CalARA: Clinics – Navigation

Start Navigating

Compass and map navigation are the glue that make kayaking, mountain biking, and trekking into an adventure race.  Knowing how to identify your location on a topographic map, taking a heading, and making route selections are some of the critical skills you need to enjoy and excel at AR.

The Best Navigation Guide for Adventure Racing

Adventure racing navigation is just like wilderness navigation, but at a faster pace!

If your first race is a short sprint race, you will just need to be able to read a trail map, as most of the checkpoints will be on the trails. As you progress into more advanced racing events, the checkpoints become harder to find as they will be further apart and sometimes off-trail—that’s when the adventure begins!

Navigation is a really fun, practical skill to have, and it’s not difficult to master. If you think you’re hopeless with a map, let us prove you otherwise! In this article you’ll learn to read a topo map (a trail map) and a method to keep track of your progress. The wilderness is full of elements you can rely on to know where you are.

Whether you’re visiting a city for the first time, riding in a park you don’t know, trekking in the depths of the wilderness or adventure racing: if you’re able to keep track of your route you should never get lost again!

Navigation tools, we’ll see that last!

You can look all over the web for sites about navigation or orienteering, and each of them will immediately teach you the ins and outs of a compass. Not us! Why? Navigation is the art of staying on track, and you don’t need a compass for that. A compass and altimeter may become useful later on, if you get lost. Instead, we will rely on matching the features you see around you, with the features that are on your map.

Navigating with a street map.

First let’s remind ourselves how to read a map. When we first pull out our map we determine where we are located on that map by looking for recognizable features we see around us represented on the map (like a street intersection, park, building, lake, etc…). Then we find our destination in a similar manner. Finally we decide on a route to get us from where we are, to our destination.

Navigating is a matter of getting an accurate description of the route. Navigating your way in a city consists of describing landmarks that you’ll see on your way. “When I see the church I’ll turn right after the next block.” In that case, the landmark – the church – is the point of reference you’ll be paying attention to for your turn. The church is a “waypoint”. It doesn’t matter how long the street leading to that church is, you don’t need to count each block or read every street name. When you see the church you know what to do.

Everything that can be seen on the map and crosschecked can become useful: street names, buildings, slopes (street’s incline), parks, etc. All these are waypoints. We string a bunch of waypoints together so that we can navigate our way to our destination.

You may also be looking for a feature that means you’ve gone too far…such as a freeway, or ocean (that pretty much always means you’ve gone too far).

Trail maps (topo maps) are not much different from street maps. The only difference is that instead of looking for buildings, streets and parks you’ll be looking for slope inclines, trails, cliffs, boulders, rivers and lakes.

Navigating with a Topo Map.

Most of the time, trail maps and park maps used for adventure races are regular topo maps. These maps show the terrain’s slopes with contour lines, the main public paths like roads and footpaths, and bodies of water (streams, lakes, etc.).

Always read the map’s legend! The legend is the key to interpreting the map’s symbols. Despite similarities, symbols vary from map to map. A thick black line can mean “bike trail” , “no bikes trail” or on “forestry road”— basically, there are no codes followed by map publishers.

Good topo maps may also show you buildings, vegetation types, property boundaries, fences, gates, rock formations, scree slopes, water ducts, power lines, and even more.

Every detail on a map is a potential point of reference you can use to establish your waypoints.

Contour lines

A contour line represents an elevation. There is a regular increment between each line (often 40 feet on standard 1:24,000 scale topo maps). If the contour lines are close together, that means the hillside is steep; if they are far apart, the hillside is shallow.

You can tell if a trail is flat or steep by how many contour lines it crosses.

Shallow land looks like this:[jl4]

Steep land looks like this:[jl5]

Trails that are too steep for climbing on a bike:[jl6]

Trails appropriate for climbing on a bike: [jl7]

Look ahead for significant profile (trail incline) changes for the trail you are on. You should keep track of your climbs and descents to know where you are, especially if you have to travel a long distance on a trail before taking a turn on another trail or off-trail.

How many climbs:[jl8]

The upslope and the downslope can be a significant element of knowing where you are. Will the upslope be on your right or your left when you reach your next waypoint? Will it be steep on one side and shallow on the other side?

Significant upslope[jl9]

Marked Trails:

Parks managers want the park’s visitors to stay on maintained trails—those are the trails you see on the parks’ maps. While traveling on these trails you’ll find a sign at every intersection.

Named trails are among the most useful landmarks to find your current location on a map, and you should use them as waypoints.

