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Backpacker Magazine – October 2010

Survival: Off-Course With No Map or Compass

Uh-oh, you forgot to download free maps at Backpacker.com, and now you're lost in the woods without any navigational tools. Smart! Now follow these rules to get found.

by: The Backpacker Editors

Use your watch to orient yourself.
Use your watch to orient yourself.

Orient Yourself
Start by locating the sun. It rises in the east and sets in the west (yes, lost persons have messed this up). It also sits low on the southern horizon during winter and, by midsummer, is almost overhead. If the time is close to noon, use this watch method to fix a direction more accurately: Take an analog watch (or draw one on the ground, taking the time from your digital watch). Position the watch so the hour hand points at the sun. The line that bisects the angle between the hour hand and 12 o’clock (1 o’clock during DST) is aligned north to south; find north by recalling that the sun tracks through the southern horizon.

Find the North Star
At night, you can identify Polaris (the North Star) by first finding the easily recognized Big Dipper. Take the two stars that form the lip of the Big Dipper’s cup, and trace a line upward (for about five times the distance between the two stars) until you reach a faint star. This is Polaris, and it always points north. Mark this direction in the dirt before sheltering for the night, and follow it in the morning.

Backtrack
Stop moving and start thinking about your last known location, usually a singular spot like a summit, trail sign, river crossing, or a lake. Return to that place if possible. If you can’t backtrack, you’ll need to navigate by dead reckoning. The good news is that most hikers lose their way within a mile of a marked trail, road, parking lot, or structure. So if you know a road or a trail is somewhere east of your location—and you’re certain you can travel east without a compass—head in that direction. The bad news is that lost people generally cannot follow a straight line across wilderness terrain. Unless you are totally confident, stay put and wait for rescue.

Survival Secret
If you’re lost, regularly double-check your direction as you hike to make sure you’re not wandering in circles or letting the terrain determine your path.


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READERS COMMENTS

Cal 20 Sailor
Aug 20, 2011

In my experience, the great difference between trail hiking and bushwacking/route-finding is that in trail hiking almost all my attention is on not stumbling over the many rocks and roots that make up back-country trails, whereas when I've been going cross-country I paid comparatively more attention to the terrain and lay-of-the-land that I was travelling through. The times when I've been disoriented were when the trail (often just an animal trail) petered-out, and my attention shifted from the ground upwards to the "unfamiliar" terrain around me...

Trey
Jul 28, 2011

It occurs to me that if your watch dies, you can reverse the watch orientation method to tell time by the sun. As long as you know which direction is south.

Zack Murphy
Jun 11, 2011

My friend and I once used some bread crumbs for land navigation. Unfortunately, the longer we hiked the longer we were lost. The sun went down and the temperature plummeted. A slight breeze made our efforts that more difficult.

Apparently, the animals ate the bread crumbs we used earlier for navigation. So, naturally we became increasingly concerned about the situation we were in.

Luckily, we came upon a house deep in the forest. The closer we got to the house, the more inviting I felt. The house was apparently made of gingerbread. We knocked on the door handle made of candy cane. A little old lady who looked like a witch in disguise answered the door. She invited us inside to warm up.

Oops, wrong story…sorry!

Rustin
May 24, 2011

it looks like the picture is wrong. the north/south line doesn't bisect the angle between the hour hand and twelve, it doubles the angle.

Buford
Apr 08, 2011

No doubt about it, the six P's (Proper Preperation Prevents Piss Poor Performance) comes into play here. Even if you are just following the "worn track" you should always be aware of the basic direction you are traveling. Then you are able to find your cardinal direction and determine which general direction you need to travel back to the road that connects to your trail head. Of course nothing beats a map and knowing how to read the terrain. This has to be the funnest way to navigate cross-country, in the piney woods, to your destination. "Who needs a compass???"

