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Backpacker Magazine – May 2010

Navigate: Whiteout, Darkness, and Fog

Just because you can't see in front of you doesn't mean you can't navigate.

by: Kristin Bjornsen, Dougald Macdonald, & Kristin Hostetter



Prep Your Map with Key Bearings
During a blizzard or high winds, taking accurate bearings from a map may be impossible. Follow the example of mountaineers on Scotland’s Ben Nevis, who annotate their maps with two crucial bearings (231 degrees and 282 degrees) and the distance of the first leg (150 meters) needed to navigate off the cliff-girded summit during whiteouts, enabling them to dial in their bearing and go.

Follow a Contour
You can navigate a fog-shrouded hillside with just a map and altimeter. First, note your elevation, and find that contour line at your approximate location on the map. Now, use the altimeter to follow that contour toward a handrail feature such as a sharp ridge, streambed, or road. When you reach the handrail, you are located precisely where the contour line intersects that feature on the map.

Cast a Line for Visibility
Fog or blowing snow may skew depth perception. To mitigate vertigo and reveal hidden obstacles, Alaskan guide Joe Stock recommends “fly casting.” Tie a 20-foot length of brightly colored rope to a ski pole or ice axe, and cast the cord onto the snow as you travel across a snowfield or glacier.

Leapfrog to Stay On Course
Holding a bearing is tough if fog hides landmarks. Send one person ahead in line with the bearing till you begin to lose sight of him. Yell “right” and “left” or use hand signals to reposition him. Regroup at the new spot; repeat.


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READERS COMMENTS

Star
Seriously
Nov 23, 2013

I opened this article because I thought it would be interesting, but the sum of it was: use the GPS.
I call that cheating. Do it WITHOUT THE GPS!!

jesubmar
May 13, 2011

My two cents worth.
I appreciate Backpacker's effort to educate people on the use of new(GPS) tools in way finding. The title implies that anyone can do this; with repeated practice, maybe. But who is the reader really? Probably not arctic explorers but most likely everyday hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who under stressful conditions may end up walking in circles. I wish that Backpacker would emphasize in the article that reliance on high tech navigational tools is not a replacement for knowledge and practice of basic navigation skills. I do appreciate the article making reference to the use of the compass (basic navigational tool).
Cultures across time have learned to navigate the landscapes by the simplest of methods: "reading" the land (or sea or snow surface) and weather from repeated experience. I think it is important to know and practice basic navigational skills before one starts to use high tech tools(GPS). "You" may be out there in the middle of wilderness with a GPS when that solar storm hits earth or the batteries go dead or your GPS falls hard on rock/ice. Reliance on GPS is not a replacement for the repeated practice of basic navigational skills.

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