving information or help by using any of these features. If you are lost, note the direction, and you can then head that way knowing you will find the feature.

Photo of high-voltage power lines.

You can use power lines, highways, major waterways, and other landmarks as a guide to return to safety. But you must identify them before you go out.

It is important to pack wisely before a trip. Bring along your essentials and signaling devices like flares, whistles and mirrors. It is equally important to know how to use these tools as it is to bring them with you. If you blow three whistles in succession, it may sound like a bird’s call to someone looking for you from a distance. However, one continuous whistle is more likely to get their attention. There are a bunch of other emergency signaling techniques to choose from, just ensure you know a few of the most effective for the area you’ll be in. Consider them your lifeline connecting you with the outside world.

Prepare yourself for the elements. The majority of people who die in the wilderness are victims of exposure. It means their body was unable to regulate temperature. This is usually caused by being too hot or cold for too much time. Knowing what to expect from the weather will help you dress appropriately, manage energy and make your trip safer.

Feeling Lost

You can make better decisions if you know what happens to your body when you become lost. When you notice you’re lost or are uncertain of where you might be going, your body will react instantly. Catecholamines – like adrenaline and epinephrine – kick in, triggering the fight, flight, or freeze response. You might feel disoriented, anxious or panicked. STOP comes into play here: Stop, Think Observe and Plan. Consciously thinking about what you are doing, your options, and the resources that you have available can help to slow or stop catecholamines. This tool is powerful in helping you regain control over your emotions.

Photo of a rabbit staying very still underneath vegetation to avoid notice from predators.

Above: The human being is as prone as any other animal to fear. Recognizing and acknowledging what you are feeling can help control your emotions in stressful situations.

To control the heart-pumping adrenaline, you can sit down and empty all your pockets. Take inventory of what you have – anything could be a potential survival tool, and this where you should get the most creative about improvising your way out of the situation. If you’re in a dangerous situation, it may be best to remain where you are and signal for help. If you are near a heavily traveled route, it is often best to signal for assistance and stay put. You may find that higher ground will give you better coverage for your cellphone or allow you to better orient yourself. It’s situationally dependent, but more often than not, staying put leads to the highest chance of being discovered by a rescuer.

Navigating Day by Day

Your daytime guide is the sun. In the northern hemisphere, it’s due south when at its highest, and due north in the southern hemisphere. You can use this simple information to find your way. This can be taken a step farther by using a stone and a stick to create a compass. Place a stick vertically into the ground, and then mark the end with a small stone. After a short time, mark the position of the new shadow. The first mark represents west, while the second marks east. This method works only when the sun is out. Even on a cloudy or rainy day, you may still be able to determine your location by using a thin object with a straight edge and a flat surface, such as your fingernail. The sun’s position, even when not directly visible, will cast a shadow, indicating its direction.

Photo of a single straight stick stuck into the dusty ground in full sunlight. The stick is casting a shadow and will be used as the starting point for an improvised sundial. Its a useful way of navigating without tools.

Above: If you are in full sunlight, a stick placed on the ground will allow you to regain your direction. The shadow in the northern hemisphere points north but the accuracy of the direction depends on the time. 

Photo of an improvised sundial with a row of rocks marking the initial point of the shadow cast by the sun.

Mark the first point where the shadow appears. Mark it with a simple, recognizable symbol so that you don’t forget.

Photo of a sundial with a second row of rocks marking the second shadow measurement.

Above: Mark the new location of the shadow. You can identify the cardinal directions by drawing a line between the two marks where the shadow has been marked.

Photo of the east-west line marked with an improvised sundial. A compass is being used to prove the accuracy of this method.

Above: The sundial was calibrated using a compass. It is very accurate in the picture above.

We create maps and then move according to them when we navigate. If it’s a trail in the Ozarks, we might use a particularly tall hill to associate where we are in relation to the land around us. We may use a familiar skyscraper in downtown Chicago to help us find our way. This is called terrain association, and is another way to navigate without the need to consult a map or use a compass to determine azimuth. Compare landforms to your map reconnaissance. Always keep an eye out for watercourses as these often lead to human settlements.

We can make our own trail markers for our example where we walked off the path to use the bathroom. This method can take many forms, and is only limited by your imagination. You can use landmarks like stacking stones and sticks in a certain way to help you find your way. If you are able to find your way back, you can use brightly colored marking ribbon or paracord, also known as flagging, that you tie at eye level while you move through the vegetation.

Photo of marking ribbon used to mark a trail through the woods. It's a useful way of navigating without tools.

Above: Use long flags with the ends tied at eye level to mark a trail. This will help you identify it in dense vegetation. Three in a single row will create a fairly straight line, which can help you maintain your direction.

Use caution if you want to use flagging as a way to mark a route for establishing a long-term one, like locating unused camping sites. Curious animals, such as raccoons and deer, may remove the trail markers unintentionally. Make tight knots with long tails that are about the length of your arms to prevent this. In the absence of artificial markings, we can use what all animals leave behind to find our way home: Tracks.

Tracking skills for self-recovery

Maps and other navigation devices are usually used to master navigation. Running out of batteries, or being stranded with no internet connection is not a distant possibility. This is when your tracking/backtracking skills can be put into use. It takes a great deal of skill, as well as commitment, dedication, focus, and courage, to track yourself in unfamiliar places. Tracking is a skill that has been handed down from generation to generation. Tracking is as old as the human race, and has been a vital survival skill ever since.

