Category: Navigation

Practical Off-Road Navigation Tips

By Nena Barlow

This article originally appeared on

One of the keys to a successful backcountry trip is not just finding a cool place to go but also safely finding your way back out. Orientation is knowing where you are. Navigation is knowing where you are going. Route-finding is knowing how to get there. While not all of us are tech whizzes with every new navigation gadget, nor are we all masters of compass and map, I find having a few simple tools and skills can help you through even the most difficult route-finding scenarios.

I recommend everyone carry a compass with a base plate that can help you measure or plot coordinates on a map. A compass can be used to take a bearing on the map to someplace you want to go. Then, using that same heading, look that direction on the terrain and see what landmarks you may use to guide you in that direction. A compass can be used to take a heading to someplace that you can see off in the distance, and then plot that heading on the map to help you plan a route. If you need to be precise, check the declination adjustment for the area you are exploring before you leave for the backcountry.

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Maps and Route Planning

With warmer weather just around the corner (according to the groundhog), now is a good time to go through all the stuff you need to prepare for a fun and safe 4x4 excursion. The topic today is MAPS.

One of the questions I am asked the most is "What's a good map to buy?" The challenge is that there is no one map source for everything everywhere. I have shelves full of maps, atlases and software for exploring where I may be headed. I recommend that you check with at least three different sources for current information about where you plan to visit. I will share some of my favorites, but they may not have editions available in your area. If nothing else, it may help you to research what you DO need and find something published for your region.

An atlas is a good place to start for trail exploring. They won't give much detail on the condition of the roads, or even represent every tiny side trail out there, but they will give you a general lay of the land and usually better detail on all main access roads than the local land use maps. They will also represent different land status boundaries: Forest Service, BLM, private property, state trust land, reservation, etc. My favorite series is the Delorme Atlas & Gazeteer, available at Amazon and many local retailers. These measure approximately 11"x16", and open up to 2-pages per view, for a good studying size!

I use National Geographic TOPO software to review terrain, load my GPS, and print for reference. The State editions give the best detail. Keep in mind that some of these surveys date back to the 60's, so roads may or may not exist as indicated--use the data for topographical reference and navigation. Available at

As you get closer to deciding where you plan to explore, invest in the maps produced by your local land use management, like US Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management (Coconino National Forest, shown above). All of them will have maps printed with current legal roads, but most of them will only show main access roads, not the more desirable Jeep roads. In more popular recreational areas, more detailed maps may be available from the land management office (aka ranger station or visitor center).

Find the Verde Valley Recreation map and other local information here:

In very well-known recreational areas, there are usually a variety of retail maps produced to meet the demand for trail information. These providers are usually locals who know the lay of the land very well, and ONLY that local area.

In the western US, we are blessed with some very dedicated authors for creating trail books that include not only maps, but driving tips, points of interest, and give a comprehensive overview for driving the particular trails. The most consistent author for the Southwest US is Charles Wells with his Backroads and 4-wheel-drive Trails series, available at:

You can always try for very detailed individual trail maps that you can download and print instantly, but the site has limited trails of the southwest, and the author seems to be too busy Jeeping, instructing, and writing about maps, than actually producing more of them (wink).



No matter how much good printed material is available, conditions can and do change, and the burden of responsibility is on YOU as the trail user, not the map printer or the land use management. Always check with local 4x4 clubs or 4wd shops about current conditions. Many of them won't be willing to tell you where the trails are, but if you know where you are going, they will be happy to give you condition updates. Each state has an association of 4-wheel-drive clubs--google it, then find a club in the area you are visiting.

If you are ever in Sedona, stop by or call our shop for local trail conditions: (928) 282-8700

Happy trails!

GPS Locators: No Substitute for Proper Preparation

This week's blog is brief, but, once again, focuses on bad behavior.

By now, most of us have heard about or used a "Personal GPS Locator"--a device that allows you to use satellite communication to send a distress call. I often mention these during 4x4 clinics as a good tool to have in your bag of self-preservation goodies.

However, it is recently coming to public attention that GPS locators are being abused, wasting the resources of various emergency services for such trivial things as being scared by a thunderstorm, having bad-tasting water, or just an accidental activation. My favorite quote from a Search and Rescue administrator says "you send a message to a satellite and the government pulls your butt out of something you shouldn’t have been in in the first place.”

Though having a GPS-based locator can save lives, it should NEVER be used as a substitute for good preparation, including having adequate water, maps, a thorough weather and trail conditions check, and--what I hesitate to call "common" sense--a general awareness of one's surroundings, one's capabilities (and limitations) and a little knowledge about handling "the unexpected."

Even having a locator doesn't mean that you will have adequate signal or that conditions will allow rescuers to get to you. One should always approach a venture into the backcountry with the attitude that "no one is coming to rescue me--I have to rely on myself to get out and back", and plan accordingly, even if that plan means scrapping the excursion altogether. Know when NOT to go.

For a thorough article about the rising misuse of GPS locators, see

For more information on one specific device that I have used with great satisfaction, visit:

Happy trails!