How to Keep a Trail Log While Hiking

Three of the most important things to take with you when venturing off into the wilderness are a map and a compass and the knowledge to to use them. While today, a GPS can help you keep track of where you've been and help navigate you back, a GPS needs power and good satellite coverage. These many not be available in all cases. Knowing how to keep track of distance and direction on a trail can help get you back home, help keep track of things you find, and generally give you a better appreciation of what's around you. You'll need a compass, a pad of paper and pencil or pen, and know your pace length.


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    Before hitting the trail, determine your pace length. Do this by measuring off 100' on flat, level ground and counting how many paces it takes you to walk that distance. Do this a few times to get a good measurement of your average pace. Do the same for walking up and down a few hills to get a feel for how your step-length changes depending on slope.
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    At the trailhead, pull out your compass and note pad. On top of the note pad draw a straight-line across the page and put a tick-mark at the left-hand end. Above the tick-mark write "Trail Head" and below the tick-mark write the initial compass direction of the trail.
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    As you walk down the trail, count your steps. When you come to a significant turn, make another tick-mark, write above it the number of steps, below it new direction of the trail as measured by the compass. You can also take the time to make a few other notes, like take a compass bearing to some interesting mountain, indicate where some interesting geological feature is located, where you were chased by a get the idea.
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    You can also note time of day, slope, etc. It's a log, so you can add information as you need. If you take a photo, indicate where you took the photo in your log.
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    Keep doing this. If you need another line, start it off on left and progress to the right.
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    When you get back home, using a protractor and ruler, you can accurately make a 2D map of your journey, If you took bearings of mountains, lakes, etc. throughout the day, you can triangulate the location of these for your map. You will be surprised at just how accurate your map will compare to USGS or Survey maps.


  • Keep your log dry.
  • Hiking is supposed to be fun and a journey. Too many hikers and backpackers become obsessed with getting to their destination. Keeping a trail log will slow you down a bit and help you appreciate the journey even more.

Things You'll Need

  • Map, compass, pen/pencil, note-pad

Article Info

Categories: Backpacking and Hiking