How to Navigate in the Backcountry

How to Navigate in the Backcountry. 

I have never gotten lost, I have however taken extended and prolonged detours from the previously agreed route whilst not necessarily being certain of my current location. 

In reality getting slightly lost is one of my favourite ways to explore the backcountry, it has led me to some amazing places, but it is important to know how to reverse the getting lost phenomenon to prevent any disasters. Hopefully we can give you a few helpful hints with our Theme for May 2020 – how to navigate in the backcountry. 

Backroads Map Books:

Possibly the most essential piece of kit we supply with our overland vehicle rentals in British Columbia, if you don’t have one for the area you are exploring, they are incredible and well worth the investment. 

For a full guide or to purchase your own – visit the backroad map books website:


Using your Mapbook: Learn the Legend / Map Key

  • It’s pretty important to know the difference in the roads and to identify key features and symbols as this will save you a lot of hassle and possibly take a road you aren’t suited to. 


  • Familiarize yourself with the Map Key and map pages you will be visiting – I use sticky notes/paper clips to make the area i am currently in so that i can flip to the pages easier. 

Forest Service Roads

Once you leave the tarmac behind, it can be a bit tricky to navigate the forest service roads. 

Take the extra time to double check the names of the service roads, some are easier to identify than others depending on whether or not they are being actively used commercially. 


Keep an eye on the route markers, alot of active logging roads will have markers – for example ‘Rosander Main – 21km up’ which obviously lets you know you are 21kms up the rosander main which makes very useful orientation points. 

Make a couple of reference points along the way – ie a connecting road, camp, landmark, bridge, river etc. This helps to ensure you are on the right path. 

When driving on logging roads remember

  1. Lights on!
  2. Pull over for industrial vehicles!
  3. Don’t Speed!


Take note of the scale of the map, this is crucially so you can identify the distance in between landmarks you are using for reference. How does the scale correspond to real distances? For example, one inch on a 1:24,000-scale map equals what distance in the field.

Contours/Shading/Points of Interest

Familiarize yourself with contour lines and how to relate them to the topography. This helps to confirm your location when you are trying to orient yourself and also the type of terrain you might encounter. 

Keep an eye on what the different areas mean – i.e green shading is a conservation/park area. 

What to do if you get lost.

Let’s say you have temporarily become unsure of your current surroundings. 

  1. Don’t Panic
  2. Try to determine your current location by looking for a landmark and then relating them to the symbols and landmarks on the map.
  3. Try to determine North, South etc and check to see if the landmarks equate to the map landmarks to confirm you have oriented yourself correctly. 

Now you have oriented yourself – GREAT!

  1. Now time to check the directions for where you are going – keep checking with the route with key landmarks along the way as mentioned above. 

Remember – STOP:

S: Sit – Stop what you are doing and take a breath, sit down and have a drink to calm your nerves. 

T: Think – Where were you last sure of your surroundings, can you identify any of your current landmarks. 

O: Observe – Take a compass reading, observe the map for key landmarks, look out for any weather hazards. 

P: Plan – What’s the gameplan? Call for help if possible? Back track?

What if you truly have no idea where you are?

Assuming you have no phone signal 🙁

Luckily for our clients all our overland vehicle rentals in Canada come equipped with a 2 way GPS messenger, our SPOT Gen X Device!

See below for how to use it. 

Using our SPOT SOS Device and Messenger.

Remember if it isn’t an emergency – DO NOT press the SOS function

If it isn’t an emergency and you can wait a little bit to help locate yourself or get an answer then definitely use the email/SMS function. 

Communication Features:

Email: In my experience this seems to go through quicker and easier than a SMS – our customer support team for all our Overland Clients in Canada checks both email and phone 24/7 to help any clients in situations.

SMS: You can use the SMS function to send to a mobile number

Check-in: If you had arranged to previously check in along the way with base – then you can quickly and easily use the check-in feature to send your location. 

Elevation / Location: In both the email and SMS function you can also send your current location and elevation to the person you are contacting. 

Using the device:

  • Keep this device on at all times.
  •  Keep the device plugged into charge when not in use.
  • Never press the SOS button unless in an absolute emergency
  •  For minor incidents or that don’t need immediate attention, use the 2 way messenger to contact the office. 1

Sending a message:

  1.     Select messages from the main menu and subsequent sub-menu. 
  2.     Select the ‘compose message’ icon.
  3.     Message will open and you will have the ‘TO:’ field highlighted – toggle to the right to open the contacts menu and select. 

Phone icon indicates an SMS contact, the ‘@’ icon indicates and email contact. 

  1.     Write your message.
  2.     At the bottom of the screen, you have options to select elevation and GPS location, toggle over the check-box and press select to turn these 2 functions on.
  3.     Send message.


Latest Posts

How to Navigate in the Backcountry

How to Navigate in the Backcountry.  I have never gotten lost, I have however taken extended and prolonged detours from the previously agreed route whilst
Read more