A trail intersection without a sign certainly doesn’t show on the map. If you’re not meant to turn precisely on the unmarked trail you should keep going until you find your next waypoint (a landmark you can see on the map).

Streams and bodies of water

Identifying streams is a great way of finding out where you are. But streams don’t always flow year round, so we need to recognize where stream beds are. On most maps, a solid blue line represents a stream that flows most of the year and that will have a significant bed (without vegetation when dry). A dotted blue line may indicate a seasonal flow – most likely in winter and spring in California. Ponds and reservoirs are good landmarks as well, as they are most likely to be full all year long.

Man made objects: buildings, gates, power poles, powerlines

Most map will indicate gates but fewer maps will show buildings or power poles and power lines. A regular park map will only show you objects that are relevant to the park, like gates and park management centers but will ignore power lines and private buildings.

Gates and buildings excellent way points because they are unique to a specific location.

Powerlines are among the most useful landmarks for a navigator (when indicated on the map). You can see them from far away. They cross paths and roads and help you pinpointing where you are on the map.

Describing the landscape

Being able to describe the landscape is key. Here is some vocabulary:

Hill top: Highest point of hill

Reentrant: a depression on the hill side  where the water would run down. A reentrant may become a creek with a running stream.

Spur: a ridge between two reentrant.

Saddles: the lowest point between two hill tops – if it’s a mountain we tend to call a saddle a pass.

Knoll: a mound often located on a spur or a plateau. It’s most likely rock formations.

Upslope and downslope: describes the slopes on the side of the trail you are on. The upslope is the slope that goes up and downslope goes down.

Upstream and downstream: Describes a direction in relation of the water flow of a stream.

Planning your route before the start

Planning your route is about finding the most efficient way to reach as many checkpoints (CPs) as possible. Sometimes you will have options. You may have two trails going to the same point or a potential shorter off trail route. This needs to be planned in advance.

The race director will give you instructions. You will be told the order in which you’ll need to find the checkpoint and specific instructions to reach some of them. There might be hazards to avoid.

Write on your map: Write the instructions on your map with a permanent pen. Highlight the checkpoints with a permanent highlighter so you can locate them with ease while you’re on the move. And highlight your route. Never leave the start without a plan!

For your route choice her are some elements you should consider:

Slopes: You need to be able to read the slopes indicated on the map by the contour lines (see chapter on topo maps). If you have a choice of routes for getting from one CP to another, you should consider the steepness versus the distance. Going steep may be faster, but it also takes more out of you and your team.

Steep slopes are always easier to walk down that up. Going through thick vegetation is considerably easier downhill than uphill.

Path width: You will likely be able to use a variety of paths to complete the course: roads, dirt roads (or 4X4 roads), fire roads, forestry roads, footpaths / mountain cycling paths, unmarked footpaths and animal tracks. The speed at which you can travel varies with the quality of the road. On a bike you can go three times faster on a paved road than on a footpath. For the equivalent distance, you will always ride faster on a larger path. It’s also easier to tow a teammate on a large road than on a twisty trail.

On foot you will go almost at the same speed as on any kind of path. You are unlikely to jog/run on very narrow paths or off-trail.

Team dynamics: If you have a choice of route you must consider the capabilities of your team to face the kind of terrain you’ll engage in. If you see a twisty footpath on the map, you can assume that it will be more difficult to ride than a dirt road. You will only go as fast as the slowest person on your team, so if someone doesn’t have the skills to ride a technical trail you should plan an easier route.

Optional Check Points: Some checkpoints might be optional (refer to the event’s rules of travel). You will grab these CPs only if you have time, and you must plan accordingly. Sometimes it’s safer to skip the most remote checkpoints.

If the course allows you a great freedom of route choice – if you can grab the CPs in any order – you should consider tackling the most difficult climbs early in the race, when you’re at your freshest.

If the course is particularly difficult, you can choose to play it safe and get the easiest CPs first, i.e. the ones closest to the start/finish or closest to the trails.

Or…you can always decide on a “fun” route and hit only the CPs closest to what appears to be fun single tracks to ride, you are meant to be having fun after all.

Going off-trail: Going off-trail, or bushwhacking, is always a risky move. Depending on the vegetation, you will move two to ten times slower off-trail. So before engaging in an off-trail route, you need to be sure that the terrain and the vegetation are passable. Going off trail is typically only a suitable option when travelling flats, downhills, or very short distances. Making the decision to bushwhack will often end up as a “brilliant tactical move” or a “blundering mistake that made me hate you”. Consider bushwhacks carefully.


In Route! Let’s make waypoints

Navigating over relatively long distances for several hours consists of breaking down your route into smaller segments.

