Category Archives: on-track navigation

Different ‘Ways’

Recognising different kinds of pathways, tracks and trails in the bush

There are many different types of bushwalking pathways, tracks and trails across Australia. Some routes have proper concrete paths, while others are merely the faintest trace of a track. Collectively, they are known as ‘ways’, a rather awkward and confusing word considering it has other meanings too! Nevertheless, it’s the best word to describe tracks, trails, sealed pathways, metal boardwalks and so on.

While some ‘ways’ are well maintained with signposts and facilities, others have irregular signposting or none at all. Some, but not all ‘ways’ are marked on maps, distinguished by different colours and line thicknesses.

Recognising from a map the different ‘ways’ the route follows is helpful. If you have a sense of how well-defined (or not) the route is, you’ll be well prepared for sections that are vague or not well signposted. Hence if something different appears, then alarm bells sound. It gives you time to stop and double-check that you’re still going the right way.

Sealed road Features of a sealed road

Sealed roads are recognised as properly formed and constructed road surfaces made with materials such as tar, bitumen, or concrete.

Some bushwalks make use of sealed roads to connect between sections of bush or national parks. Take care of vehicles and other motor traffic when using these roads. Walk on the right-hand side of the road to face oncoming traffic.

Sealed roads are typically depicted as solid red lines on topographic maps.
urbanroads – red

Unsealed road Features of an unsealed road

Unsealed roads are categorised as routes accessible by vehicles that are not sealed, metalled, or gravel roads.

Bushwalks will commonly use unsealed roads to connect between different sections of bush. As with sealed roads, take care of vehicles and other motor traffic when using these roads. Walk on the right-hand side of the road to face oncoming traffic.

Unsealed roads are typically depicted as solid orange lines on topographic maps:
urbanroads – orange solid

Management trail Features of a management trail

Management trails are used by land managers to access the areas they look after. They are not generally open to public vehicles. Management trails include fire-trails, which have strategic importance for fighting bushfires. They are usually an unsealed surface, about the width of a 4×4 car, with tire markings or ruts on the trail. Fire trails have contour banks to control erosion and track degradation, and sometimes passing bays or areas for vehicles to turn around.

Many bushwalks follow firetrails as they provide relatively easy walking. Although vehicles are rare, still take care when walking these roads.

Management trails are typically depicted as dashed orange lines on a topographic maps. Longer orange dashes indicate it is a vehicular track. Shorter orange dashes indicate a four-wheel drive track.
FireTrail vs Tracks – orange dashed

Path Features of a path

Paths are sealed walkways. They are generally flatter trails, and some are wheelchair user accessible.

In Australia, only a few of these paths exist, and they are generally short distances to a lookout.

Sealed paths, boardwalks and tracks are not generally drawn differently on topographic maps. They are represented by dashed black lines.
FireTrail vs Tracks – black  2

Boardwalk Features of a boardwalk

Boardwalks are used in areas with sensitive vegetation or boggy, muddy walking areas. They are quite common in Tasmania, as well as wetland areas. Sealed paths, boardwalks and tracks are not generally depicted differently on topographic maps.
FireTrail vs Tracks – black (3)

Track Features of a track

In Australia, a track is an unsealed pathway (except Victoria, where a ‘management trail’ is a ‘management track’, and a ‘walking track’ is a ‘walking trail’). Many bushwalks are tracks, some with better signposting than others.

Sealed paths, boardwalks and tracks are not generally depicted differently on topographic maps.
FireTrail vs Tracks – black 1

Faint tracks Features of a faint track

Faint tracks are standard on Grade 5/6 walks. These tracks might be overgrown, poorly maintained, or never a track in the first place but just a pad that has developed over time. Sometimes, animals will create tracks across ridgelines or down to waterways that provide easier walking for bushwalkers.

Faint tracks are generally not depicted on topographic maps.

