Learn Wilderness Travel and Route Finding
Updated: Jan 20
Wilderness travel, the art, and science of navigating your way through the backcountry is a necessary skill-set that will bring you to the base of climbs and mountains.
Whether you’re a sport climber looking to find your local crag, a boulderer in search of a pebble to wrestle, or an alpine climber attempting to summit big mountains, wilderness travel, and route-finding are skills that you will need to develop to move safely and efficiently through the mountains.
Below, we provide a list of tips to help you move and navigate more efficiently during your adventures. Remember, there is no substitute for going into the mountains and practicing your route-finding skills.
Navigating for Your Wilderness Adventure
Choose a Map and a Guide Book
Topographic maps (“topos”) are handy for navigation in the outdoors, and a good topographic map is often worth its weight in gold if you know how to use it effectively. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this article to provide an in-depth explanation on how to effectively use topographic maps. If you’re unfamiliar with how to use a topo, ask your local outdoor retailer or climbing gym if they provide short training courses. Being able to read a map effectively will open up the outdoors for your exploration.
When a topo is combined with a guidebook, a manual that gives specific directions to the base of climbs, most of the guesswork will be removed from your wilderness navigation. Guides vary in their overall quality, but climbers in your local area will often be able to tell you which books are worth buying. Some guidebooks are simple sketches, while others are thoughtful interpretations of topographic maps. Regardless, having a guidebook during your outdoor climbing can save you tons of effort while you’re route-finding.
Gather Season-Specific Route Information
It’s vital that you gather as much information as possible regarding the route you will be climbing, but also collect information regarding the climate and geology of an area you’re unfamiliar with. Climate is important to consider because climbers are often surprised by ecological variation while traveling to new areas. For example, in May, climbers that are familiar with the desert of Red Rock (Nevada) might be surprised if they go to the Grand Tetons and encounter snow. Check weather reports, call local sources and inquire about weather conditions, and gather as much information as possible regarding the climate of the areas you’re visiting.
Study the Mountains While You Approach
Being observant while approaching a mountain from afar can provide you with valuable insights regarding your destination. Viewing mountains from a distance can help you understand the terrain you’re entering and will help you choose the approach of least resistance. While approaching the mountain is the time to recognize prominent arêtes, ridges, chimneys, boulders, talus, snow, and other significant features on the mountain. When you’re up close to the rock face you will have a very narrow view of your surroundings, take advantage of the distant view while you have it.
Plan Your Descent/Return
Most injuries occur after mountaineers have reached the summit and/or completed their climb. Remember, reaching the peak or completing your climb is only half of the adventure. Returning from the summit is potentially more challenging because you’re physically and mentally fatigued from your climb.
For these reasons, it’s essential to plan your descent ahead of time so that you can safely navigate back to your car. If you’re climbing at a local crag, the descent and return is probably a short rappel and a walk back to the car. For those of us with aspirations of completing long multi-pitch climbs or summiting massive mountains, planning the descent is equally as important as preparing for the approach.
Think 100 Steps Ahead
Often, inexperienced or fatigued mountaineers will develop “tunnel vision” while they’re traversing mountain ranges. If you’re only thinking a few steps ahead and focusing on the terrain that’s immediately in front of your feet/face, you’re eventually going to hike or climb yourself into a dead end. By looking ahead, 100 steps or as far as the terrain will allow, you will save yourself significant time and energy by being able to smoothly move throughout the wilderness without having to backtrack or reconsider your route.
Watch for Hazards
There are a variety of hazards that are present in the wilderness. Some of these hazards are easy to spot, but others are easy to miss if you’re new to outdoor travel or you’re fatigued from a long day in the mountains. Specific hazards are theoretically easy to identify, such as dangerous animals or loose rocks, but can be easy to miss if the climber isn’t actively surveying their surroundings. Depending on your equipment or skill-level, things like snow, ice, and wet rock can be dangerous obstacles you’ll have to navigate around.
Actively identifying and navigating around potential hazards is essential for two reasons: 1) you obviously don’t want to be injured during your adventures; and 2) identifying risks in advance will save you copious amounts of time, if you don’t notice a hazard until it’s immediately in front of you then you will likely waste energ