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Backpacker Magazine – June 2001

Navigating From Lost To Found

How one perpetually disoriented hiker found her bearings, thanks to some backwoods navigation pros.

by: Annette McGivney


As I discuss navigation with Davis and other orienteering champs, I begin to realize that a sense of direction isn't something you're born with. Being a capable backcountry navigator is, for the most part, learned behavior. For the Australian aborigines and the Puluwat Islanders of the South Pacific, who navigate the backcountry as part of daily life, directional "instinct" results from extensive training that begins in early childhood, says Kenneth Hill, professor of psychology at St. Mary's University in Nova Scotia and author of Lost Person Behavior. "Having a good sense of direction," he says, "is based on the ability to take advantage of environmental cues, including feedback from one's own body movements, rather than on a mysterious sixth sense."

Or, as Davis puts it, "If the map says I'm supposed to be headed to the top of a mountain, then my legs should feel like they're hiking uphill."

There's no doubt that some of the orienteers at the Rocky Mountain 1000 who have achieved the "elite" level would love to see me veer off course like a lost calf looking for its mother. I can feel their eyes on me as Davis and I approach the starting line on Day 2. What they don't know is that my navigational outlook has spun 180 degrees in the past 24 hours. The name of the course we're navigating today, Plains of Despair, doesn't bode well, but I promise myself I won't get lost.

Once we're off and dashing through fields and forests, I constantly glance at my topo, rotating it to jibe with my direction of travel. It's amazing how much easier such a simple act makes coordinating the map and my location. I can almost visualize myself moving across the map's contours like a character in a computer game.

A few months later, on a solo hike through the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico, I choose a "more exciting option," as Davis calls it: I travel cross-country instead of on abandoned logging roads. This is it, the first test of my newfound confidence in my once-questionable sense of direction. I focus on the landscape around me like never before, noticing every drainage, hill, and opening in the forest. I study the spacing of the map's contours and anticipate the terrain ahead. Occasionally, I check my direction with the compass. Only the trees and elk witness my successful navigation, and I am incredulous. Could it be that the many times I've been lost in the woods were the result of something so simple as too much daydreaming and too little attention to geographic details?

Maybe someday, I'll master triangulation and declination and all those other multisyllabic compass-related skills. But today, as I hike out of the Santa Fe National Forest and see the sun glinting off my car, I celebrate my wonderful state of foundness. I wish those elitist orienteers were with me now, because I'd like to ask them, "Where's the beef?"



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