alltrails map screenshot

Often the first thing that comes to mind when heading out on any trail solo for the first time, is how to not get lost.

Born and bred to it, most Aussies are fully aware of the risks associated with being away from civilisation. Heading out on a trail solo can, and should, put these risks at the forefront of your mind. Being prepared for an emergency is essential, but being able to mitigate the chances of getting lost puts you in a much more confident position.

Learning how to navigate trails is probably more simple than you might think, even if you have a really bad sense of direction!

Build up your navigation skills with our following tips and remember, the more you practice (starting on familiar trails) the better and more confident you’ll become.

Be Present

What we’re talking about here is being constantly aware of your surroundings.

On a group hike it’s easy to defer to your guide who knows the trail well, while you get to enjoy a worry free hike with like minded people, outside and appreciating nature. 

But let’s put it another way ….

A friend is driving you to their hometown, a place you’ve never been before, to attend a wedding. Between your friend being very familiar with the direction and the upcoming festivities, your mind is not likely to be on the specifics of the way there.

In context, when hiking solo, you need to be the driver; paying attention to landmarks and signs, knowing when to turn off and in which direction.

Marked Trails

Many Perth trails are well marked and have maps at the beginning of the trail, placed by local councils. These are great to practice your “being present” navigational skills.

The map is usually on a large board and shows the trails and colour/pic of the trail markers to follow. Once you’ve identified which trail you’re going to hike, take note of the correct trail marker and whether the trail is a loop or return. 

If it’s a loop trail, note whether you’re going to go left around or right around in a (rough) circle. This will help guide you if you come across a firebreak or game (kangaroo) trail that leads off in a different direction. 

Take a photo of the map board so you can see how the trail twists and turns along the way.

While you’re hiking, observe your surroundings and take note of landmarks:

  • A change in tree species from one to another
  • Noticeable boulders
  • Positions of grass trees
  • Changes in the substrate you’re walking on (limestone, pea gravel, sand, steps)
  • Bridges and creek crossings
  • Whether you’re going uphill or down

And remember to keep your eye out for the trail markers. These are your best points of reference on a marked trail.

Tip: Photographers tend to pay a lot of attention on trails because they’re looking for something to shoot. They’ll remember the tree stump that looks like a throne, or a particular grouping of flowers by the trail, etc. When these “landmarks” are recognised on the way back over a return trail, you can be confident you’re going the right way.

Unmarked Trails

Less commonly used trails may not have map boards or trail markers – so how do you navigate these?

Your “being present” navigation skills are most important on these trails but here are some tips to add to those skills.

Use a Map

Find a map of the area and give it a quick study. 

It’s essential to have access to a map that doesn’t need a phone signal to view it – it’s of no use to you halfway along the trail and you’ve lost connection and can’t bring it up on your phone!

There are apps that allow you to download maps to your phone but also give you the ability to view them offline (very similar to using Google Maps). These are great because you can zoom in to examine the trail in more detail. You can find these on AllTrails, TrailsWA and Maps.Me.

Similar to the council map boards mentioned previously, the downloaded maps will give you an overview of how the trail is laid out; which direction a loop trail goes, whether it curves to the left or right and any other significant turns in the trail you can keep an eye out for.

These will also show you the topography, which are basically the hills. Topographical lines will indicate to you whether you can expect to be going up an incline on a particular section of the trail or for example uphill on an angle. 

On the example AllTrails map below, you can see the layout of a loop trail, giving us a good indication of what to expect.

alltrails map screenshot

If we were to go around this loop trail from left to right, see if you can identify:

  • The two major trails. One is straight and continues on (a return trail) and the first section of the loop trail we’ve chosen to hike uses part of the return trail
  • A fork in the trail, which we would need to take to the right to continue onto the loop trail
  • Two water crossings; after the first crossing we would know we’ve reached the halfway point and after the second crossing we would almost have completed the loop
  • A few downhill sections towards the water and a few inclines when the trail moves away from the water
  • At least 4 other minor trails that lead off our loop trail that we need to navigate past and which direction they lead off (left or right)
    • One of them is a wildflower walk which we may choose to explore and then return to the main trail

REMEMBER THAT PART OF YOUR EMERGENCY PLAN IS TO STICK TO THE MAIN TRAIL.

ANY DEVIATION SHOULD BE SHORT AND SWEET!

Apps like AllTrails also allow you to add your own information to personalise the map for your own use. This includes things like adding a Waypoint (very similar to dropping a pin on Google Maps) which allows you to make note of a particular landmark and adding a description and photos.

All of these things help you identify parts of, and become more familiar with, a particular trail.

Tip: Check the local visitor’s centre for trail information. As an example, the Dwellingup Visitors Centre provides free maps for individual trails and are happy to answer any questions you may have.

