Five simple rules of navigation on the trails in the Dolomites. Plus intuition

Taking the trail is half of the business. It is important to navigate correctly on the terrain in order not to get lost, to reach the place on time, especially for over night stay, and return home safely. There are five simple rules of navigation on the trails in the Dolomites. Plus intuition.

Ivan Kuznetsov
Outdoor journalist from the Dolomites

Take the Topographic Map
Read Pointers, Marks and Symbols
Look at the Landscape
Use ABC / GPS-navigator
Ask People You Meet on a Trail
Trust Your Intuition

1. Take the Topographic Map

— The topographic hiking map of the Dolomites is the best tool for navigating the trails. Each such map contains all the necessary information about the landscape, routes, accommodation and everything else you need to know not to get lost in the mountains.

Maps can be paper and digital. The best paper topographic maps of the Italian Alps are made by Casa Editrice Tabacco SRL (or simply Tabacco) publishing house. The same publisher has digital maps and ready-to-go routes for hiking, as well as the app. In addition, there are many other resources with routes, including other applications for hiking.

Yes, today it is more convenient to walk on digital maps and ready-to-go hiking tracks. But these maps and tracks are still less detailed than paper ones. In addition, the phone can be discharged, and the GPS-navigator is out of order. That’s why there are two main rules of navigation with maps:

  1. Always take a topographic paper map, even if you have an digital one.
  2. If you get lost, first look at the topographic map and compass, and only then at everything else.

In any case, when using a map should always work the head with all your knowledge, experience, and intuition. Without a head, the map itself is useless. In the Dolomites, you can’t even make a fire from a map, because it’s forbidden.

Navigation on the trails in the Dolomites starts from route planning at home before you take the first step on trail. On the photo is Pale di San Martino map © Ivan Kuznetsov
Navigation on the trails in the Dolomites starts from route planning at home before you take the first step on trail. On the photo is Pale di San Martino map © Ivan Kuznetsov

2. Read the Pointers, Marks, and Symbols

There are thousands of hiking routes in the Dolomites, the main ones of which are united in a single system. The Italian Alpine Club (Club Alpino Italiano), as well as other organizations, create and maintain the routes.

The main hiking trails in the Dolomites have numbers. Usually, it is a three-digit number: 525, 101, 650, and the like. Numbered trails are marked in red on maps. This means that it is a marked trail that has no obstacles, you can and should walk only along with it. Read more about trails in the same article about topographic maps by the link above.

There are also many unnumbered trails in the Dolomites that you can walk on. It’s just that they are not considered to be the main ones, there will be fewer pointers and other signs to suggest the path. To walk on unnumbered trails, you need better orientation skills than on trails with numbers.

Pointers

Further on the trail, you have to follow the pointers (signposts). Most of the trails in the Dolomites are well marked — they are mostly red-and-white pointers in the same style and marks on stones and trees with paint of the same color.

The signposts are usually placed at the beginning of the trails, at rifugios, as well as at passes, crossroads (forks), and other similar places… — in short, where you need the signs to choose the right direction. Then the signs disappear for a while — usually 1-2 hours of hiking — until you reach the next one.

Some pointers in the Dolomites are just very beautiful like this one in Ombretta Pass, 2700, with directions to Cima Ombretta, Via Ferrata Vernale, Val delle Cirelle, Rifugio Onorio Failer, Malaga Ciapela, Rifugio Contrin and Sentiero della Pace © Ivan Kuznetsov
Some pointers in the Dolomites are just very beautiful like this one in Ombretta Pass, 2700, with directions to Cima Ombretta, via ferrata Vernale, Val delle Cirelle, Rifugio Onorio Failer, Malaga Ciapela, Rifugio Contrin and Sentiero della Pace © Ivan Kuznetsov
How to Read Pointers

Unlike my native Karelia and perhaps your plain outdoor region, where the signposts indicate the distance in kilometers (miles), in the Alps and, I guess, other mountains they indicate the time it takes to reach the next important point: mountain hut, pass, mountain peak.

Why are there kilometers in the Karelia and time in the Dolomites? Because distance in the mountains is less important than altitude gain. To walk 20-30 kilometers on the plain, and in the mountains, there are two big differences. In the first case, it’s easier even with a heavy backpack — no need to climb the mountain. Time is written because it is easier to understand how long you will reach the next point on the map. The distance in kilometers (miles) doesn’t really matter.

Time is calculated as an average — for an adult aged 20 to 50 years with an average walking pace.

In my experience, if you walk fast, there will be time for you with a small margin — but a small margin. It’s better to do the opposite — add 30 to 60 minutes to the time on the signs to get to the right point in case some trail or its section is too difficult for you and you spend more time to overcome them. Another reason for being late is the excessive use of energy. Not calculating your strength is as easy as thinking you can walk the trail faster.

On the pointer may be some other signs, like an eagle on the photo above. It tell you about some features you can have on the route.

Marks

Next, to navigate the path while walking between the pointers, you have to follow the marks. This is the same trail signs, with the same number of the same colors — usually black on a white background, with a red border. Or it can be just a red color. In this case, the marks with numbers are closer to the pointers, and then also disappear — only red paint remains.

 Marks can be on stones, rock walls, trees, if you walk in the forest, some building, or anything else. The trail 736 is in the Feltrino Dolomites © Ivan Kuznetsov
Marks can be on stones, rock walls, trees, if you walk in the forest, some building, or anything else. The trail 736 is in the Feltrino Dolomites © Ivan Kuznetsov

Symbols

In addition to pointers and marks, the Italian Alps have all sorts of other symbols to navigate through: both made by a human and a nature. Usually, these are mountain peaks itself, crosses, which are often tired on tops and passes, springs, various buildings, other things for navigation, lakes and rivers… — in short, everything you can find on the map and on a trail.


