Navigating the Trail


You know how it goes. One moment you’re heading down the trail chatting with your buddies about the newest American Idol and his shot at stardom. Before you know it, the minutes have turned into hours and the trail has rolled out behind you. You stop, look around and wonder, “Where the Simon Cowell are we?”

Losing track of time and space isn’t an uncommon problem for trail riders, especially those of us who are less than spatially gifted. While few incidents lead to TV-news coverage and search-and-rescue efforts, there’s that spot between being lost and knowing where you are that makes your hair stand on end. As responsible trail riders and horse owners, we should all know where we are when we’re out on the trail and how to get back to the trailhead.

The tools you need to find your way when you’re away from home territory are easy to use and inexpensive, while the knowledge you need to find your way home is priceless.

Finding Your Way

  • First and foremost, get a map of the area where you plan to ride and take 10 minutes to study it before you head out.
  • Invest in a good compass and keep it on your person rather than on the horse.
  • Hold your compass away from your saddle when you take a reading so the metal in the horn doesn’t disrupt its accuracy.
  • Learn local landmarks, such as waterways, mountains, meadows and buttes.
  • When in doubt, trust your compass rather than signage, which could have been compromised by vandals.
  • Take a navigation class through your local parks and recreation district or sporting store.

Get A Map
Preparation is key to finding your way when trail riding, says cartographer Jeff Campbell, president of Spatial-Solutions, Inc. As a professional mapmaker, Jeff has used his gelding Hobo to survey thousands of acres of wilderness in central Oregon. His work surveying and recording areas has also taken him around the continental United States and into Alaska.

Campbell’s most basic instruction is to get a map. Before you hit the trail, visit your local recreation store or ranger station and purchase a map of the area where you plan to ride. Recreational maps for public lands show major trails, roadways, landmarks and bodies of water, making basic ride planning simple.

Topographical maps visually depict three-dimensional terrain changes and elevation on a two-dimensional plane using contour lines to outline the shape of land changes. If you were to ride along a contour line on a map, you’d experience no elevation gain or loss. However, riding from one line to another would mean a change in elevation. On a “topo” map with a contour interval of 20 feet, each new contour line represents 20 feet of elevation change from the line next to it. Topo maps are available through the U.S. Geological Survey (

A quadrangle is a standard topographical map sheet published by the USGS and is approximately 17 miles north to south and 11 to 15 miles east to west. When choosing a map of your riding location, whether you go with a recreational map or a topo map, make sure the scale of the map offers enough detail.

Scale is the ratio to which the map represents the real world. For example, on a map with a 1:126,720 ratio (1 centimeter on the map equals 126,720 centimeters on the ground), 1 inch on the map equals 2 miles in reality. As the ratio gets smaller, say 1:63,360, the map gets more detailed, and 1 inch on the map equals 1 mile.

Guidebooks also provide good, local or general information about riding areas. “Although, some are better than others,” Jeff warns. “Sometimes they focus more on scenery than what you really need to know about getting around on the trails.”

Instead of relying on a guidebook, use the book to supplement your map, he recommends.

Carry a Compass
A compass is a simple device with a magnetic needle that always points to the Earth’s magnetic north. Modern conveniences such as cell phones and GPS (global positioning systems) are nice units to have, but they’re not foolproof, says Jeff. He recommends always, always carrying a compass and a map when you head out for a trail ride.

“Some people make the mistake of thinking they only need their GPS and a cell phone,” he says. “A GPS is good at telling you where you’re at, but not how to get where you want to go. And cell phones don’t always work.”

Both devices are prone to breaking, and they also rely on batteries, which sometimes die when you need them the most. A good compass only costs between $10 and $75-an inexpensive investment into your safety and peace of mind. Campbell strongly suggests that you avoid using a digital compass, because it, too, relies on batteries to operate.

Homework: Putting Compass to Paper

A. The map’s scale helps you convert centimeters and inches on paper into real-world distances. B. Grids of equal size help decipher distances and find locations on maps. C. The map key or legend defines symbols used on the map. D. A compass rose shows cardinal directions on the map to help you orient yourself on the trail. This rose is already adjusted for magnetic declination.

The best time to get familiar with a map is when you’re sitting comfortably at home and under no pressure clear off your dining room table and lay your map out. Use paperweights to help hold down the page. Now, locate the following on the map:

A. Scale – The map’s Scale shows you how the drawing correlates with the real world. For example, one inch on a map may represent five miles in the real world as the crow flies. Use the scale and a ruler, or the edge of your compass, to approximate and calculate distances on the map.

B. Grid– The grid sections the map off into equal sections of a certain dimension. These grids, based on the map’s scale, will also help you calculate time and distance for your ride.

C. Map key or Legend – The map key unlocks the map’s code by defining its symbols. Each map is a little different, especially in different countries, so make sure to check the legend before you start interpreting symbols.

D. Compass Rose – The compass rose helps orient the map through t eh cardinal directions of North, South, East and West. At ht every least, a compass rose will point north.

Learn to Navigate
Your local parks-and-recreation district or outdoor recreation store-such as REI-more than likely offer classes in basic orienteering or navigation. These classes will take you through the basics of map reading and help you become familiar with your navigational aids.

Jeff stresses not letting map reading overwhelm you. While the numbers, lines, colors and symbols can look like Greek at first, an experienced instructor can help you decipher the map’s meaning.

“It really only takes a couple minutes to learn how to read a map,” Jeff assures. “You just need basic skills. You don’t have to know triangulation or anything like that.”

Share Your Plan
A fundamental rule of all outdoor adventure is to tell someone where you’re going. In case you get lost or injured on the trail, you want someone to have a general idea of your route, destination and estimated time of return.

