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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 Watch for Extremes
Use landscape-specific details to pick the right path in snow and sand.

Snow
» 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.

Deserts
» 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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Reader Rating: Star Star Star

READERS COMMENTS

Star Star
Chuck
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
Hambone
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
BJ
Jan 07, 2013

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

Star Star Star Star Star
JP
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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