Macro vs Micro navigation

Backcountry navigation is a cornerstone of the outdoor experience.

Be it something as simply following white blazes for months or planning, mapping out and following one’s own path, it means all backcountry travelers navigate on some level.

Backcountry navigation can be divided into two broad categories in my opinion: Macro and Micro navigation.

Macro navigation is something that can initially be learned in a classroom setting, books or online videos. And once the classroom basics are learned, easy enough to practice in the field.

Using a map, compass or GPS to reach a high point, a lake and then using streams and forest service roads as handrails and backstops are fairly easy tasks to accomplish with some basic skills and applied knowledge.


Thunderbolt Creek makes a good handrail. The Buchanan Trail is an example of a backstop. With these features, difficult to get LOST (versus temporarily misplaced).

Micro navigation is the fine art of making adjustments along the way to get to the said place spotted on the macro level.


Obvious what gap we need to hike through on a macro level. But how best to get there? Traveling to this gap requires micro navigation.

And so on.

Obvious where we need to go. But lots of adjustments and navigating along the way. Don’t go to far to the left, go back up, traverse a bit more, etc.

And the best way to get this experience? Is to get out there. Practice. Get out there some more. And practice even more.  Every backcountry person needs to get out there and hone their skills as much as possible. Myself included.

If you have the skill set for both micro and macro navigation, you are no longer confined to pre-made lettered routes and trails with pre-defined goals and points of travel. Topo maps, some Google satellite views and a backcountry road atlas become your planning tools instead of a guidebook, trail specific apps and pre-defined waypoints. Trails or routes that do not have “Class of 2016” groups on Facebook and organized hiker feeds.

More wildness and less of a social experience.

The lettered routes can be fun. But there is so much more out there to see.

With the appropriate skills, the backcountry becomes open.

A place to explore, seek out new areas and only your personal comfort, safety and skill levels setting the parameters for an appropriate trip.

So learn to navigate, get out there and have fun in the backcountry.

Learn to navigate on a macro level.

But only field experience will give the micro navigation skills needed.

And it is a lot more fun than going to gear sales or putting together a  gear spreadsheet, too. 😉

Want to read more about navigation in the backcountry? Check out this presentation I did for ALDHA-W and also this article I wrote for TrailGroove

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