How to Navigate the Backcountry

Plotting Your Course

To plot your legs, first get oriented, determine your position and final destination, then scrutinize the map so that you can avoid areas or features that would impede your travel, such as swamps, crocodile mating grounds, salt flats, and so on. That done, draw a line using your compass's straight edge from you to where you want the end of your first leg to be, which is made easier to find on the ground if it is prominent. With the compass still aligned on that leg, turn the bezel ring until the needle (again, the north-seeking arrow) is lined up with the alignment arrow. Now read the bearing on the bezel ring below the luminous index line. That is your bearing to the end of your first leg. Remember it (write the bearing along the straight line you just drew between your position, which we'll call Position A from now on, and the end of your first leg, now called Position B). Now select Position C (the end of your second leg), and draw another line, this time between Positions B and C. Turn your bezel ring again and line up the needle with the alignment arrow and read the bearing, then write it in along the line. Continue this procedure until the final leg puts you where you want to be. Your route is now plotted, but before you step off, take note of prominent (and perhaps not so prominent, but still recognizable) terrain features along the way. Circle them on your map to remind you along the way of what you should be seeing: when I get near Position C, I should be able to see the village of New Hope ten miles off to the west. Or, when I arrive at Position E, I should see these three dominant peaks off to the north about twenty miles.

Ready to go? Good. Set your compass for the bearing between Positions A and B. Do not make the mistake of following the needle! Remember, the needle always points to magnetic north, and unless your route just so happens to lie directly along that bearing, you don't want to follow your compass needle around. You should be walking in the direction of your luminous index arrow at the top of the base of the compass, right? Right.

But before you set out, look out before you and take note of some features along your first leg. Hey, you may only be able to see a little ways due to foliage or bad weather, so a feature at this point may be no more than a strangely-shaped tree or big rock. In any case, just walk to that feature, without holding the compass out before you (put it in your pocket, with one end of a 30-inch cord tied to it, and the other end tied to your belt loop or some other piece of your clothing so it doesn't get lost). When you arrive at that feature, take the compass out, shoot the bearing again, pick out another feature to walk to along that bearing, put the compass back in your pocket, and take off. Do this all the way until you reach Position B, which you must verify when you think you have arrived there.

Verification of each leg destination, known as a way-point, is done by either triangulation (resection), or terrain association (inspection). It is very important that you always verify your way-points. Otherwise, everything you do from that point on (all the bearings you shoot, etc.) will be wrong if you weren't where you thought you were.

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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