Following the plan

How to follow a bushwalking plan

Before starting any bushwalk, you will make a plan. Then on the bushwalk, the navigation side of things is about following that plan, and updating it if things change.

Micro-navigation How to micro-navigate

Micro-navigation is when a navigation task is broken down into small pieces. A whole journey comprises of an infinite number of micro-navigation decisions, the result being getting from point A to point B.

Micro-navigation involves noticing the tiniest of features on a map. Things like, for instance, the number of twists in a river, a subtle change in the direction of a ridgeline, an implied knoll. Maps are a wealth of information once you start to examine these details, and they provide a much clearer picture on how you are traveling through the landscape.

Being able to micro-navigate is highly advantageous in poor weather conditions too. For instance, when visibility is poor, being able to recognise subtle nearby features could make the world of difference to understanding where you are in the landscape.

Group navigation Why your input is so important

When you’re starting out, it’s easy to feel quite self-conscious about your navigation skills compare to others that have been practicing for longer. So it’s easy to let someone else take the lead and make decisions. Remember, everyone has to start somewhere, and navigation is one of those things that only gets easier with practice.

Never be afraid to shout out when you don’t think things make sense. The more people in the group that keep an eye out for stuff, the less likely you are to go wrong. So many groups have blindly followed the person at the front only to realise half an hour later that they’ve gone in entirely the wrong direction! A short two-minute conversation to figure out where the group is on the right way can save hours of backtracking. Also, by speaking up, you’re making sure that the whole group agrees with the route decision, and encourages everyone to think about the landscape and where the route is going.

Even if you are not actively following the map on a bushwalk, follow the shape of the land and make a mental note of features you pass. Becoming familiar with these landforms trains the brain to spot quickly those features that most people would miss. A memory of the landscape is extremely useful if the group has to backtrack.

Staying Found

How to stay found on the map

The best navigation advice is simple: never get lost! Sounds a bit stupid, but it’s true. Navigation is incredibly hard when you have to figure out where you are every hour. Better to know where you are at all times by regularly checking the map with the surroundings.

Bushwalkers that regularly follow the map are more likely to pick up things that don’t seem right. They’re keeping an eye out for where they are in relation to landforms, the direction they are traveling in, and how it changes. They’re also watching the changing distance between their current location and where they want to be.

Keeping a keen eye on the map is the best way to know where you are at all times. Here are a couple of ways to do that:

Orientating the Map How to orientate the map in the direction of travel

It can be challenging to match a map up with the terrain, particularly when your brain has to make additional calculations about the orientation of the map relative to the landscape. At some point in our lives everyone has tried to stand on their head to make sense of whether a map is telling them to go right or left. People naturally find it easier to relate a map to the surroundings when everything that is to our left on the map matches everything that is to our left on the ground. Orientating the map in the direction of travel makes life a lot easier.

This is the key to orientating a map: placing it to line up neatly with the features on the ground. Many navigation courses make a big deal about this, claiming it’s the first thing that anyone should do before navigating. In reality, bushwalkers will rarely orientate the map accurately with a compass, unless for interest to figure out the exact names of distant peaks. Instead, they tend to orientate the map so it’s right by eye (terrain association) because it’s much quicker and flexible, and relies on the user understanding what they’re reading on the map, not just blindly following a bearing.

In short, there are two ways to orientate a map, depending on how accurate it needs to be:

  1. By compass
  2. By terrain association

Note, that the map does not need to be orientated to take a bearing from a map as the bearing is independent of the direction the map is pointing.

By Compass

  1. Rest the map on level ground.
  2. Rotate the compass bezel to set local magnetic declination (subtract 12.5° for Sydney, NSW area).
  3. Place the compass on the map ensuring the grid lines are parallel with the edge of the compass, and that the top of the compass is pointing towards the top of the map.
  4. Rotate the map and compass until the north (red) needle is sitting in the orientating arrow on the compass bezel.

