Successful navigation can require realizing the current path choice was a mistake and the best strategy is to retreat along the recent path: ‘back-track’. Despite the wealth of studies on the neural correlates of navigation little is known about backtracking. To explore the neural underpinnings of backtracking we tested humans during functional magnetic resonance imaging on their ability to navigate to a set of goal locations in a virtual desert island riven by lava which constrained the paths that could be taken. We found that on a subset of trials, participants spontaneously chose to backtrack and that the majority of these choices were optimal. During backtracking, activity increased in frontal regions and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, while activity was suppressed in regions associated with the core default-mode network. Using the same task, magnetoencephalography and a separate group of participants, we found that power in the alpha band was significantly decreased immediately prior to such backtracking events. These results highlight the importance for navigation of brain networks previously identified in processing internally-generated errors and that such error-detection responses may involve shifting the brain from default-mode states to aid successful spatial orientation.