One of the techniques while navigating in the outdoors is known as contouring, what does this mean and when would it be useful?

2 Answers 2


Contouring means to follow the contours of the land to your destination, trying to stay at the same elevation as you work your way around the hill.

In this example you would walk up the hill, and upon reaching the given height, stay at that level while walking towards the destination.

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Sometimes, in places without trails, you will know the elevation of your destination (this can be very useful for small destinations like abandoned mines or petroglyphs) and the easiest way to stay on track is by elevation.

Of course an altimeter is crucial to finding the correct elevation, and for staying at that elevation, but in a pinch it is possible to stay at the same elevation by eye.

  • Short of seeing your destination (which makes navigation easy), how could you judge by eye that you are at the elevation of your destination?
    – gerrit
    Aug 14, 2018 at 14:57
  • @gerrit Its more that you can stay at the same elevation by not going up or down, see the edit Aug 14, 2018 at 15:09
  • 1
    The "pinch" here would be when your altimeter stops working after you have found the right elevation? :)
    – gerrit
    Aug 14, 2018 at 16:20
  • 3
    You could navigate up to a known elevation close to the target, perhaps a trail junction, or some other feature on the map and easy to find. Then estimate the difference to get to your target altitude (if significant) and maintain that. Only moderate accuracy but no altimeter needed. (@gerrit)
    – Chris H
    Aug 14, 2018 at 16:26

The answer is really dependent on language, I think. Being from a French-speaking part of the world, I can definitely say that even in orienteering/mountain traveling, the meaning of contouring would imply simply going around a feature, not necessarily at a fixed elevation. I could contour around a forest or a hill. The translation of contourner is quite literally go around.

But even if we stay in the English language, following the glossary on this page, the definition of contouring (staying at roughly the same elevation on a slope) would fit under the term traversing where I'm from.

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