Overland and Off-Road Navigation Basics
Two of the essential skills of overlanding and off-road travel are route planning and navigation. To plan a trip, you need to know where you are going and how you will get there. This will help dictate the skills, knowledge, resources, supplies, and equipment you’ll require. Once you’re on the road – or trail, as the case may be – you’ll need the skills, maps, and way-finding equipment to keep you on track.
Route planning and navigation are both complex subjects, so I’ll cover them in separate articles here at Ordealist. In this article, we’ll provide a high-level overview of the skills and equipment needed for successful overland and off-road navigation.
The old saying has it that adventure should be about the journey, not the destination. And I can get behind that spirit of being in the moment.
But I’m also inclined to believe that the essence of a successful overlanding expedition or off-road excursion is getting from one destination to another without becoming hopelessly – or dangerously – lost.
I’ve had a number of experiences getting lost in the backcountry. Several years ago, for example, I headed to Southern California for a weekend of off-the-grid exploration and camping. I had used Gaia GPS, a GPS navigation app, to plan out my routes in advance, but soon after I headed off-road, I realized I’d made a mistake – I’d forgotten to download the topographic maps to my phone for offline use.
I had no mobile service, so my GPS app was useless. On top of that, I’d also forgotten to bring paper maps as a backup. I was basically flying blind and as a result had to limit how far I could get into the backcountry for fear of getting dangerously lost.
I share this story to emphasize that backcountry navigation relies on skills and equipment (GPS, compass, maps, etc). That weekend, I failed on both accounts. I failed the skills test by failing to bring the proper equipment.
Below, we’ll first focus on the basic skills needed to navigate successfully, then take a deeper dive into different navigation aids, including maps, compasses, and GPS navigation apps.
I suspect that over the past decade, the navigation skills of much of the human species have rapidly degraded. I’m as guilty as anyone. My time living in San Diego, California, has roughly corresponded to the rise of GPS navigation devices in vehicles and on smartphones. As a result, my ability to navigate San Diego by memory, without Google maps or Waymo, is far worse than in other cities I’ve lived in for similar amounts of time.
The problem with this, other than the occasional panic of being rendered totally dependent on our robot overlords, is that you can’t always rely on electronic devices and apps for wayfinding. This is particularly true in rural areas, certain foreign countries, and in the backcountry.
With this in mind, I’m first going to cover the basics of navigation, sans GPS technology. You may rarely need to operate without your handy GPS-enable device. But it’s also true that if you are serious about overlanding and off-roading, you will, at some point, very likely need to find your way without one.
Whenever you travel to an unfamiliar place, it’s a good idea to bring a paper map with you. For vehicle-based adventures, this often means bringing maps that
- cover both wide areas, such as a map book that covers a US state, and
- finer-scale topographic maps for backcountry areas where you will need a finer-scale understanding of the terrain.
Learning how to read a map is an essential skill for both on and off-pavement exploration, and there are many resources online to help you get the hang of it. Gaia GPS offers a nice intro to reading topographic maps. The US Geological Survey publishes a guide to topographic map symbols that’s a great resource.
Using a Compass and GPS
While we are on the topic of using topographic maps, it’s a good place to talk about the use of a compass. Compasses were probably first developed in the 11th or 12th century in China, and humans have been relying on them for getting around since then. In addition to maps, the compass is the second key piece of equipment you’ll need.
The basic utility of a compass of course is that the compass needle points to magnetic north, which provides a reference from which to use a map and the terrain to orient yourself and plot a course (hence the term “orienteering”).
It’s very common nowadays to use GPS devices to orient yourself while in the backcountry. Short for global positioning system, GPS devices use a network of satellites to triangulate your position on the planet. The FAA has a nice primer here.
In most cases, when I’m out of reach of cell tower signals, I simply use a GPS app on my smartphone. A quick word of caution: make sure whatever device you are planning to use for backcountry mapping does in fact have GPS capabilities. If the device requires access to cell towers to triangulate your location, as opposed to GPS satellites, they won’t work when out of range.
Learn to use your GPS navigation system BEFORE you use it in the backcountry or anywhere that you really need it to work. Try your system out around town to see if you can get from place to place. It’s better if you get lost on the way to the beer store (still heart breaking, I know), than when you are deep in the boonies. I once spent 10 hours completely lost on Canadian fire roads because noone on the trip had a working GPS system.
Even if you have a GPS navigation device, you should bring a traditional compass and know how to use it. Electronic devices aren’t fail-proof, and if your GPS device craps out when you are in the thick of it, you’ll be glad you have a backup.
There are tons of books and YouTube videos that will teach you the basics of using a map and compass. I personally learned the basics in the Boy Scouts many moons ago and again later from the NOLs handbook, which I highly recommend as a basic primer for backcountry travel. If you really want to dive deep into orienteering, Orienteering USA is the organization that oversees competitive orienteering events in the US. They offer introductory and advanced courses on orienteering.
Navigation Aids and Technology
We’ve talked about some of the tools needed for effective off-road and overland navigation, including maps and GPS systems. Below we’ll go into more detail on the various tools you can use to stay on course.