“I go so far as to leave a map of where I’m going for my wife,” Jeff says.

However, when horseback riding, there are times when plans can and do change. Maybe the parking lot at your intended trailhead is full, or perhaps another trailhead looked more interesting once you hit the road. Either way, someone needs to know where you’re riding.

“That’s a good time to use that cell phone,” says Jeff. A simple phone call home or to a friend, he points out, can save a lot of confusion down the road.

Calibrating Your Compass

Calibrating your compass to your map is easier than it appears at first glance. You just need to take your time and walk through the steps. Don’t worry, it will get easier! Let’s get started.

1. To calibrate your compass to the map, you first need to find true north versus magnetic north. The needle of your compass will point to magnetic north, or the Earth’s North Pole. The difference between true north and magnetic north is called the magnetic declination. This factor varies, depending where in the world you’re located and, to some extent, by time. To find the magnetic declination of your riding area, visit and use the website’s handy calculator.

This compass is aligned with the compass rose on the map and is oriented to true north. Note that the ring on the compass has been adjusted for a magnetic declination of about 16-degrees east and that the red needle of the compass is pointing toward magnetic north.

2. Magnetic declination is in degrees. For example, magnetic declination in Central Oregon is about 16 degrees east. To apply this number to your compass, simply rotate the ring on the compass clockwise 16 degrees. Now, ignore the N on your compass and treat this new point as true north.

3. Once you have north situated on your compass, place the compass over the compass rose on your map, making sure to line up true north on the rose with true north on your compass. Holding the compass over the map, rotate your body until the north end of the compass needle lines up with the original north on the compass. Now you and your map are in alignment, and you know which way is north.

Check Your Location
Parked? Check. Horses out of the trailer and quietly standing tied? Check, check.

Now, before you mount up, take a moment to figure out your location. In navigation, as in life, knowing where you’re starting from is the best way to figure out how to get where you’re going.

Get yourself, the map and your compass situated. Start by making sure your compass is adjusted to true north by magnetic “declination.” (For more on declination and using your compass and map together, see the sidebar “Putting Compass to Paper” on page 46.)

“Take 10 minutes in your truck to look at the map and orient yourself,” Jeff recommends. If the metal of the truck and trailer is pulling your compass needle, step away from your rig to get an accurate reading.”

Landmarks, Sun & Time Factors
As you orient yourself to your surroundings, take time to study any landmarks, bodies of water, or roads you might encounter on your ride. Recognizing these features on the trail will help confirm your location. If, for example, you’re riding in an area of several buttes, learn each butte’s location and distinguishing features.

Of course, you also know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west-always, with no exceptions. However, the times the sun rises and sets do change with the seasons and daylight savings time. Always check the time you’re headed out against when you expect the sun to set to ensure you make it back before dark.

The sun’s position in the sky and the time of day can also give you a very general idea of direction. However, if you’re riding in a heavy overcast, this won’t be a reliable navigational option.

Now, this is where a GPS unit comes in handy. A GPS can calculate your horse’s average speed, a number you can use to deduce the distance you will cover in the time you plan to ride.

“Horses average between 2 and 6 miles per hour,” says Backcountry Horsemen of America Executive Secretary Peg Greiwe. “Usually they’re on the faster side when you’re headed home.”

GPS units currently range in price from $100 to $900, depending on their functions and capabilities. If you happen to have one, use your GPS to help calculate have much ground you’ve covered during your ride.

Before you get on, stow your map and compass somewhere that you can get to it while you’re riding, preferably on you-either in a pocket or pack-but not on your horse.

“You have to decide who needs the map and compass more if you part ways, you or your horse,” Greiwe points out.

You’re the Navigator
The trail is where you’ll put all your preparation and navigation skills to the test. Yes, you want to have fun when you’re riding, but you also need to stay vigilant about where you’re going, how fast you’re moving, and how you’re getting back to where you started.

Campbell and Greiwe both recommend trusting your compass over signage to figure out where you are and which direction you should head-especially in cases where the signage doesn’t match your compass. It’s not uncommon for vandals to move or completely remove signage on public trails.

And pay attention to your route! Sometimes we’re so busy relaxing on the trail or pulling up the rear of the line that we forget to pay attention to where we’re going, especially if a companion is leading the way.

Greiwe’s sage advice is to always pay attention to landmarks along the trail to help you find your way back. With experience, you’ll start recognizing the area and building your own mental map of the space.

“Anyone who has read Louis L’Amour’s books knows he says to look at the trail behind you, because it’s going to look different when you turn around and go back,” Greiwe says.

“It goes back to being prepared,” adds Campbell. “What if the rider who knows where you’re at gets hurt and you have to help him out? Or, what if you get separated? You need to know where you are.”

Stick to the Trail
When in doubt, stick to the trail. This is good advice whether you’re exploring a new area or trying to find your way back to your rig after getting slightly lost. Cutting cross-country can save time if you’re in a hurry and 100% sure of the direction you need to head. However, heading cross-country without your bearings can leave you even more lost and confused.

Instead, stick to well-worn trails. “You should see hoof prints and droppings,” Peg says. On these trails, you’re also more likely to run into a fellow trail user.

If you’re definitely lost and come across a road, travel along the road.

“If you’re on foot and lost, the wisdom is to wait for someone to find you,” Jeff says. “On a horse, you can cover more ground and find a place where searchers are more likely to find you, like on a road. Of course, covering more ground means you can also get lost quicker.”

However, if you keep these tips in mind and learn to use your compass and your map, you’ll know exactly how to get home.

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