Breadcrumbs

First let’s talk about physical breadcrumbs. Just like Hansel and Gretel, consider putting things on the ground, by the side of the trail, where you’ll notice them on the way back (for return trails). It might be three gumnuts or little rocks grouped together or a small pile of leaves or twigs.

When you reach a fork in the track, you might place a stick on the side of the trail, one end pointing the way you came and the other end pointing the way you’re going. You could also draw an arrow in the dirt depending on the weather and the substrate – rain or very soft sand may affect your mark’s longevity.

When it comes to physical breadcrumbs we also need to keep in mind the Leave No Trace principles which encourages us to leave a trail exactly the way we found it. In clear conscience, using items found specifically on the trail would balance against the need to find your way, especially if your breadcrumbs were returned to a “normal” position on your way back.

Now let’s talk about digital breadcrumbs. Some phone apps provide a trail of digital breadcrumbs that allow you to track back the way you came, whether you took a wrong turn or not!

They basically leave a coloured line of where you’ve already hiked, very similar to apps like MapMyWalk. 

One excellent choice is OsmAnd. It allows you to download offline maps and also choose which features you’d like displayed over the map such as how far you’ve travelled, compass overlay, topography, metres above sea level, time and connectivity strength to GPS as well as petrol stations, towns, etc. 

Tip – don’t go too heavy on the features as they can overcrowd your screen. Just stick with the absolute basics and don’t forget to hit Record before you set off.

One feature we particularly like is that you can zoom right in to see where you’re standing. This displays a little headlight feature. Holding your phone flat like a compass, the headlight will point in the direction you’re facing. By turning yourself on the spot, similar to a compass, you can identify the direction you need to go, to hike back over or meet up with your breadcrumb trail. 

As good as some of these apps are, there are a couple of things you need to take into account when using them:

  • You still need to download offline maps
  • You need to have one of the latest model phones as these now normally have GPS by default 
  • You need to activate the app’s recording mode before you lose phone signal

A good breadcrumb app certainly provides a lot more confidence but they do use up your phone’s battery, especially if you’re also taking photos with your phone. 

Tip – use a car charger on the way to your hike so your phone’s battery is at 100% before you even start hiking. On longer hikes consider taking a portable charger.

It’s also important to keep in mind that apps aren’t 100% perfect; because a third party GPS app is using your phone’s service signal it can still drop out, and phones can get dropped and broken. 

Tip – print off a copy of your map section (phone or computer screenshot) as zoomed in as possible. Use this to refer to the trail’s features you studied beforehand as well as your “being present” navigation skills.

Dedicated GPS Device

While mobile phone apps are starting to catch up on GPS technology (and still have a way to go), dedicated GPS devices, whether it’s a handheld device or wearable device like the Garmin Instinct Watch, are a lot more reliable and resilient to the outdoors.

They’re a high tech version of:

  • Downloading maps
  • A compass
  • Breadcrumb trails
  • As well as a ton of other things like weather sensors, health tracking and mobile notifications. Some models even have solar charging capabilities.

Aside from having reliable GPS connectivity, the best thing about dedicated devices like Garmin is that they’ve developed incredibly good battery life – up to 14 days worth.

Tip – If you like tech and decide to get a device of your own, get to know it well before you use it on the trails. Once you’re confident using it, step up your game by using it on a familiar trail before using it on an unknown one. 

Map and Compass

You’ll notice we’ve left using a map and compass as the last thing to mention. This is because this style of navigation is normally used to get from point A to point B, in a straight line. 

When you think about how many times a track bends, turns, switches back or loops, map and compass navigation would only get you along about every 20m on a trail – something you can actually see anyway!

Map and compass navigation is normally used when there is no trail.

And because of our love and respect for nature, OTBT will always recommend hiking only on the trails. Off trail is home for the roos, bandicoots, lizards, frogs, insects and birds and the bushland and forests they live in. We’re just visiting!

As hikers, we also have the added responsibility to protect our native flora from dieback which we pick up on our shoes.  

Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Basket

When it comes to navigation – don’t rely on just one thing.

For example, a digital breadcrumb app allows you to see exactly where you are on the trail and when combined with a paper map (or screenshot) of the actual trail route, you can make more informed decisions when reaching a confusing crosstrail.

Research an unfamiliar trail as much as possible.

Utilise all resources at your disposal. Check out website information, particularly TrailsWA and AllTrails. Visit local visitor centres for trail information and maps. Study trail maps and familiarise yourself with the track layout.  

Join groups like OTBT Connect where you can ask questions of other hikers.

And be present at all times.

With practice, you’ll become a navigation whizz in no time!