REI, National Geographic, and Garmin are all good sources for finding road maps as well as backcountry topographic maps. The National Forest Services offers topographic maps for National Forests and BLM lands in the United States that can be downloaded as digital copies for free or ordered in print for a fee. USGS also has an online map service where you can search for maps of US lands. It takes a little messing around to figure the system out, but it’s pretty handy once you do.
Large-Scale Road Maps
There are a number of companies that make high-quality road maps, including Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer, Rand McNalley, National Geographic, and Michelin. Many of these paper map companies have expanded their offerings in recent decades to also offer GPS map services that run on computers, tablets, and smartphones.
The scale of paper road maps will vary depending on their level of detail. For instance, the Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer maps for California are on a 1:200,000 scale, meaning that every inch equals 3.16 miles. In this case, the book contains 140 pages, which include maps of all the different regions of California.
Backcountry Topographic Maps
Topographic maps offer more detail about the terrain than your typical road map. In particular, they include topographic lines that show concentric elevation bands to indicate the topography of terrain. Some of the road maps mentioned above (those by Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer and National Geographic come to mind) often come as topographic maps.
Topographic maps come in handy when you are traveling through remote locations where roads may not be clearly marked and cross through rugged terrain.
For reference, the standard scale of USGS topographic maps is 7.5 minutes, which means the map covers 7 minutes and 30 seconds of longitude by 7 minutes and 30 seconds of latitude. This equates to 1:24,000 scale, where every inch on the map equates to 0.38 miles of real-world terrain.
Guide books are another terrific tool for overland navigation. Back in the 1990s, before we had the internet at our fingertips constantly, my wife and I explored quite a bit of Japan in a minivan with the help of Lonely Planet guides. Guide books were also essential on trips around Southeast Asia and China.
Guidebooks provide you with qualitative information that it’s impossible to glean from a map or GPS navigation system. They can tell you the best places to find supplies, what landmarks to look for in difficult-to-navigate places, dangers to avoid, and much other info. They often also contain informative schematic maps.
There is a range of guidebooks that can be helpful. Some are general travel guides to certain regions, national parks, or cities. Look for the ones that cater to outdoor enthusiasts and include info on trails, campgrounds, and scenic byways. In a few cases, you can find off-road trail guides, which are really handy. REI’s maps and book section is a great place to start if you are planning to travel within the United States. If you are traveling outside the United States, check out Lonely Planet’s collection of guides.
Anyway, I’m veering a bit into route planning here, which is not the focus of this article. Suffice it to say that I like to bring a hard copy of a guidebook to places I’m exploring to help me get around.
It’s important to know how to use a compass and paper map, but most people now use a mapping and navigation app with a GPS-enabled device.
The benefits of GPS devices are many. You can carry a massive number of maps in very little space and download more from anywhere you have a mobile cell signal or internet connection. You locate and follow your precise location on a map in real-time. And you can set a route and follow a route with relative ease.
The downsides include potential device failure, the need to keep batteries charged, and reliance on satellite signals, which can be dicey in certain locations. Also, it’s easy to become complacent and rely on technology at the expense of learning basic navigation skills – hence the section above.
When GPS navigation devices first came out, they were mostly integrated into vehicles at the factory, so the software and hardware (and vehicle for that matter) came as a package.
Since then, handheld trackers, such as those made by Garmin have become more popular as they can be used both in a vehicle and while hiking, bicycling or boating. You can use one device for multiple purposes.
With the rise of smartphones and GPS navigation apps such as Gaia GPS and onX, it’s now possible to use a GPS-enabled smartphone as your primary navigation device.
This decoupling of apps and devices has the added advantage of allowing you to use the same mapping system on multiple devices. For instance, I use Gaia GPS and can run it on my phone and on a tablet or a laptop. This allows me to do my planning on a laptop, which I find easier, and then navigate using a tablet when I’m in my Jeep driving and my smartphone when I’m hiking.
That said, there are a few things to keep in mind if you plan to use a phone or tablet as your GPS navigation device:
- Make sure your smartphone or tablet has a GPS receiver. You don’t want to rely on cell towers in the backcountry.
- Using GPS mapping software is energy intensive. Make sure you have enough charge/recharge capacity to operate your GPS navigation system when you need it.
- Download needed maps before you are offline. Unless you have something like Starlink (satellite-based internet), you will not be able to download maps once you’ve lost your internet connection.
If already have a smartphone or tablet, the lowest barrier to entry is probably downloading and subscribing to a GPS app. Also, using your phone/tablet and using a dedicated GPS device isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive. You could get a standalone device as a backup for your smartphone in addition to having paper maps and compasses.
Lastly, some satellite messaging apps have GPS capabilities that let them be used as a compass. Some, such as the Garmin inReach, allow you to use their GPS system to track your position on an integrated smartphone app.
For more info and recommendations on GPS systems, check out our guide to GPS apps and dedicated GPS devices.
Road Navigation Apps
While a backcountry-focused mapping app like those we mentioned above (Gaia, onX, etc) is very helpful when you get off-grid, in many situations, you’ll be within range of a cell signal. In that case, Google Maps, Waymo, Apple Maps and other mainstream navigation apps do a terrific job — in some countries.
One way to make these apps even more useful is to get a cell signal booster for your vehicle. These devices extend the connectivety range of your smartphone or other wireless device so that you can use them further afield. The weBoost 4G-X is a popular model among vehicle-based adventure enthusiasts.