Handy Tips

  • Remember that compasses work using a very weak magnetic force from the earth. If any objects with a stronger magnetic force are nearby they will distort the compass reading. Make sure that you are not near metal or power lines when using a compass. (e.g. never try using a compass on the hood of a car). Some regions of the earth have high iron content in their rocks making using a compass impossible. The easiest way of telling this is if the compass needle swings erratically, and never points consistently in the same direction, regardless of anything you do!
  • Generally, map orientation only needs to be accurate within a few degrees. Most of the time you can leave the compass with the magnetic variation set inside your map case and orientate the map whilst you are standing.

By Terrain Association
Terrain association is just matching the visible surroundings to the map. It is the most common method that bushwalkers use to orientate a map, but requires a good understanding of how to map read and translate features into real landforms. For this method to work, the user must know their approximate location.

Bushwalkers can determine map orientation by matching contours, comparing vegetation to that depicted on the map, constructed features (shapes of buildings, directions of roads) and hydrography (shape and size of lakes in conjunction with the size and direction of flow of the rivers and streams).

Handy Tip
Generally, bushwalkers use some combination of compass use and terrain association. Usually, they use the compass to get a rough idea of the lay of the land, then fine tune it by matching specific land features to the map. The best way to find out what works for you is to get out there and try!

Thumbing the map How to thumb the map to keep track of where you are

Switching the eyes from the map to the landscape and back again is tiring on the eyes and it’s easy to get disorientated and look at completely the wrong section of map (parallel error).

“Thumbing the map” is a technique used by bushwalkers to trace their location continuously onto the map. It means gripping the map between thumb and hand with the thumb at the exact location of the bushwalk and moving the thumb along the route as they move. In this way, bushwalkers can trace key waypoints {link to key waypoints chapter} as they occur, and know what’s coming up. This is far easier than having to figure out where they are on the map each time they stop.

Some walkers find that folding the map to a convenient size prevents damage and makes it easier to read. Many also use a map case to protect the map from getting damaged. Often map cases come with a neck-strap, allowing the user to carry it on their person and follow the map as they go.

Map Memory and Key Waypoints How to use map memory and key waypoints to stay found

Map memory is about memorizing key features or ‘waypoints’ on a map and ticking them off in your brain as you pass them. It’s about knowing what’s coming up, and if you don’t come across these features, then it quickly triggers a red flag. Think of map memory as ticking off a series of reliable key waypoints.

Key waypoints are those features that are in some way prominent or recognisable. Bushwalkers use key features to orient themselves, know where they are, how far they still have to go, and be able to navigate along the planned route. Memorising the next few waypoints allows the bushwalker to ‘put down the map’ so to speak, or rather at least enjoy the scenery for a bit rather than having their head constantly buried in the map.

A good guide is to memorise the next three major waypoints coming up, and mentally tick them off as you pass them. If anything happens that you weren’t expecting, then you can quickly fix it up. This mental mapping process means that you quickly know where your last ‘known’ point is, so when something doesn’t feel right you notice it straight away, rather than having to figure it out from scratch each time.

The best checkpoints are linear features that cross your route. Use streams, rivers, hard-top roads, ridges, valleys, and railroads, but be aware that some map features are more reliable than others. The next best checkpoints are elevation changes such as hills, depressions and spurs.

Chose waypoints are those that are easy to remember and obvious, but not so common that they are tricky to distinguish.

Examples include:

  1. Land features like knolls, saddles, ridges. Generally very reliable (or as reliable as the data first collected to make the map).
  2. Route features like river crossings. May be unreliable e.g. river crossings can be rainfall dependant.
  3. Constructed features like junctions, road crossings. Again, may change over time or not be reliably marked on the map in the first place.

The number of reliable checkpoints along established on-track routes will vary, but aim to get at least one or two per kilometre. Once you start looking for this detail in the terrain, you’ll find it easier and easier to pick up. Suddenly a boring flat way has subtle ups and downs that you might not have otherwise noticed. Encourage everyone else in the group to keep a lookout for these checkpoints too.

