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Off Trail Navigation

By Casey Patten

There is something wild and free to taking the path less traveled. Although there are benefits to staying on a designated trail—safety and leave no trace etiquette—there is adventure beyond the trail. Here, you are solely responsible for your own navigation skills. You must consider the route, landmarks, elevation, and terrain such as couloirs, cliffs, rivers, etc. Most of these terrain concerns can be found on a map. A topographic map can show elevation gain, possible couloirs, steep cliffs, water pathways, and glaciated terrain. All of this can be shown through contour lines, which measure connecting points at equal elevation.


There are many elements that are not seen on a map. These elements might include certain avalanche activity, ice fall, mud slides, a field of thorny devils club or small landscape alterations. Maps are not regenerated every second of the day. There is the known, but then, there is the unknown as well. The best way to prepare yourself for off trail navigation is to know how to use the tools—compass, map and GPS—and prepare yourself well before going off trail. This may include researching the area, reading up on previous reviews or getting connected with the locals. While preparing for going off trail, it’s important to note landmarks you will need to remember, and choosing the safest route to travel, as well as letting others know your possible route of travel.


After choosing a possible route and researching the area, having other reliable devices might be suitable. Having a personal locator beacon is always ideal, such as an inreach. An inreach will allow you to have outside communication if needed. The device also has GPS and topographic map options available. If you decide to use your phone, there are apps that will provide topographic maps as well. Applications such as Gaia GPS is a useful app that our team uses. This app can track distance, speed and allow us define our route more accurately. The topographic maps can be downloaded before the trip and you can use the application off line. As you can see, there are many ways to safely and effectively travel off trail. However, it is important to not rely on your devices completely. These devices can get lost, or run out of power. Knowing how to revert back to a simple map and compass is important as well. Keep these tools in your back pockets.


Traveling off trail allows you to choose your own adventure. It’s best to have some practice with smaller off trail options. This way, you can get familiar with your device or tools. The more practice you have with these resources, the more efficient you will be on greater, longer expeditions. This is when it can get exciting. For instance, maybe you will want to cross a river on a packraft full of skis and gear for the mountains, travel across several peaks and descend into a small town where a bike awaits for another adventure. It’s really endless and I only dream of a trip like this. Thats the beauty of off trail navigation, as you create your own path and destination. You know the landscape you will travel on but you don’t know what you will come across in regards to weather, wild life, and unexpected terrain alterations. I suppose that’s why such an experience, is called an adventure.

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