I was taught basic orienteering and map reading by a grizzled Eagle Scout. He was the head of a little archaeology crew I was in, performing a backcountry survey in high, rugged terrain in the southern Sierra. John was his name, I think, but I’m not certain. Mostly I remember that he’d walk off into the trees on his days off, avoiding what he called “crowded” trails (though we rarely saw hikers where we were), and would return a few days later, having made up his own hiking loop then and there on the spot. Often, when he strolled back into camp, he’d have several small fish stuffed into his vest pockets. John was a strange dude. But I liked him a lot.
John taught me to shoot bearings from distant mountain peaks, and to triangulate my location on a topo map. He taught me how to follow a compass bearing around impassable cliff faces or gullies, and how to estimate how long it would take me to get from one lake to the next by reading contour lines and using a shoelace to gauge distance on a trail snaking across a map. I don’t know that he particularly wanted to teach me any of that, since he didn’t speak a whole lot and seemed bothered by anything but hiking and fishing. But we were stuck together for weeks, and it gave him something to do.
But not everybody has a John.
Aim Adventure U, an online system of outdoors-focused curricula, might be as close as one can get to having one. Their Backcountry Navigation course is a pretty solid resource for anyone who wants to learn very basic compass orienteering skills and how to properly read a topo map. For the past week or so I’ve spent about an hour per day taking the course and it covers a great introductory bit of ground.
Your guide is a woman named Sienna Fry, from Colorado Outward Bound (The Colorado Outdoor Bound School, in conjunction with Backpacker Magazine, put the program together), and she walks you through the practicalities of each section of the course, from maps and map reading to how to handle a compass, to which kind of GPS device does what, through on to basic off-trail navigation principles and what to do if you get lost.
The whole course of study takes, I’d say, ten hours to complete. Longer if you take each homework installment seriously—things like shooting your own bearings on a trail, or planning a route with a topo. Each section has a few videos to watch, a little bit to read, a homework (practice) assignment, and a quiz so that you can be sure you’re keeping up with the material.
There’s no substitute—at all—for learning backcountry navigation in person, in the field, but the Aim U course is a great way to get an idea of what you need to know if you want to take navigation seriously. You’ll very quickly learn what you don’t know, and you’ll have a great idea for what to work on. Don’t expect to take this course and then be able to plan complex offtrail loops in unfamiliar terrain. The compass section, for example, is a nice overview, but when you’re shooting bearings for the first time then plotting them on a map, you really need John to be there with you to show what you’re doing wrong. It doesn’t have to be John, but you know what I mean.
The course costs $149, which seems like a lot, but I think it’s probably worth it. REI’s two-stage navigation courses cost about the same, and you get hands on instruction, but the Aim U materials are always there for you, waiting online if you need a refresher. I know plenty of serious backpackers who still don’t feel comfortable navigating with just a map and compass, and if that’s you and you’d like to change that, but aren’t sure where to begin, Aim U is a good choice and a welcome resource.
It’s no John though.