GPS/smartphone devices Using GPS and smartphone devices as navigational tools

GPS devices and mobile smartphones allow the user to pinpoint their location to an accuracy of around 10-20m, often a much greater precision that by map and compass. They communicate with satellites and work well when they have a relatively clear view of the sky. They will not work in enclosed canyons, gorges and caves.

GPS technology allows the user to identify their physical location and plot it back to a topographic map. In a practical sense, often bushwalkers use a GPS to double check their location matches with where they think they are, or to identify recommended campsites, water locations, entrances to canyons, passes through cliff-lines, etc.

GPS users should make sure that their GPS is set to the right datum and projection, and that they understand how to translate the coordinates reported on a GPS unit onto a standard topographic map.

Reliable and vague map features

What features to trust on the map and walk

When something on the map doesn’t match up with the physical landscape, the logical question “are I or the map right?” arises. Unfortunately, in most cases, the map is correct, and you’ve made an error at some point. However, it’s worth knowing that there are some features on maps that shouldn’t be trusted.

The most common features to change over time are constructed features: minor powerlines that no longer exist, gates that have been replaced, property boundaries that have moved, etc. Ways also evolve with time, and can easily change their course over time (i.e. since the geographic data used to make the map was collected). Therefore, if a constructed feature doesn’t match up with where you think you are on the map, don’t necessarily assume that you are wrong and the map is right. Focus on location identification using landscape features rather than just constructed ones, and if neither features match up with where you think you are on the map, then you’re probably not where you think you are.

Physical landscape features are far less likely to be wrong than constructed features. According to the ‘Australian Map and Spatial Data Horizontal Accuracy Standards’, the location accuracy of a map must be stated in terms of a percentage value of its true position. For example, the Sydney Heads 1:25,000 scale topographic map states “Horizontal accuracy is expected to be 90% of the well-defined detail within 12.5 m of its true position”.

Modern maps are made using a combination of on-ground geographical data and data from aerial imagery. The result is fairly reliable representations of the landscape. However, maps are only as accurate as their geographic data they are made with, and the historical notes of the surveyor. Aerial imagery, for example, can interpret wrong landform shapes if the tree line does not match the ground line. Hence topographic maps are susceptible to these sorts of errors, and can include features that are out of date or have changed, or are symbolized and named incorrectly.

BWRS has a current list of known map errors for NSW topographic maps and offers a service to report errors.

Reliable features, a rough guide More information about recognising reliable map features

To summarise, here is a rough guide for what features to trust from a topographic map:


  • Land features (shape of land, creeks etc.)
  • Major constructed features (roads, major power lines (not minor ones)


  • Signs and constructed features, building, houses, fences etc.)
  • Minor constructed ways: walking tracks, trails and paths can be drawn on the wrong side of a river, ridge, saddle etc.)

Vague features, a rough guide More information about recognising vague map features

Most on-track walking involves following a clear, pre-defined route, however, sometimes sections of the route are unclear, vague or damaged. Unclear routes can be tricky to navigate along, particularly if many people have made the same mistake and forged a new, incorrect, side tracks. Sometimes these tracks come to a dead end, other times they continue for kilometres, wasting valuable time, energy and patience of the group. Hence, it’s best to avoid these detours if at all possible. Maps may be missing information about extra tracks, trails and pathways also. Additional tracks or trails might also branch off from the main way but aren’t marked. If you follow these accidentally, stop and backtrack.

Is this way right?

Some practical advice on finding and staying on the right way

Usually, the first sign that the way you’re going isn’t right is when it doesn’t match up with expected key waypoints. Remember that if enough bushwalkers make the same mistake, a new way will form. Very confusing!

