Backpacking the Wind River Range (Wyoming)

Navigating A Wilderness Area Using Terrain


Land Navigation is a topic that I enjoy writing and talking about.  Modern technology, such as GPS units have made it much easier for wilderness backpackers to head out and safely navigate wilderness terrain.  I enjoy using this technology, but I also know that this technology can run out of power, (batteries dying), or the satellite network may go down. When these unexpected events happen it could leave you lost in the wilderness. Knowing basic land navigation skills will keep you from getting lost.

Using a map and compass is becoming a lost skill as our society advances.  This article is about a basic land navigational skill know as terrain association. Using this method requires you to visually identify terrain features around you. This method can be used without a compass and map but I do not recommend you doing this. You should have a compass and map with you so you can identify these terrain features on your map. There may be a situation for whatever reason that you do not have a compass and map and using terrain association is a field expedient way to for you to navigate.

Wind River Range (Wyoming) Bridger Wilderness
Wind River Range (Wyoming) In this picture you have various terrain features that you can visually use (Hilltops, saddles, spurs, draws)

Terrain association is an ancient method that has been used by adventurers of the past and it is still be used today by many backpackers. Terrain association can help you stay on track or it can guide you from one point to another and back.  To use terrain association you need to be able to identify the 5 major and 3 minor terrain features on a map.  You may also use other prominent landmarks in the wilderness area such as large boulders, trees, or other objects to help you navigate. Below is a review of the 5 major and 3 minor terrain features.

5 Major Terrain Features


An area of high ground sloping down in all directions. You can use a hilltop as a reference point as you navigate to it.


A low point between two areas of high ground (Hilltop). A saddle is another good reference point to navigate to.


A sloping line of high ground in 3 directions. You can use a ridge as a path to follow and return back to your original starting point.


An area formed by streams or rivers. You may use a valley or stream as a guidance point as you are navigating.


A low point or sinkhole. A depression is a good reference point

Backpacking the Superstition Mountains (Tonto National Forest)
Superstition Mountains (Tonto National Forest)

3 Minor Terrain Features


An area jutting out from a ridge. A spur can be used as a reference point


A less developed stream course with the ground sloping upward in 3 directions. A draw can be used as a reference point.


A drop-off or abrupt change in various terrain. A cliff can be used as a reference point.

Backpacking the Superstition Mountains (Tonto National Forest)
Superstition Mountains (Tonto National Forest)

Using the above terrain features along with a compass and map is a solid foundation for navigating in ay wilderness area.  Using terrain is one technique but you can also use other prominent landmarks to navigate. These can be.

  • Rivers
  • Streams
  • Lakes
  • Rock Cairns
  • Large boulders, trees, or other land-made structures such as towers.
  • Trails
  • Game trails

My favorite way to bushwhack is to use a river, stream, or creek.  This feature makes it much easier for you to navigate in all environments or weather.   Terrain association has its advantages for quick travel, but it also has its disadvantage when you are in low lying areas where there is thick vegetation and you have difficulty identifying specific terrain features or prominent landmark.  In this situation you need to have a compass with a good pace count as you travel from point to point much slower due to the thick vegetation.

Land navigation should be practiced before entering a wilderness area. When you are on your adventure take time to stop and identify these features or landmarks.  Many times, backpackers are so involved with getting in the distance/miles and they miss out on the wonders around them.  These wonders may save your life or the lives of others when you use them to navigate in a wilderness area.   

Short Video Clip on Using Terrain