How to Navigate the Backcountry

Introduction
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When coupled with a powerful will to survive, preparation is your greatest asset when you unexpectedly find yourself in a bit of a jam, far from where it is you would rather be. But preparation is much, much more than stuffing a store-bought survival kit in your pocket before you head for the backwoods. Genuine preparation involves a never-ending pursuit of knowledge and experiences that will make you a formidable opponent when the chips are down and it looks like tomorrow is iffy at best. I think Robert W. Service said it best in his timeless ode to the indomitable human spirit, in"Grin":

Rise up in the morning with the will that, smooth or rough, You'll grin.
Sink to sleep at midnight, and although you're feeling tough, Yet grin.
There's nothing gained by whining, and you're not that kind of stuff;
You're a fighter from away back, and you won't take a rebuff;
Your trouble is that you don't know when you have had enough-
Don't give in . . .

To be truly prepared for a wilderness emergency, whether the wilderness you find yourself in is a few miles from help or a few hundred, you must be accomplished in only six skill areas: fire-building, procuring and preparing food and water, shelter construction, first aid, making and employing signals, and navigation. In this article we will cover the basics of outdoor navigation, but please remember—you can't become accomplished in any of these areas by just reading about them.

You must practice the knowledge you acquire over the years if you realistically expect to be able to survive a few nights in the wild in relative comfort, as you make your way back to safety after you get lost in the Rockies or Smokies, or your plane decides to stop working in mid-air over the Continental Divide. Attend a recommended survival course, and spend some time afield on your own or with a friend practicing your skills. And never forget that no matter who you are and what your background is, the will to survive alone can keep you alive; many are the incredible tales of survival from people who simply refused to give up when faced with extreme hardship.

The Compass and The Map

If you head into the woods or desert, you should carry and know how to use a compass, even if you only intend to be out for a few hours and are familiar with the area. Most folks get lost in areas that aren't that far into the boonies, and never intended to be out very long.

For about forty dollars you can buy one of the best compasses on the market, the Silva Ranger, which has all the amenities one needs in a compass: durability, a liquid-filled housing (which prevents the north-seeking arrow from jamming against the inside of the housing, a common problem with compasses that are not liquid-filled), rectangular base (for drawing azimuths and back-azimuths) with handy scales, sighting line on the mirror, protective housing, luminous alignment and back-bearing arrows, luminous north-seeking arrow, well-defined bezel ring (for accuracy in reading bearings), and even a tiny screw with which you can permanently account for the declination in your area. But the fanciest compass available will do you little good if you don't learn how to use it by practicing.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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