All right, class! Be quiet. I'm passing out these maps so we can learn about them. Don't rip them up….
It was September 1962. My teacher passed out California and Arizona road maps she had ordered from Chevron in order to teach us about our local area, as well as about how to read a map. I was hooked. Looking at maps can take you on adventures without leaving home.
Later, in Boy Scouts, I learned how to use a map and compass. The maps were even more fun now. They were more detailed, too, as we used USGS topo maps.
I love maps. I can sit and read maps of places I've never been for hours. Studying them prior to a trip increases the anticipation and fun of the trip before leaving home. As I'm a right-brain person, I can study the map, get the image in my mind, and then recall it when needed once "on the ground." Over the years, I learned a few other techniques to keep from getting lost, too.
GPS receivers entered the scene in the early 1990s and, after a slow start, became the "must have" items for backcountry explorers. Yes, I succumbed and have owned a few GPS receivers myself. The one I use the most now is an iPhone with an app called Topo Maps. This app has all North American USGS topo maps and the phone's GPS receiver pinpoints the phone's position on these maps.
What happens when the batteries drain, the GPS quits, and we have no compass?
I always use paper maps, too, and check my position regularly, even turning around and looking at trail intersections from the other direction to make sure the forks look familiar if a return trip is in order. There are also ways to find north using natural clues.
The first natural clue you may think about is moss on the north side of trees. Sometimes moss grows on the north side, but sometimes it doesn't. Moss grows where the bark is damp. Desert trees have no moss anywhere. Trees can be used to find north, though. If the trees aren't too dense, check out the growth of the branches. In the Northern Hemisphere, the southern tree branches will tend to grow horizontally, toward the sun, while the northern branches will grow upward to get more sunlight. Obviously, we need to walk around the tree to see this. It also doesn't always work, as dense forest filters sunlight to individual trees and wind can influence tree growth.
The sun and stars are the most reliable navigation aids we have. In northern latitudes, the sun rises due east on the equinoxes, March 21 and September 22. In the winter, it rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest. In summer, it rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest. So, how do we find north? Put a stick in the ground. When the shadow is the shortest, that's midday (not when our watch says it is). In the Northern Hemisphere, the base of the stick will be directly south and the tip of the shadow will be directly north. Another way to find the north/south line is to point the hour hand of a properly set analog watch at the sun, then bisect (find the center point of) the angle between the hour hand and the 12:00 mark. The center of the angle between the hour hand and twelve o'clock mark is the north/south line.
At night, Polaris, the North Star, is always north in the northern hemisphere and looks as if it isn't moving to the observer on Earth. Find Polaris by using the two outside stars of the Big Dipper as a pointer to Polaris (which is the star at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper). Cassiopeia, the big W in the sky, can also be used to find Polaris, as the center star of the W points to it. Polaris is equidistant between the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia.
The crescent moon can be used to find south. Draw a line across the two points of the crescent and extend the line to Earth. That will be approximately south. Do this when the crescent moon is high in the sky. Try it when it's on the horizon and there will be significant error. In other words, have patience and wait until the moon is high in the sky.
There are many other ways to find our way without GPS. If you'd like, we can do a detailed feature on finding our way in the backcountry sans GPS. Let us know if you'd like to see something on that.
Analog paper maps are great. If you've ditched them in favor of electronic media, I suggest you rediscover their joys. Carry them with you in your vehicle just in case the GPS fails. Carrying a compass means you don't need to rely on the natural ways of finding north detailed above. Becoming an expert with map and compass is just as relevant to today's backcountry explorers as it was to those who came before. Knowledge is life.