Bushwalking ways are typically made by clearing vegetation, removing obstacles such as logs and compacting the soil or bringing in rocks etc. Common features to bushwalking ways include:

  • Cleared vegetation including cut logs (i.e. chainsawed trees)
  • Compacted soil or stones
  • Footprints
  • Signposts
  • Cairns (piles of rocks)

Ways that are faint or don’t include these features may not be right, and should start to raise alarm bells! Other signs that you’re not on the main way include:

  • The way leads to areas inaccessible to humans
  • The way weaves back upon itself
  • The way splits multiple times
  • The way leads off from the main route to a water source or shelter

The number one rule when things in the landscape don’t match with what you expect is to stop. Have a good think about where you last knew where you were, and return to that location. In doing so, you return to a spot where you are certain of the location on the map and can trace out where you went wrong. Most likely you missed a turn or there was a faint junction that you missed.

Picking up the way again How to find the way after losing it

Some bushwalking ways weave back and forth across rivers, cross large open rock platforms, or meander through urban villages before emerging on the other side and continuing. It’s easy to lose the way in these cases, as it’s not entirely clear where or how the way rejoins again. Here are a few tips to find the way again.

River crossings
Some bushwalking ways end at the river side, implying that the route crosses over and starts again directly on the other side.

Before crossing, double check that the way indeed crosses over, rather than continuing along the same river bank. Do this by having a quick scout around on the side of the bank you’re on, and looking over to the other side. Sometimes, there’s a clear sign where the way starts again, or there’s a signpost, a small arrow, or a marker. Don’t be surprised though if the way only becomes visible once you’re on the other side: many river crossings are implied rather than signposted.

Assess if the river is safe to cross. Then choose where to cross the river, bearing in mind that this might involve detouring slightly upstream or downstream of the path. Then continue along the way again.

If you cannot pick up the way again after the river crossing, cross back to the way you were on and go back to the last known point. You may have accidentally strayed from the main way, or picked up a way leading off the main one to the river (typical for lunch or swimming spots).

Maps are not that reliable when it comes to river crossings. Ways change over time, and where the way originally crossed the river, it may not do so any more.

The best general advice is to follow the main way whenever given a choice. That is, if the main way continues on one side of the river and you spot another smaller way on the other side of the river, then don’t cross over, stick to the main one. Conversely, if the main way continues on the other side of the river, and only a minor one follows on the same side, cross over.

Walks often pass through small urban towns when going from one section of bush to another. It is particularly common on multiday trips, for example, the Great North Walk.

As ironic as it sounds, it can be quite easy to lose the way through a township due to poor signage, or changes to the route due to development. Often the way may disappear at one edge of the town, and bushwalkers need to pick it up at the other side, but it’s not always entirely clear where to do it. Remember that maps may not have up to date information on housing development, particularly on the edges of urban townships. Hence, it can be embarrassingly easy to miss where the way starts again in an urban area!

The good news is that it’s usually pretty straightforward to figure it out. If the way doesn’t have obvious signposts, why not try dropping into the local cafe and chatting to the owners? Most locals are keen to talk about their local bushwalks, and they can probably give you some great advice on where to pick up the way again. Be sensitive to ways that pass through private properties and make sure to ask permission before using them.

In this day and age, modern townships usually mean reasonable mobile phone reception. Google maps may provide useful satellite data on where bushwalking ways start and stop. Even tourist websites and blogs can help.

Failing all that, you can usually work out where the way goes by a process of elimination: if the way comes into the township from the south, it’s going to leave via the North, East or West side. If there’s major bushland on the northern part of the township, then that’s a good place to start scouting out for the way. Roads that are dead ends onto bushland are likely candidates for where the way continues.

Being lost in a township can be quite an enjoyable experience, particularly if there’s a nice place to stop for ice-cream en-route!

Rock platforms
Bushwalking tracks will often cross rock platforms, large open slabs of rock with a small amount of vegetation growing between the rock cracks. From a trackmaker’s point of view, including a section of rock is much less work than having to lug in rocks or create a track themselves. It takes little work to maintain and is easy walking for visitors. The downside is that most rock platforms are around 10-20m wide and bushwalkers have to find the track again on the other side. Putting signs on every single rock platform is impractical, so bushwalkers are usually left to locate the track on their own.

