Top Tips for Successful Navigation in the Backcountry
by Chuck Fitzgerald
As an outdoor enthusiast you will at some point make a
decision to learn how to navigate in the backcountry.
Whether you use a map, compass, GPS receiver or all three,
there are several things you should know about successful
navigation. Your safety and the safety of your companions
depend upon it.
Backcountry activities such as hiking, orienteering,
hunting, climbing, geocaching, fishing, four-wheeling and
camping are all loads of fun - until you get lost. That's
why you should know how to navigate. But navigation doesn't
start when you find yourself hopelessly lost. Navigation
begins BEFORE your adventure begins so that you don't place
yourself in harm's way. Let's take a look at the top tips
for successful off road navigation.
The first group of tips pertains to getting ready to go:
Prepare your body.
I cannot overstate the necessity for proper preparation. If
you are not in good physical condition when you begin your
adventure, you are placing yourself in danger. No matter
what your current physical conditioning is - improve it
before you start. An exhausted body will negate any
acquired navigational skills.
Prepare your mind.
If you are using tools, and you should be, such as a map, a
compass or a GPS Unit make sure you know how to use them.
In order of priority: Maps are most important to understand
and use, proper use of a magnetic needle compass is next and
finally a GPS unit. Do not rely solely on your GPS. GPS's
only work well when you're moving and they don't work at all
with dead batteries. Take a class on using your compass
with a map. It is not only interesting, it is also a
required life skill for the outdoor enthusiast.
Have a plan and tell someone about it.
Whenever you go into the vast backcountry, be sure to tell
someone back home where you plan on going, how you plan on
getting there and when you'll be back. If you break your
leg, it would be nice if help could find you.
Now that you are a prepared navigator, you're ready to go.
Here are the remaining tips:
Trust your compass.
Many people get lost by trusting their "instincts" instead
of their compass.
Always orient your map to the landscape.
The best way to do this is to orient North on the map with
the North bearing on your compass. I also face north when
making directional decisions off of a map. A miss-oriented
map can easily lead to confusion.
Be sure of your Declination.
The difference between True North and magnetic north is
called your declination. This is critical for accurate
compass use. If you don't understand declination, you
weren't paying attention in your map/compass class. If your
map is fairly new, use the declination value on the map and
adjust your compass as required. If your map is older than
5 years.you're not very well prepared. Most modern GPS
Units calculate the declination value for you. This value
should match the value on your map.
Always measure for yourself.
You've prepared for your trip, now you should use what you
learned. Bearing (direction of travel) and distance (number
of steps or lapsed time) are the two most important
measurements to you when traveling in the backcountry.
Always measure for yourself, do not rely on anyone else for
this. If your partner comes up with something different,
sort it out. If you come up with the same thing as your
partner, then move on in confidence.
Never travel at night.
Although a star lit sky can offer accurate navigational
data, traveling at night is risky. Only experienced
travelers should travel after dark. The major risk of
traveling at night is injury. It is difficult to judge"footfall" distances and terrain in the dark.
Keep a log book.
If you are traveling from station to station (map feature to
map feature) keep a written log of the bearing and distance
decisions you've made. This will aid you in recovering from
navigational errors and will also aid you in returning to a
If you think you're lost S.T.O.P.
Oftentimes admitting you are lost is the toughest thing to
do. It is also the most important thing you can do. Once
you're lost, Sit, Think, Observe and Plan. S.T.O.P. will
Some final thoughts:
It's OK to write on your map.
* You should know how many steps you take to travel 100
yards. Write this number down on your map and in your log
* When a new land feature presents itself to you, compare
it to your map.
* Keep your compass hanging around your neck, not in your
* Never use your compass on the hood of your car or truck.
Compass accuracy is adversely effected by metal objects.
* Always travel with extra batteries for your GPS.
* Pay attention to natural and manmade features such as
fence lines, power lines, railroad tracks, ridges, valleys
Backcountry activities are fun, until you get lost.
That's why you should know how to navigate. Take a
map reading class, read an orienteering book and practice. Like most life skills, navigating in the backcountry is easy
to learn. Get Outdoors!
Chuck Fitzgerald (firstname.lastname@example.org)
President of BackCountry Toys, The Best Gear Out There
Educational Newsletter: www.BackCountryToys.com