Whiteout, Fog and Darkness: How to Navigate in Low Visibility

Hiking in thick fog or a whiteout can be a scary experience, especially if you're relatvely new to the hiking game. In this guide, we aim to equip you with the skills and smarts needed to make your way back safely to base whenever you find yourself hiking in low visibility.

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
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Navigating in low visibility is the worst nightmare of many newbie—and even the odd more accomplished—hikers. And perhaps with good reason…deprived of our usual, safe, line-of-sight style of route-finding, things can get a little spooky, particularly if on steep or exposed terrain in high wind.

Being unable to get a good visual on your bearings due to low visibility always comes down to either the weather or darkness.

As prevention is always the preferred method, make sure your route is short enough that you’ll be back before dark and check the weather forecast to ensure you’re not going to end up navigating in a white out come mid-afternoon.Learning how to navigate in low visibility, however, isn’t too hard—all it takes is a little bit of know-how and practice.

5 Tips for Navigating in Low Visibility

1. Use Every Tool at Your Disposal

We’ve all heard the expression “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.” To that pearl of wisdom, we’d add “why bring one gun when you can have three?”

The three key pieces of kit we recommend you bring along when you suspect you’ll be hiking in poor visibility (and even when not) are a GPS device, an altimeter, and the trusty, tried-and-tested combo of a map and compass.

Not only will this mean you have a backup should any one of your navigational tools fail, but also allows you to cross-check readings from each system to ensure accuracy when you need it most. Make sure none get left at home.

2. Prep Your GPS Device

With any item of hiking kit, if you’re going to carry it, you may as well be sure to make the most of it and have it earn its place in your pack. A good starting point is to make sure you know how to use it.

This is never truer than in the case of a GPS device. While you may have the best handheld GPS unit money can buy, an un-prepped device will mean you’re not getting the most out of it. A few very simple pre-trip modifications can help you get a lot more out of your device and both speed up and simplify navigation in low visibility.

These modifications include loading the most accurate and detailed maps onto your device, adding several waypoints on your trip (as many as one per 500 or 600 feet in trickier terrain*), marking hazards you wish to avoid, locating shelters, and establishing “bailout” routes that you can take if conditions get too gnarly to continue.

*By entering only a starting and finishing location as waypoints, you risk your device offering a “as-the-crow-flies,” direct line of travel to your destination that may take you over several hazards and far from safe, established, and easier-going trails.

3. Pacing

If your depth perception is next to nil, turn to another body part to get your bearing.

Pacing is probably the most underrated hiking skill there is. “Pacing” involves measuring how many steps it takes you to walk certain distances on varying angles of slope.

For example, in a local park, wood, or on a day hike we can measure out how many steps we take to reach 100 meters on flat terrain, gentle slopes, and steeper slopes. By keeping a record of our counts, we can then use these in the field in low visibility as follows:

We are on a ridge in low visibility and know we must make a right turn to avoid a hazard or straying off course on a fork or deviation three hundred meters ahead of where we stand. If we know that it takes us 130 steps to travel 100 meters on this angle of slope, then we can count off 390 steps to reach our trig point before making the necessary deviation.

4. Contouring

Contouring—traveling along a steady elevation using the contour lines on your map—is one of the simplest and safest ways to navigate in poor visibility and can be used when other features that assist navigation (trees rocks, ridges, boulder fields, streams) are entirely lacking.

Using a map (or GPS device), you can identify a safe, hazard-free line or bearing on a slope and then use your altimeter or GPS device to ensure you stay at that elevation until past any hazards above or below. 

5. Route Finding – Stay on Course by Connecting the Dots

In good visibility, most of us typically identify landmarks in the distance to which we wish to navigate—saddles, peaks, passes, etc., especially when hiking off-trail and deprived of a clear path to guide the way. In low visibility, we can do precisely the same, only using nearer and much smaller terrain features such as rocks, hillocks, knolls, or snow patches as little as 50 feet away.

By doing so, we break our route down into manageable chunks, essentially creating a series of “dots” that we can connect to navigate toward our destination without fear of straying off-course. This method also gives us small, achievable goals that can boost morale and lets us stay focused on the terrain in front of us instead of paying too much attention to our UTM coordinates or GPS device and potentially blundering into (or over) a hazard hidden in the fog or mist.

Conclusion: How to Navigate in Low visibility

Navigation in whiteout conditions or heavy fog doesn’t need to be an issue if you stay calm and use some of the advanced techniques above to get your bearings. However, if at any point you feel very unsafe then hunker down, keep warm and contact the emergency services. It is also a good idea to have left the exact trail route plan you expect to take with a person at home who can raise the alarm if you don’t return home on time.

We hope you enjoyed our article and if you have any other tips or advice please share them in the comments.

Last update on 2024-06-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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