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Trail Tip: Navigating by Elevation

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Aaron Zagrodnick

While wilderness navigation is comprised of many techniques that could range from terrain association to triangulation to utilizing a gps enabled device, normally navigation will involve multiple techniques that when used together, help us keep track of our current location throughout the day and keep us on track as we move towards our backcountry destination of choice. One technique that can be utilized and that’s especially helpful in mountainous terrain is adding altitude into the equation. By knowing your approximate elevation, combined with another terrain feature shown on a map along with a general idea of where you’re at in the first place, your near exact location can be kept track of during the day. For example, by knowing your elevation as well as the trail that you’re on your approximate location can then be pinpointed on a map, even in deep forest...

In our latest tip we look at navigating by way of elevation, take a look in Issue 42:

Navigation by Elevation

Navigation by Elevation when Backpacking and Hiking

Issue 42 Page 1

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Elevation is a great addition to helping stay found / located.  Being a little old school, I tend to rely on magnetic bearing, elevation, terrain features, triangulation and the forgotten Ranger Beads to know how far I've gone.  The Ranger Beads used when "Dead Reckoning" will get you extremely close to your destination w/o the GPS. 


  1. Know your current location (Or find it)
  2. GPS Batteries are dead
  3. It's getting dark.
  4. You know your bearing and distance to your destination - camping spot / meetup place / trailhead 
  5.  The Ranger Beads have 9 beads on the lower portion with each representing 100 meters and four on the top portion, which equal 4 km + 5 km when they are all pushed back up and you start over
  6. Need to know your pace for 100 meters
  7. Every 100 meters you pull down one bead on the lower portion until you pull down the 9th
  8. Next Pull Down One bead on the top = 1 km
  9. Pull the lower beads up and start over.

Recently I tested the distance using the Ranger Beads against the GPS and was within 10 meters with the Beads.  62 paces  - For me and is counted only on the left foot.  Pace off 100 meters only counting either your left or right step/foot to determine the correct number of paces for you.  Then every 100 meters pull one bead down on the lower until you reach the nine beads and the next 100 meters you pull one bead down from the top and push the lower beads backup and start over.  (Hope this makes sense.)

Below is:  2.5 km


If you truly get lost stay close to the trail and hug a tree - stay in one place.  It will be much easier to find you.  Take it from a former Mountain Rescue Helicopter Pilot. 

Take the time to read "Trail Tip: Navigation by Elevation" by Aaron Zagrodnick in Trail Groove #42.  Great information.

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Aaron Zagrodnick

Glad you found some good info in the article and thanks for the information / insight on the ranger beads. Normally I use time and average pace as a close enough indicator combined with the map and landmarks, but tracking paces compared to estimating pace is an interesting - and from your GPS test results — accurate technique!

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