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Backpacker Magazine – November 2012

Master Class: Read the Wilderness

Use nature's signs to orient yourself, pick your path through varied terrain, and predict the weather.

by: Phoebe Smith

Look for clues in the landscape. (B. Pilgrim)
Photo by Look for clues in the landscape. (B. Pilgrim)
Look for clues in the landscape. (B. Pilgrim)
Use the sun's position to estimate remaining daylight. (James Senter)
Photo by Use the sun's position to estimate remaining daylight. (James Senter)
Use the sun's position to estimate remaining daylight. (James Senter)
Predators, like bears, leave signs of their presence. (John Jaques)
Photo by Predators, like bears, leave signs of their presence. (John Jaques)
Predators, like bears, leave signs of their presence. (John Jaques)
Watch birds for signs of changing conditions. (Greg McCrimmon)
Photo by Watch birds for signs of changing conditions. (Greg McCrimmon)
Watch birds for signs of changing conditions. (Greg McCrimmon)

Ο Tune in to Nature
The key to using natural signs? Combining subtleties into a big-picture appreciation of your surroundings. The benefit? Smarter and safer wilderness routefinding. If possible, get a high vantage, which will provide a better angle for spotting terrain and environmental clues like: approaching storms, distinct landmarks, potential escape routes (like roads), dense areas of vegetation (often south-facing), easy bushwhacking, and likely water sources.

Ο Use Your Senses to Guide You
Get your bearings by seeing, hearing, and feeling signs of terrain changes and shifting weather conditions.

>> Train your eyes.
Look up, down, side-to-side, and turn around for a peek behind you. Changing your field of view and depth of vision frequently will help you see important clues both big and small. That could mean the first hint of a storm brewing in the distance or faint game trails in dense brush.
>> Listen for leads.
Echoes can help you determine distances: For each 500 feet, an echo will take one second to bounce back to you. Pay attention to a shift in volume: Cold and humid air, which often precedes a front, carries sound better than warm dry air, so noises travel farther and seem louder pre-storm.
>> Feel subtle clues.
Use touch to orient yourself and anticipate weather. The south side of boulders and trees will feel warmer than the north, and wind speed increases may indicate shifting weather. Note changes underfoot: Windward ridges have more gravely soil, and wet canyons can hint at flood potential.

Ο TIP: Estimate Daylight
Hold your flattened palm (fingers together) at arm’s length and align your top finger with the bottom of the sun. For each finger width between the sun and the horizon, you have roughly 15 minutes of remaining light.

Ο TIP: Learn Prevailing Winds 
They shape terrain and vegetation over time, so even in shifting wind, clues from prevailing conditions may help you orient.

Ο Find North at Night
Work out the cardinal directions with this no-compass-needed technique.
Look for the Big Dipper, a distinct saucepan shaped by seven stars. Identify the two stars farthest from the constellation’s “handle” and take note of the distance between them. Extend an imaginary line from the two stars skyward, about five times that distance. The line points to Polaris, aka the North Star. To find north, draw another line connecting Polaris to the Earth’s horizon. Where it hits will be within one degree of true north. Learn other direction-finding techniques at

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star


Star Star
May 16, 2014

There is definitely not more vegetation on south facing slopes in the northern hemisphere, there is less! North facing slopes receive less sunlight allowing them to retain more moisture, resulting in more lush vegetation, earth sciences 101, how did they mess that up?!

Star Star Star Star Star
Jun 02, 2013

This is Great information anyone can use in the Outdoors, Short and sweet.

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
May 11, 2013

Great navigation tips Backpacker! The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. Stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. A compass doesn't need a signal or batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it and "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart" (Amazon) makes learning how to use a compass easy. Orient yourself day or night by using a compass, a compass and a map, a map and no compass, no compass and no map. This book is for all ages. It's only about 34 pages and illustrated.

Star Star Star Star Star
Jan 07, 2013

Great article for a brief skills summary. Perhaps a more lengthy article should be in consideration.

Star Star Star Star Star
Dec 16, 2012

Minor point here, but the Polaris graphic can be misleading. Unfortunately, many people have the misconception that the North Star (Polaris) is brighter than other stars - but it's not. It is strictly unique because of it's convenient location above Earths axis. So when you are looking for Polaris PLEASE BE AWARE that it is not especially bright!


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