Backpacker Magazine –
Master Class: Read the Wilderness
Photo by Look for clues in the landscape. (B. Pilgrim)
Look for clues in the landscape. (B. Pilgrim)
Photo by Use the sun's position to estimate remaining daylight. (James Senter)
Use the sun's position to estimate remaining daylight. (James Senter)
Photo by Predators, like bears, leave signs of their presence. (John Jaques)
Predators, like bears, leave signs of their presence. (John Jaques)
Photo by Watch birds for signs of changing conditions. (Greg McCrimmon)
Watch birds for signs of changing conditions. (Greg McCrimmon)
Ο Watch for Extremes
Use landscape-specific details to pick the right path in snow and sand.
Listen for water running under the surface; falling through a snowbridge may trap you in a flooded tunnel or soak your feet, putting you at risk for frostbite. Jam your pole into the snow to test firmness underfoot before walking on snow over waterways.
Hard snow chunks, large surface cracks, or visible rock deposits atop a snowy surface may all indicate avalanche activity. When snow is unstable or you see signs of slides, move off of and away from steeps and travel in dense trees, on ridges, or in wide valleys.
Blowing snow is not a good indicator of wind direction. When building a wind block, look for evidence that has built up over hours or days: The narrow tips of elongated erosional ridges (called sastrugi) point into the wind. Scour holes form on the windward side of rocks and trees; drifts form in their lee.
Prevailing winds shape dunes into crescents or ridges. Walk on the windward side where slopes are mellower and sand is packed.
As you hike, regularly take note of your shadow’s profile while you’re on course. Though the shadow’s shape and length will change throughout the day, if you get turned around you can use a recent memory of it to help reorient.
Ο TIP: Look Up
Cloud movement overhead can signal wind direction even if dense trees block you from feeling it.
Ο Know Your Birds
Watch local and migratory species for clues to weather and terrain. Warblers stay within a mile of water, snow geese fly north in spring and south in winter, insect-eaters like swallows change flight patterns pre-storm (flying low when bad weather is coming), gray jays nest in subalpine areas (so you’re approaching open alpine terrain), and ptarmigans live almost exclusively above treeline. Note: Watch flock (not individual) behavior.
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