You’ll make the segments as you go. When you know for sure where you are you then look at the map for the next significant landmark on your route. This landmark defines a “waypoint”. This waypoint is the point at which you’ll change direction, e.g. get on another trail or get off the trail, or it can be a confirmation that you’re still on the right track. Examples of waypoints:

A trail junction, a building, a power line, a body of water (lake, pound, river, stream, waterfall), a change in slope (climbing, descending, flat), a variation in vegetation (e.g. grassland to forest).

When you reach your waypoint you know for sure where you are. Then you can decide on a new waypoint ahead and progress this way – segment after segment – to your destination.

How many waypoints?

You should make at least one waypoint before you change direction. You may have several waypoints on a long stretch of trail to make sure you didn’t go off track even if you don’t turn on any other trails – sometimes turns are not obvious and you may engage in the wrong direction without noticing.

Describe the significant descents and ascents coming next. Describe the streams you should cross. Describe the trail junction. The more you can predict what comes ahead the more on track you will be.

During an adventure race you should make several waypoints between each checkpoints. In general, the less experienced a navigator you are, the more waypoints you should create for yourself (though as a seasoned adventure racer, I look for as many waypoints on a route as I can find…I like to always know exactly where I am).

Attack point

Now that you have an idea of how to structure your route we need to talk about approaching your check point – particularly when it’s off trail.

Your attack point is a place you can accurately pinpoint on the map and from which you are going to move directly towards your checkpoint. I can be anything recognizable on the map. When you found it you will take a “bearing” and go as straight as you can to your CP.

Say the CP is close to a trail intersection, approximately 1/5 of kilometer (200 m or approx. 600′) to the East of the intersection (remember the UTM grid shows squares 1 km wide) and uphill from the intersection. When you reach that intersection you can find the direction to go in relation to the trails and the slope but you can also use your compass and go leave the trails going East.

A CP which isn’t on an obvious land feature can only be fond in relation to a place you can identify. This place is your “Attack Point” and it can be an intersection (trails, trail and power line, streams), a hill top, a man made object, or anything you see on the map.

“Dead Point”

A “Dead Point” is a landmark that lets you know you’ve gone too far. If you see it you know you’ve missed your waypoint and it’s time to backtrack.

You can use a trail inclines are valuable  dead point: “if we start going down we’ve gone too far”. You can use a major stream, a powerline, a building, a cliff. Like waypoints, anything  clearly indicated on the map can be picked up as a dead Point.


Describe your waypoints out loud

A good habit to develop is to describe to your teammates the next things to look for. If more than one person is looking for a landmark there’s less chance of missing it.

Examples: “We need to take the next marked trail on the right, just after we cross a stream. It’ll go steeply downhill and follow the stream”.

“We’re going to go down for a while, then flat, then a sharp climb. When it’s flat again let’s look for an open field on the left.”

Scale translated to reality.

We’ve seen that most topo maps you’ll use in adventure racing will be 1/24000. That’s a large scale where 1inch on the map represents 2000 feet in reality.

The squares on a topo map (UTM grid) are most of the time representing 1 km.

As you gain experience you  should learn to appreciate your speed over different terrain and for a range of distances. You will know that you can jog on flat trail at 10 minutes / miles; you know that you can ride on a particular incline with relatively flat surface at 8 miles/ hour. So if you know you have to go several miles before you start paying attention to a waypoint (a land feature) you can roughly calculate how many minutes you need before you switch on your brain to route searching.

When you train (bike, run, hike) with a nice map with distances from intersection to intersection get used to appreciate the slope, the terrain and the time it takes you to cover a given distance.



Many people point to the navigation aspect of adventure racing as being both the most interesting and most intimidating. For the new racers, most sprint races do not include any navigation. Navigation on endurance-length races tend to only require basic map reading skill. Only on 24 Hour+ races to more advanced skills, such as advanced route finding, come into play.

For the new navigator, a field course on navigation or practice with an experienced navigator is likely the fastest way to develop skills. However, to make the most of either experience, or for those hardy to-it-yourselfers, the information below will provide a solid foundation in the theory of land-based wilderness navigation.

Compass and Altimeter Basics

The following links provide an overview of how to use a compass. By following these links you will learn the parts of a compass, how to make basic compass readings, and the importance of understanding declination.


Compass Basics

Using a Compass (more advanced)

Note: site contains other nav info, some of which is confusing or not applicable to AR. Clicking “next page” link they provide will guide you through the valuable compass section.

