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Nena Knows: Practical Off-Road Navigation Tips

Posted in Features on March 14, 2017
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One of the keys to a successful backcountry trip is not just finding a cool place to go but also safely finding your way back out. Orientation is knowing where you are. Navigation is knowing where you are going. Route-finding is knowing how to get there. While not all of us are tech whizzes with every new navigation gadget, nor are we all masters of compass and map, I find having a few simple tools and skills can help you through even the most difficult route-finding scenarios.

I recommend everyone carry a compass with a base plate that can help you measure or plot coordinates on a map. A compass can be used to take a bearing on the map to someplace you want to go. Then, using that same heading, look that direction on the terrain and see what landmarks you may use to guide you in that direction. A compass can be used to take a heading to someplace that you can see off in the distance, and then plot that heading on the map to help you plan a route. If you need to be precise, check the declination adjustment for the area you are exploring before you leave for the backcountry.

Learning how to take a bearing with a compass is a basic skill that every outdoor person should learn. This is my favorite sighting compass–a Suunto Global.

Carry at least one printed map that is topographical. I like to carry both a large- and small-scale map of the same area so I can see terrain details but also have a feel for the topography of the entire region I will be exploring. Look at your map and match it with what you are seeing as you go. This is a lot of work and it means a lot of stopping unless you have a co-driver with you. Pick out unique features and notice how they appear to change as you travel through the landscape. It is useful to mark points that you recognize with absolute certainty as you go and reset a trip odometer so that you can measure how far you traveled from the last known point.

I also use a variety of smart phone apps to help me navigate, including Google and Funtreks. It’s likely that you’ll have no cell signal on many trails you explore, but if you load that area into the app before you leave signal range, you can use it to follow along and see satellite photos the whole time you are on the trail.

My usual selection of maps for an excursion includes large- and small-scale varieties, as well as local trail books. I don’t take any one of them as gospel—all can have errors, and things change. Compare them to each other and to what you see on the ground, don’t just follow them blindly. Same advice applies to electronic devices. Always use those critical thinking skills!

Although most late-model vehicle navigation systems don’t include much detail once you leave paved roads, many can provide you GPS coordinates. At the very least, you can use those GPS coordinates to plot your approximate position on any USGS topographical map or most atlases. Some vehicle nav systems will also give you elevation, which is useful to help you pinpoint where you are along a specific line or road.

Before a trip, I spend a lot of time studying terrain on Google maps or Google Earth at home on the big-screen desktop computer while I am route planning. In fact, that is often how I find routes or destinations I would like to explore—I see some colorful canyon or remote campsite that looks interesting and work backwards to plan a trip. My final thought to share on off-road navigation is that, as with most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—it’s easier to stay on top of where you are at all times than to suddenly realize you don’t know where you are, or when the last time was you did know where you were. It takes a little work to be a good off-road navigator, but it’s worth it!

The DeLorme Atlas has clearly marked latitude and longitude marking, including tick marks at each minute, so it’s simple to estimate your position if you have nothing else but your current coordinates. Let’s say you are driving west on St Cloud Rd, but you want to know how close you are to Hagins Peak, since the thick forest is probably blocking your view. First, you could have set a trip odometer at the last known intersection to measure how far you have driven on that road. Second, let’s say the GPS coordinates from a handheld device or the nav system in your rig are 33º18’15”N 107º43’30”W. By using a pencil or just a finger-tip to find where those lines intersect, you can determine that you must be very close to Silver Well. Clear as mud?
Even the most navigationally challenged can learn to look around and identify the most prominent landscape features, and observe how your perspective of those landmarks change as you travel.
Do you know how to read topographical data? Can you use a compass to plot a course on a map? Most baseplate compasses, like the one pictured, also include measurements from the most common map sizes.
I also like a feature that Google recently added to its map program—you can load detail maps of any areas “offline” so that they will be available even when you don’t have any cell signal.
Some smart phone apps, like FunTreks and Cartotracks, are specifically designed with the off-road community in mind¬, just be sure to preload maps for use anytime, regardless of cell signal strength.
Even when you forget to preload your FunTreks map, the app will still keep you on track. You just don’t get the Google Earth view.
Most late-model 4x4s include a navigation system that will show your current GPS coordinates.


Funtreks Guidebooks By Charles Wells and Matt Peterson
Delorme Atlas & Gazetteer
Wilderness Navigation By Bob Burns and Mike Burns

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