On popular routes for hiking and in difficult to walk places pointer, marks and sign are often found. On low-popular — less often or rarely.

Over time, pointers and other symbols break down, and marks are erased. The less popular the trail, the more likely it is that a particular sign may disappear from view. In general, in Trentino — Alto-Adige region everything is great with the marks, in the province of Belluno in the Veneto region — a little worse, especially in less popular places.

Walking in the Dolomites should only be done along marked trails — otherwise, it’s easy to get lost, especially at dusk, not to mention darkness.

Broken pointers can be found after the winter, because the snow falls breaks them down, like the one I have found in Passo Brocon in May 2013, until the local Alpine Club services will fix it © Ivan Kuznetsov
Broken pointers can be found after the winter, because the snow falls breaks them down, like the one I have found in Passo Brocon in May 2013, until the local Alpine Club services will fix it © Ivan Kuznetsov

3. Look at the Landscape

Another important thing for orienteering on a map is, of course, landscape.

The peculiarity and difference between mountains and plains are that here it changes every few tens of minutes. The same mountains from different sides look quite different if you move away from them a bit.

For example, here is Tre Cime di Lavaredo — the most recognizable mountain range of the Dolomites and several of its species, in addition to the main one. Would you say it’s the same mountains?!

And in the mist, fog or just in clouds the whole mountains could disappear in a seconds.

Read the article “Hiking Tre Cime di Lavaredo Loop and Tre Cime Nature Park in Three Days“.

Here are the short rules here, so you don’t get lost:

  1. During the entire journey, look around you carefully and watch the landscape change.
  2. Don’t forget where you came from and remember where you’re going. (Don’t smile. In Dolomite’s beauty, it is easy to forget everything in the world!)
  3. Try to determine your location in the landscape intuitively, as if you did not have a map, pointers, and mars on the rocks.
  4. Try to imagine the scale of the mountains.
  5. If you do get lost and don’t have a map, climb to the nearest peak to find your location. All the information about the Dolomites you have will help you to understand where you are and find the right way, or you see a rifugio or a town.

4. Check ABC / GPS-navigator

ABC is an abbreviation of the three main instruments for navigation: altimeter, barometer, and compass.

The altimeter shows the altitude you are at.

A barometer is a tool to see atmospheric pressure, knowing when and how the weather will change.

A compass helps you find your position horizontally on the sides of the world and choose the right direction.

A modern alternative to an ABC is GPS navigator. It is the best electronic device for navigation. It shows you exactly where you are, allows you to load a ready-to-go route, and so on.

Today all three devices are available in one — smartphone, but many travelers like to have them separately in an old way. GPS navigators are also built into phones, it is not necessary to carry a separate device in the Dolomites because there are detailed maps and many other types of navigation tools.

As for me, all seven years that I have lived in the Dolomites, I walk only on maps, without a separate navigator, and the first three years I walk only on paper maps, without a smartphone. I’ve been lost many times, but I’ve always found my way, thanks to other people and intuition.

There was some mobile connection near the rifugio Lavaredo in Tre Cime di Lavaredo in July 2017, but usually there is no in the Dolomite © Ivan Kuznetsov
There was some mobile connection near the rifugio Lavaredo in Tre Cime di Lavaredo in July 2017, but usually there is no in the Dolomite © Ivan Kuznetsov

5. Ask People You Meet on a Trail

On a hike through the Dolomites, you’re likely to meet at least a few people coming to meet you or people going in the same direction. Even if you are going in the right direction and you are sure of it, it is useful to ask them about the trail and the time it will take to overcome the future section of it.

A person walking towards you is a valuable source of information for orienteering because he or she has just passed the path you have to walk: not a week ago (when there was no snow in the mountains, but now it has fallen out) and not last year (when there were signs on the path, and now there are no signs) — but today or yesterday. A person will help you orientate yourself in the area.

For example, this is what people say about hiking in Pale di San Martino and could tell to you on a trail.

Ask about the trail especially if you are lost or do not know exactly where you are going, what awaits you in front of the trail.

I always ask the oncoming travelers. It is also a great way to catch your breath and have a little chat with a nice person. Sometimes it happens that two people walk at the same pace and decide to continue the route together if one catches up with the other and they go in the same direction.

Find out if you could speak one of the five languages of the Dolomites.

Hiking Palaronda Hard Trek in September 2018 me and 13 other travelers from Russia have met a group of Germans © Participant of the hike
Hiking Palaronda Hard Trek in September 2018 me and 13 other travelers from Russia have met a group of Germans. We have even made a photo together © Participant of the hike

Trust Your Intuition

Always and everywhere, trust your own intuition, regardless of other guidance tools and techniques. As a rule, intuition does not fail if it is well developed.

I get lost on the trails around Lamon without and with a map or GPS and came to the conclusion that the first solution that comes to your mind is almost always the right solution. So the main rule of navigation here is not to think too long, otherwise, there is a chance to doubt and make the wrong decision — to go in the wrong direction.

In my feeling, you already have a good intuition, or it will appear with experience of mountain hiking. You just learn to “read” the landscape, notice the characteristic repetitive signs of the area and the like. The mountains are infinitely diverse, but in hiking the same thing usually happens: you step on a path, go up, go down, and again in a circle — finish!

In other words, the best advisor in matters of navigation on the trails in the Dolomites is you.

Besides the topographic hiking map. Going to the beginning of the article, I would say that paper maps rocks in 2020!


Cover photo: navigating in the terrain of Pale di San Martino — Lagorai mountains in September, 2019 © Irina Serdukovskya.

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