Declination Calculator

Note, that if you start doing longer races, you’ll want to invest in an altimeter as well. (Often an altimeter is a more useful tool in an adventure race than a compass. Altimeters are fairly easy to use, and there are several styles available. Altimeters need to be frequently calibrated, and should be calibrated EVERY time you find yourself at a known altitude during a race.

Buying a Compass

You don’t need a high end compass to get started in adventure racing, but you do want a compass that “settles quickly” (the needle will point north quickly) and has an easy to use adjustment for declination.

A good entry level compass is the Brunton 8010G.

For a high quality AR-specific compass, consider the Brunton 8096AR.


Adventure racers will encounter a variety of maps, from highly detailed topographic orienteering maps to basic sketches prepared by race directors. The first step in developing navigation skills is understanding how to read a topographic map.

The links below provide a solid overview of what is needed to learn basic navigation skills. There are also many good books that teach the basics of navigation. Nonetheless, navigation skills are best developed in the field with “map in hand”. We encourage new navigators to seek out clinics to help refine skills — for most this will be the quickest way to become a talented navigator.

Adventure racers will encounter a variety of maps, from highly detailed topographic orienteering maps to basic sketches prepared by race directors. The first step in developing navigation skills is understanding how to read a topographic map.

The links below provide a solid overview of what is needed to learn basic navigation skills. There are also many good books that teach the basics of navigation. Nonetheless, navigation skills are best developed in the field with “map in hand”. We encourage new navigators to seek out clinics to help refine skills — for most this will be the quickest way to become a talented navigator.

Introduction to Topo Maps

Overview of Map Skills and Basic Navigation Skills

Intro to Topo Maps (site includes other nav tutorials of mixed quality)

UTM Coordinates

Adventure racers must be able to plot UTM coordinates. Although developing a full understanding of the UTM system take time, adventure racers can learn the basic skills required to plot UTM coordinate in a few minutes.

The links below will provide all the information needed to plot UTM coordinates, and to understand the UTM system.

Overview of the UTM System (Background, but not critical for AR)

Plotting UTM Coordinates (This is what you’re going to need to know — excellent navigation website, where you can purchase UTM grids, including an adventure racing specific UTM grid — a bit large, btw — and an smaller UTM grid)

More information on the UTM System (Not critical)

Converting UTM to Lat/Long. (seldom used in AR)

Navigation Tips for Adventure Racers

Once basic map and compass skills are mastered, these skills must be put to use and refined. Here are some exercises that will help you hone your skills.

A first step is to buy or download topographic maps of your local hiking and biking destinations. Spend time studying the maps on your next outing. Try looking at the map and visualize in detail what the upcoming geography will look like. Then practice studying the geography and visualize in detail what the map will look like. By doing this you will quickly refine you ability to read and recognize map contour features.

Next, practice estimating how long it will take you to travel distances on a map. This is a critical skill, as it will allow you some rest time while navigating — knowing you need to be watching for an intersection in ten minutes is much easier than carefully :”thumbing” the same route for ten minutes. Start by learning to estimate how quickly you are travelling. On a bike, this is easy with a good bike computer. On foot, practice measuring your pace and a standard hiking speed, and then a quick and slow pace. Estimate going up hill and down hill. After a few weeks of practice you should be able to estimate you pace with high accuracy. Then try to estimate how long it will take you to cover a set path on a topo map. Start with short distances (1/4 mile) and then expand to more complex routes. Adjust your time estimates for unexpected delays, etc.

Once you have mastered these techniques, try to do some geocaching using topo maps instead of a GPS receiver. You may need to bring a GPS to find the hidden cache, but using topos alone, you should be able to come within a meter or so of the geocache.

Navigation Links and Resources

Navigation Books

The Essential Wilderness Navigator: How to Find Your Way in the Great Outdoors, Second Edition by David Seidman, Paul Cleveland, Christine Erikson (Illustrator)

Be Expert with Map and Compass by Bjön Kjellström

Compass & Map Navigator: The Complete Guide to Staying Found by Michael Hodgson

The Ultimate Guide to Wilderness Navigation by Scottie Barnes, Cliff Jacobson, James Churchill

Orienteering by Steve Boga

Navigation Web Links

Many good links, well organized


Orienteering for Adventure Racers

Orienteering is a form of navigation using a highly detailed map. Although orienteering is an independent sport, adventure races will often include an orienteering section. Beginner navigators often have difficulty shifting between the scale of an orienteering map and that of a typical USGS map. The best way to learn orienteering is to participate in events organized by local orienteering clubs.

Orienteering Links:

Wikipedia article

Learn Orienteering Symbols