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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 Learn from Trees
Use a weather-worn tree to orient yourself and find a protected site.
1. Choose a telling specimen. The elements’ effects are clearest on old, isolated, deciduous trees. In a crowded or evergreen forest, study the largest-diameter tree. Circle it several times to get a good view from all sides.
2. Use your observations to:
» Find north. Determine which side has the most branches and leaves. In the northern hemisphere, usually the south side is fullest and south-facing branches often grow straight out, away from the trunk. Northfacing ones are thinner and grow upward.
» Pick a campsite. Bent or combed-over branch tips can signal prevailing wind direction. For the best windblocking effect, set up camp between 1.5 and five tree-lengths from a stand of trees. Broken branches on a tree’s uphill side may indicate that it’s in an avalanche zone; move away from the slope to camp.

Ο Identify Hidden Paths
Look for signs of animal traffic: beaten ground, marked trees, tracks, scat, broken grass, torn leaves, etc. Drop to one knee or climb a hill; a new vantage can reveal a hidden trail.

Ο Heed Danger Signs
Translate observations into safe routefinding strategies.

» What you observe: A half-eaten animal carcass covered with loosely piled soil, leaves, or snow
What it means: Predators like cougars, foxes, and weasels cache half-eaten kills, but often remain near the food source—and defend it aggressively.
How to Travel: Back away from the carcass quickly and without disturbing it, but don’t run, which could trigger a predatory response if the hunter’s nearby. Give the cache a berth of at least 100 yards as you go around it (on the upwind side).

» What you observe: Roaring noise and limited visibility as you approach a mellow stream crossing
What it means: Water’s noise increases in steeps and near confluences and rapids. If river bends or vegetation block your up- and downstream views, the sound could signal an unseen danger.
How to Travel: Walk downstream to check for rapids, waterfalls, or major strainers before committing. Cross below (never above) rapids, and look for wide shallows to traverse, not fast-moving bends. Unclip your pack and keep your shoes on for the crossing.

» What you observe: Increasingly humid air and decreasing visibility of far-off landforms
What it means: Rising moisture in the air reduces visibility and is an early sign of an approaching thunderstorm. Other early signals include gusty winds, temperature swings, and building clouds.
How to Travel: Especially if you’re above treeline or on a ridge, be alert to other signs of approaching storms and scout routes toward uniform forests and lower terrain. Descend preemptively: Don’t wait until you see or hear flashes to find safe terrain.

» What you observe: Foot-long scratches in a tree trunk (at a height of about six feet) and large overturned rocks nearby
What it means: Dominant male black bears mark their scratching posts (often smooth-barked trees like aspen and poplar). They also dig for grubs under rocks and logs.
How to Travel: Stick together as a group and sing or shout; be especially noisy if you’re headed into the wind. Set up your cooking area first (100 yards downwind of where you want to camp) so you don’t track odors near your tent.

Ο TIP: Wind Vane Webs
Spiders often build on the leeward side of trees and rocks, thus indicating protected areas and providing clues to prevailing wind direction.

Ο TIP: Forage
Hunt for berries on south-facing slopes where plants grow more (and sweeter) fruit. Almost all aggregate berries (like raspberries) are safe to eat.

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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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