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June 2001

Navigating From Lost To Found

How one perpetually disoriented hiker found her bearings, thanks to some backwoods navigation pros.

“You don’t use compass bearings?” I ask. I’d long thought that expert navigation was all about taking an exact compass bearing at Point A, then following that reading in straight-as-an-arrow fashion to Point B. That’s what I’d done this morning–at least until I got lost and bailed out to a road.

“I don’t take numeric readings,” she replies. “I simply read the landscape and look for those features on my map, like that ravine over there.”

A little research after the Rocky Mountain meet turned up more expert navigators who emphasize map-reading skills as much as or more than compass-reading expertise. Even Green Berets in the U.S. Army’s Special Forces rely little on compass bearings for most of their land navigation. Instead, their training regimen focuses on the use of pace-counting techniques and “catching features” like ravines, mountains, and streams that serve as barriers to wandering off course (read “Planning Your Route”).

This is not to say that we backpackers should put our compasses out to pasture (that’s a cow joke, of course). In remote, forested locations, for example, sophisticated compass techniques may be essential to staying found (see “Bearing It All”). But the truth of the matter is that wilderness travelers will do just fine in most backcountry situations by using the compass merely for monitoring direction–as long as they read their topos carefully.

Hiking down the far side of a hill, then through a field beyond an abandoned road, Davis hits every spot she’s targeted on the map. Backcountry navigation is an entertaining puzzle to her, to be solved piece by piece. The biggest challenge, and what distinguishes the champion orienteers from the mediocre, is the ability to “redirect,” or get unlost. Earlier, when my compass bearings didn’t pan out as I navigated the course alone, I had committed an orienteering no-no: I kept hiking so I wouldn’t lose ground, naively hoping I’d somehow get back on track.

“When you think you’re off course,” says Davis, “you have to suck it up right away and admit it. You have to backtrack to a place you can identify on the map and then start over.”

Sharon Crawford, one of the top orienteers in the nation had given me similar advice before this meet. “You have to stay in control!” she said with the enthusiasm of an evangelist. “You can’t rely on trail signs!”

Although Davis acknowledges that many backpackers (herself included) want to relax during backcountry jaunts, she says she’s always aware of her location along the trail.

“When I’m hiking or backpacking, I have a different attitude. I like to be brain dead,” she says as we slog through knee-deep mud to cross a ravine. “But orienteering has caused me to have a level of common sense I didn’t have before. I keep track of where I am mentally, sometimes even subconsciously. I’m always on the lookout for features that signal I’m off course.”

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