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.
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.
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!
BOOK SOURCES:Funtreks Guidebooks By Charles Wells and Matt Peterson
Delorme Atlas & Gazetteer
Wilderness Navigation By Bob Burns and Mike Burns