How to Navigate the Backcountry
How about a few ol' woodsman's tricks to make your journey back to civilization a little easier?
- > When you are contouring, feel free to use any game trails that are heading in the direction you are. Just be sure to get off them once they turn away.
- > If you need some water and have found where two game trails meet, follow the single trail they form for a ways; there is probably water not too far down that trail.
- > Take note of the drainage patterns on your map. If they all tend to gravitate toward a major river which flows toward civilization, you can just follow a stream downhill until it reaches the river, then follow the river.
- > If you are walking along a slope on a certain bearing, be sure to regularly check to see that you are still on course. People have a tendency to drift off their bearing downslope when on an incline.
- > Be sure to keep your compass away from metal such as belt buckles, pack frames, firearms, watches, and so on. Your compass's needle can easily be drawn to such items, resulting in a bogus bearing.
- > Local anomalies in the ground, such as iron ore (magnetite) deposits can throw your compass off by quite a ways.
- > If you are looking at the North Star (Polaris, or the"pole" star) but your compass is insisting that you are facing south, you are either near a lodestone (magnetite) or your compass is being thrown off by some other metal near you.
- > Always believe your compass unless you can absolutely, positively prove it is wrong, or it is clearly damaged.
- > Tie your compass to your body so you don't leave it somewhere.
- > Laminate your map so that the rain doesn't destroy it.
- > Make sure you get a 7.5 minute-quad topographic map (7.5 minutes of one degree of longitude and latitude; there are sixty minutes in a single degree), which covers somewhere between 50 and 70 square miles of terrain. This series shows the right amount of detail for most outdoors folks.
- > To determine where north lies, aim the hour hand of your watch at the sun. No matter what time it is, south lies half-way between the hour hand and twelve o'clock, putting north exactly opposite that direction. Got a digital watch? Just draw a big traditional watch face on the ground with the hour hand pointing at the sun. In the Southern Hemisphere? Aim the 12 on your watch face toward the sun. Any point mid-way between 12 and the hour hand, regardless of the time, will give you a north-south line with north being half-way between the hour hand and the 12.
- > Don't have a watch at all? Use the shadow-stick method of determining direction. Jab a two- to three-foot long stick straight into the ground so that it casts a shadow. Put a rock, pine cone, or what have you at the end of that shadow, and wait about half an hour or so for the shadow to move. Now put another object at the end of the second shadow. Step between the stick and objects (facing the objects) and place your left foot where the first object is, your right foot where the second one is. You are facing due north, which puts east to your right, west to your left, and south right behind you.
- > Want to find north at night? Just find the North Star. Locate the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and draw in your mind a line running up through (from the bottom of the dipper towards the top, no matter how the constellation is situated) the two 'pointer' stars that make up the outer edge of the dipper itself. Now look to a point about five times the distance between those two stars; there you will find the North Star. Can't really pick it out? No big, bright, obvious star there? That's right, because the North Star is just a little brighter than those surrounding it. To make locating it easier, find Cassiopeia. She lies opposite the Big Dipper, has five stars, and looks like an 'M' which may be tilted at different angles. The North Star is half-way between the two constellations.
Practice! That is the key to becoming proficient at land navigation. I've already covered this topic, so just let me reinforce my belief that you should get out there in the woods, on a piece of ground familiar to you, with a topo map for that area, and start comparing what you see on the ground with what you see on the map. Buy a sturdy compass and learn to use it, along with the map. Once you feel comfortable, take a friend or two into the woods and start practicing your navigation.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication