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Navigate Without GPS

Posted in Events on June 1, 2010
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We love GPS technology, so why would we spend time and precious pages telling you how to get along without it? A few reasons come to mind. Not everyone has a GPS unit. GPS units can break down. The satellite signal can be lost in dense woods or deep canyons. Above all, it's empowering to be familiar with more than one way to find your way.

We'll break this down into two general categories: map and compass, and general route finding.

Don't Fear the Map
Some people get intimidated or annoyed by maps. Maybe you're one of them. If so, take some time to study your map before you go out into the dirt. That way, you'll have some familiarity with your map before you have to depend on it.

Maps Have Themes
Not all maps are created equal. Maps are used to show data and spatial relationships. Different maps could be created for the same area that would look radically different from one another. One could show population density, while another could show average rainfall. Still another could show street routes and not much else. The type of maps used for off-road navigation is usually topographical, and include contour lines or other markings to indicate what the natural terrain is like.

1. This sounds obvious, but keep your map and compass in a designated place here you can find them. While shooting these photos, I was sure I'd left one of my maps on the ground and drove off. I backtracked to the spot, got out, and looked all over the place. No map. I finally started digging through my stuff and found the map was in my camera backpack! After that, I put all the maps and my compass in the glove box.

Map Checklist
Make sure the map you purchase shows natural features. Rivers, mountains, lakes, etc., should all be indicated. The map should also show how steep the mountain slopes are, or aren't. Your map should show established routes, and what type of routes they are: paved roads, dirt roads, 4WD trails, or hiking trails. Your map should also indicate who owns the land. Private land, U.S. Forest Service land, BLM land, city-owned land, and Federal wilderness all go by different sets of rules when it comes to vehicle access. Your map should also have a scale, so you'll know what distance an inch on the map represents on the ground.

True North vs. Magnetic North
True north is at the North Pole. Magnetic compasses point to magnetic north, which is somewhere in the Arctic Ocean. Most maps should show the difference, which is called the declination. In North America, the declination is about 13 degrees east. Most maps will indicate the declination in the key or legend. The tricky part of true north vs. magnetic north is that maps are drawn with north facing true North, while your magnetic compass points to magnetic North. Not to worry, as there's a way you can reconcile the two and find your way.

PhotosView Slideshow

All Compasses are Not Created Equal
Every magnetic compass points to magnetic north, but that might be the only thing they have in common. You'll want a liquid-filled compass, which encases the needle in liquid and keeps it from bouncing all over the place. You'll also want a compass with a stationary base. Finally, you'll want to be able to turn the dial or bezel around the compass needle. The compass need not be expensive. The Brunton 9077 lensatic compass shown in this story cost less than $20. As it turned out, I could have gotten away with a more basic compass that had fewer features.

General Route-Finding
This might simply be called being observant. As you go along, pay attention to the overall lay of the land. Does it slope? Is it broken up by mountains, hills, forests, or a river? Are there familiar parts of civilization nearby? Is your destination on a mountaintop or near the mouth of a canyon, and if so do you see one nearby? While you're doing this, be safe! You might need to pull over every so often to look around.

Leave Mental Breadcrumbs
Every now and then, look back. A glance in the mirror is helpful, but it's best to stop and take a real look around. You want to see what your route looks like in reverse. Look for features you might also notice after dark. A trail can look completely different after the sun sets.

If you have to know exactly where you are every second, you'll spend most of your time either obsessing or panicking. Author Harry Lewellyn, who wrote Backroad Trips and Tips: Glovebox Guide to Unpaved Southern California, says to "shrink the map." I think "zoom out" is also a fitting phrase. If you "shrink the map" or "zoom out," you'll realize that you know where you are in general, even if you don't know exactly and specifically. A little mystery is part of the adventure.

A Final Benefit
I've noticed that when I'm staring at a GPS, I don't connect as fully with my surroundings. Granted, it's easier and feels more secure to look at a GPS screen and see where I am in real time, but when I have to depend on recognizing a rock outcropping, a stand of trees, or the confluence of two creeks to know where I am, I feel more connected. Map and compass have their place, and so does GPS.

Now get out there and explore!

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