how do u orient yourself walking off trail? do u bring a compass?
Unfortunately for you you’ve just asked a question I love talking about, so I’m going to give you a very detailed answer…
First thing’s first: there’s a lot of different types of terrain across the US, not to mention the world, and navigating across each of them is a bit different. I have the most experience navigating mountainous regions in large stretches of public land, so a lot of my instincts come from that, and even though the navigational skills I’ve developed are pretty translatable I’m still pretty far on my back foot if I’m set in an entirely new ecosystem. Using your home court advantage is the first step to navigation. For me, the best example of this is that there’s certain distinctive mountain peaks in my area that I know will be in a specific direction relative to me. In order to get those sorts of landmarks established in your mind, its helpful to have a memory device of some sort attached to them. For example, there’s a particularly dramatic looking peak with a distinctive cliffside that - as long as I can see its sheer drop - I know means I’m standing west of it. That in itself means the mountain is more or less due east, which I remember by associating that mountain with all my friends who live east of me out in Chicago and New York and boston and michigan and what else have you. Almost everything is east of me. That also means the west is at my back, which I remember by recalling how much I dislike Californians. From there North and South are pretty obvious.
Anyway, regarding compasses: they’re a great navigational tool, especially when they’re paired with a topo map. Even so, the use of both isn’t necessarily as intuitive as you might think, and although I was taught wilderness survival and avalanche preparedness for a week every year in grade school I have to imagine that’s not the norm most places. As far as compasses go, the first piece of advice I’d give is not to trust one that’s attached to anything else. The compass on a whistle or the zipper of your jacket or even the one on your phone are going to be hardly better than a magnetized needle in a bowl of water, since they’ll only give you a shaky sense of magnetic north - which is not in itself even the same thing as true north. That said, an expensive compass isn’t really necessary either. A basic suunto compass is really all you need, because it’ll allow you to set the declination (basically, the distance in degrees between magnetic north and true north in the area where you are) which can almost always be found on your topographic map. Following magnetic north rather than true north can get you hundreds of yards off of your course for every mile you walk. Regarding topographic maps, they’re hugely helpful, but they’re also not hyper-accurate. Lots of smaller landmarks will be left off, and larger landmarks are prone to change even within the year or two since the map was last printed. Avalanches or glacier movements can throw off your interpretation of a region pretty significantly. Still, finding larger landmarks such as lakes and ridges and making sure they appear where you expect them to is enormously helpful. A topographic map is also going to provide you with a general sense of the flow of the land, most importantly in terms of which general direction the ridges you are navigating seem to travel. Adding your own deductive reasoning helps flesh out any sense of place you might be missing. If you come across a stream that isn’t marked, you can still infer that it likely comes from snow runoff from the mountain it is leading away from, and is traveling toward a larger body of water that is likely marked on your map. If you can find the peak and the lake, you then know roughly where you are. If you want to pinpoint your location more precisely, you can scan around for a third landmark, find it on your map, and triangulate your position using your compass. I’d also recommend marking points of interest on your map. I often do that with locations that seem popular with animals, just because that’s of interest to me, but more concrete locations are much smarter. I also find that I tend to remember things best if I say them aloud, so often as I walk past a point of interest I might say to myself “giant-ass boulder next to a lightning-struck tree, and I’m heading north of them”.
Technology is also a good idea. I’ve been meaning to buy a GPS unit, probably a Garmin, but I haven’t wanted to drop the money yet. I do use an app called onX Hunt, because it has really detailed coverage of topography and private land, so I can make sure I’m heading into public areas and not the buffer forest to somebody’s ranch (especially since people around here really love their castle doctrine). Generally, though, I wouldn’t recommend relying on your phone.
If worst comes to worst, there’s a few fail safes you can always count on. Following a river downstream is a good bet, as is following the slope of the land downhill. There tends to be more civilization in valleys than on top of mountains. The North Star is a well-known and reliable one, as is the sun rising in the east and setting in the west (although it’s important to remember that with the exception of the equinoxes it’s never EXACTLY due east or west). If you see a large flock of geese or ducks flying above you you can know that their v shape points toward south in the fall and north in the spring. The idea that moss grows on any particular side of a tree is a fake one, don’t bother with it. To that point: never do anything you’ve seen Bear Grylls do. The guy’s a reality star, and his entire job is to overdramaticize and sensationalize the situations he goes into. Usually the solutions he comes up with are the absolute last resort anyone with any wilderness sense would ever attempt, and there’s a dozen much safer and less stupid things you can try first. I won’t pretend there’s no risk at all. Especially in areas like the intermountain west and Alaska - where there’s huge stretches of public backcountry land that isn’t groomed and maintained in the way that your typical hiking trails are, but is still there for public recreational use - there are plenty of ways to get yourself hurt. I know a handful of people who have died or been seriously injured out there, and once a month or so I’ll hear the search and rescue helicopters flying around the mountain where I live. But it’s also worth considering that going into the backcountry is my state’s favorite pastime, whether it’s for skiing or hiking or snowshoeing or snowmobiling or horseback riding or hunting or fishing or camping or rock climbing or mountaineering or 100 other possibilities. It can be dangerous out there, but the source of that danger is largely just that the safety net of society has been removed from you. You’re far and away more likely to burn yourself on your own campfire because you weren’t being smart than you are to be attacked by a mountain lion. And even if you get yourself in a sticky situation, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to get yourself out of it. One of my uncles in particular has had to be picked up by search and rescue a handful of times, because he likes wandering off trail but neglects to pay much attention to the direction he’s doing it. He’s still alive, healthy, and perfectly happy.
Anyway, as for me personally, my favorite reason to go off trail is to follow animal tracks (and to just generally get miles away from the nearest human being). The winter is a great time to do it, because the presence and freshness of the tracks is often extremely obvious. On a good day, it’s easy to head in and follow something for miles, only to turn around and backtrack your own trail to your car. Still, I wouldn’t let that be your one and only source of navigation, since a sudden winter storm or an unexpected amount of melt could screw the whole thing over.
That’s much more answer than you likely expected or wanted, but hope at least some of it was helpful to you! Have a good one.