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Backpacker Magazine – May 2010

Navigation: Canyons and Deserts

Learn how to stay on track and find water safely in the desert and canyons.

by: Kristin Bjornsen, Dougald Macdonald, & Kristin Hostetter

clutch skill
Aim Wide to Stay on Track
In a featureless desert environment, finding a specific spot, sans GPS, often involves lots of wandering, since it’s hard to stay perfectly on your bearing. “Aiming off”—plotting an intentional offset or error—can prevent such meandering as you trek toward a hard-to-see place.

Say you’re crossing sage flats east toward a chimney that drops into a canyon. The canyon runs north-south, and the chimney lies at a 90-degree bearing from your position. Since few people can follow a compass in an absolutely straight line, how will you know which way to turn to find the chimney once you reach the canyon rim?

Here's how Aim off in one direction: by 10 degrees for distances up to one mile, by five degrees or less for greater distances. If you deliberately err to the south of the chimney, for example, with a 100-degree bearing, you know you’ll be to the right of it once at the canyon rim. Turn left to find it. Use the same method to find a hidden spring or car parked on a road.

Find Water Safely
Springs and seeps tend to surface lower in canyons, so start near the canyon mouth and travel upstream. This is safer than moving down-canyon, since you won’t descend a drop-off that you can’t climb back up. Also, never scramble into potholes unless you’re certain you can climb out; and beware of pools, which can hold deceptively deep, cold water.

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