In general, a track that goes in on one side of the rock platform forms again on the opposite side of the platform…but not always! On rock platforms where the track continuation is ambiguous, many smaller tracks form where bushwalkers have thought the track continues. This is a big problem for local wildlife and plants due to soil erosion and compaction damage.

Best practice is to avoid using smaller side tracks to scout out the main track. Stay on the rock platform until it’s clear your group has found the correct track. If the track turns out to be wrong, backtrack until you know where you are again.

Rock platforms make for easy walking compared to rough scrub, but be sensitive towards delicate rock formations. Around Sydney, the sandstone pagoda country is stunningly beautiful but extraordinarily delicate. Rock pagodas formed over millennia are easily broken by careless bushwalkers stepping on their edges. Tread lightly and Leave No Trace!

Sandy areas
Coastal walks often involve walking in parts along beaches. It’s a great opportunity to take your shoes off and feel the sand on your feet. Finding the way again is usually pretty straightforward, but the way may not be well signposted, or the signs only works well if you’re walking in a particular direction.

A typical setup is where the way joins at one end of the beach and leaves at the other end.

A few variations on this include:

  • The route continues next to beach, and joins beach halfway along.
  • The route leaves beach halfway along.
  • The route never joins beach.

Once again, a map of the route may not be a reliable guide to where the route goes. Routes along beaches may change with tides, or be hidden by shifting sand. It can be worth contacting local land rangers to ask about the current condition of the route first.

Leave no Trace by walking on the hard sand nearest the ocean and avoid walking on delicate sand dunes as much as possible. Spread out to even out footprints on the sand.

What do I do if I’m lost? Finding yourself again, a practical guide

It can be a frightening experience to feel lost in the bush, even if that feeling is momentary. It’s a reminder of how very small humans are in the world, and how much unknown landscape there is.

Finding the way again when you’re lost is all about remaining calm, staying logical and keeping a clear head despite every other emotion you’re feeling. It’s about everyone in the group contributing to the navigation decisions and backtracking to the last known place.

The biggest mistake a bushwalking group can make it to press on further. It’s tempting just to check what’s around the next corner, maybe there’s a sign there, maybe another track…? The reality is, going further onwards will almost always make things worse, not better! While it may feel like a waste of time and energy, stopping and backtracking means that you can reaffirm exactly where you are and if you went wrong.

Here’s a general set of guidelines to follow if you don’t know where you are:

  1. Stop. Go through a deductive and logical reasoning process to figure out where you are from the last known point. Ask questions like:
    1. Did we cross a creek? Is the creek flowing the direction it should be?
    2. Did we climb a hill? Was it smaller or larger than expected?
    3. What direction are we going in? Does this make sense?
    4. Did we pass any forks?
    5. How fast are we traveling? What’s the furthest we can be from the last known point
  2. Use navigation tools, like a GPS or compass to help.
    Most of the time, this is enough to help you figure out where you are. Most often, it’s because you’re moving slower than you expected, or took a wrong turning.
    If you cannot determine your location through a deductive and logical reasoning process:
  3. Backtrack to the last known point.
    After backtracking, you’ll probably figure out where you went wrong in the first place and can continue along the correct way.
    If you cannot backtrack to the last known point (e.g. poor weather conditions, visibility).
  4. Stop. Consider waiting until weather conditions improve.
    If you are completely lost and have exhausted all other means of finding yourself, contact the emergency services by telephone (if reception) or activating a PLB.

Navigational tools

Tools to help you navigate in the bush

Map and compass spring to mind at the mention of navigation tools, but they’re not the only tools out there. Technological advances in GPS devices and mobile phones means that more people have access to navigation tools than ever before. All have their pros and cons, and it’s worth bearing them in mind when selecting what tools to take on a walk.