It is possible to track animals, men, or both by reading and interpreting the tracks that they have left. The ground, and the environment in which you find yourself, can give us all the necessary information to help you get out of a difficult situation.

Photo of crushed vegetation where either a human or large animal has walked through.

Above: A path runs through the middle of this picture. Someone has already walked along it. You can find your way to the trail by identifying disturbed vegetation.

Trackers do not belong to a particular breed. They do not use fantastical magical powers, nor are they guided by any supernatural forces when they inspect the earth to gather important information. They only rely on the simple facts of science. They must read the earth, interpret what is seen and then follow tracks that interest them. They gather clues and valuable data, then put the pieces together. They can tell how many people passed on a trail, the age of the tracks, whether they carried gear, or if it was a woman. Also, they know what happened at the time. Each track contains a wealth of information.

Getting lost in the woods can be handled through the application of the art of tracking and requires no tools beyond your own physical senses,  observational skills and intuition. It can be used in any situation and at any time, regardless of the weather conditions. Reading the tracks of your own, and other people’s footsteps on the ground, for example, can potentially lead you to a safe place, such as a parking area, the next road, and so on.

Photo of the bottom tread of a hiking shoe next to the prints it has left behind. Tracking is one method of navigating without tools.

You can track your footsteps by identifying the tread pattern on your shoes.

The ability to track easily is dependent on the terrain and the tracking skill of the person. Beginners may only be able detect their footprints on soft surfaces, like mud or wet sandy. A tracker with experience may be able follow footprints across bedrock. Tracking as a tool for self-recovery is only as good as the tracker. This skill can be developed only by going out and observing your signs.

Check the design on the soles of the shoes you wear if you’re in a soft, humid area. You must do this very accurately, because a misinterpretation can easily lead you to follow the tracks of others who have passed you. When you are tired and physically or mentally exhausted, making mistakes can cause stress.

Observations in the Field

It can be frightening to feel lost, but with the right observation, you can reduce or even eliminate this feeling. Situational awareness isn’t just looking for immediate threats, its also understanding your position on the globe, and how surrounding features could help or hinder you recover efforts. Observation allows us to collect information on a number of details that are vital to safety.

  • Distance from our destination
  • We are living in a type of environment
  • We are now crossing a large area
  • Weather Conditions Changing
  • Probability of finding a place to stay overnight that is safe

Photo of a mix of foot prints left behind in the dust by numerous people with different types of shoes.

Above: This photo shows multiple tread patterns. Knowing which one belongs to you will help you find the right path. This dusty medium can make it more difficult to track than a moist surface.

In terms of tracking, we do not have to look explicitly for footprints, but there are many signs that could leave “bread-crumbs” helping us find our way back. Understanding our location is all about the details. If we are stranded, the information that is observed and analyzed can also be crucial to our safety.

  • Signs of urbanization
  • Roads are everywhere
  • Presence of vehicles
  • Flora and Fauna
  • Any sound that we immediately recognize as human-made
  • There is no evidence of recent or ancient passages of animals and/or people

Navigating at Night

Avoid night navigation if you can. It is dangerous due to the limited visibility and increased activity of predatory wildlife. You can use the darkness to your advantage. Due to the contrast between darkness and light, it is easier to signal help at night. Rescuers are able see signal fires and blinking distress signs from a far greater distance than during the day. The moon and stars are useful orienteering aids if you can’t stop for the night. Just like the sun, the moon rises and sets in the same direction. Stars can also help to indicate where north and southern are located.

Photo of the big dipper in the northern hemisphere. Stars can be a method of navigating without tools.

Above: The landscape can be navigated using the signs in this picture. Light pollution, city lights and the big Dipper are all visible.

Noise and light pollution may indicate the presence of humans nearby, but they can also be deceptive. It is possible to mistake the roaring of ocean waves or the water falling over a waterfall for a busy airport or highway. A large city could be hundreds of kilometers away. The darkness, however, will obscure any terrain-associated reference points. This will cause lost individuals to wander in circles, as they will not have anything to guide them.

Myths of Navigation

There are myths about wilderness navigation, just as with any other subject. It’s possible that you’ve heard moss grows only on the north-facing side of trees. This is not always true. You shouldn’t rely on celestial body alone, either, because weather conditions may make them appear invisible.

It is a common misconception that pace counts will give you an exact distance. This is a rough estimate at best due to the different terrains, and strides. If you don’t know exactly how fast you walk in each weather condition and on every terrain, you can only get a rough idea. You will be more effective if you travel straight towards the emergency bearing.

Photo of moss growing on a tree.

There’s also a belief among some that people who are lost tend to move in circles, or prefer their dominant side. This doesn’t apply to everyone and is highly dependent on an individual’s physical and mental condition, the topography and time of day.

It is a survival skill to be able to navigate in the wilderness, without using tools. You’ll be more prepared for any wilderness adventure if you plan ahead, understand your body’s reaction to stress, use nature as your guide and avoid the myths about navigation.

Related Posts

  • Celestial Navigation
  • Backcountry Cell Phone Land Navigation
  • Survival Lessons Learned by the Nation’s Finest Trackers
  • Video: The Basics of Solar & Lunar Navigation

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