Eddie Gillespie
Mar 15, 2011

I agree that while it is better if you actually know the direction (East, West..etc...)that you need to go in you are much better off, but, in the event that you are so lost you don't know it is helpful if you can determine a direction and just stick with that direction as straight as possible. Sooner or later you will come out somewhere. Many lost people simply wander aimlessly or travel in circles and of course will come out no where. As a person who has been temporarily misplaced before I can testify that it's not a comfortable feeling.

djtrekker
Feb 15, 2011

Finding North is a common enough strategy, but folks don't mention that it doesn't do much good if you have no clue as to whether you should be going N-S-E or W. Do your map study (due diligence) to learn the area around where you plan to be - note the compass general direction of highways/roads, cities, big lakes from almost any position you could find yourself in before you embark so even if you get lost you have some idea of which direction will get you out.
My map study of a winter backpack lately (and follow up phone calls to ranger stations) informed me that no matter where or how I might get lost within the general area I was in, worst case was there was a paved maintained road within 3-8 miles (8 miles worst case) if I just headed straight East. South parallels that road more or less, and I could hike up to 20 miles or more and still not hit anything. West runs into a forest road within a couple miles, but it is closed for the winter, impassable. I could navigate out on that road, if I'm willing to put in another night or two on the trek (OK if I'm not in a survival situation).

Doing homework can pay big dividends when our GPS goes out and we forgot our map/compass......

just back from the southern hemi
Feb 10, 2011

It's a little different for people in the southern hemisphere where the sun tracks to the north.

Take an analog watch (or draw one on the ground, taking the time from your digital watch). Position the watch so the 12 o'clock points at the sun. The line that bisects the angle between the hour hand and 12 o’clock (1 o’clock during DST) is aligned north to south; find north by recalling that the sun tracks through the northern horizon.

just back from the southern hemi
Feb 09, 2011

It's a little different for people in the southern hemisphere where the sun tracks to the north.

Take an analog watch (or draw one on the ground, taking the time from your digital watch). Position the watch so the 12 o'clock points at the sun. The line that bisects the angle between the hour hand and 12 o’clock (1 o’clock during DST) is aligned north to south; find north by recalling that the sun tracks through the northern horizon.

just back from the southern hemi
Feb 09, 2011

It's a little different for people in the southern hemisphere where the sun tracks to the north.

Take an analog watch (or draw one on the ground, taking the time from your digital watch). Position the watch so the 12 o'clock points at the sun. The line that bisects the angle between the hour hand and 12 o’clock (1 o’clock during DST) is aligned north to south; find north by recalling that the sun tracks through the northern horizon.

BigSkyAdventurist
Oct 26, 2010

Take a GPS.

john
Oct 22, 2010

if the sun is shining your shadow points north in the northern hemisphere, practically all year, especially around noon. a variation will occur at other hours, NW am-NE pm. i think

Scott
Oct 22, 2010

Here is a way to determine your East-West axis. Put a stick in the dirt. Place a dot in the sand at the tip of the sun's shadow of the stick. Wait some time, maybe an hour or so, and repeat. Draw a line between the 2 points. This will be your East-West axis with West being the direction the sun is traveling.

Anonymous
Oct 19, 2010

I've found that even a basic knowledge of the area you are in and simple navigation skills can be very beneficial. I've been lost on two occasions. Both times I was without a map but was aware of handrails that helped get me back on track. The most notable when I was 9 years old in which two friends and I were lost in some woods spanning 600 acres. Despite being scared and extremely disoriented, we remembered that the sun set in the direction of our house and that a dirt road ran the entire length of those woods. Just that bit of awareness allowed us to calm down and within 45 minutes we were on the dirt road.

Now days I carry a suitable map of some sort but you can bet I spend at least 15 minutes making mental notes of prominent or notable features, direction, etc. If I become separated from my map, at least I have a general idea of the area. It amazes me how many people I meet on a trail taht are simply following the "worn track".

Nate
Oct 16, 2010

When I was a child I got lost hiking in the woods behind my house. I was able to "track" myself back home by looking for snapped twigs on plants I walked by and broken branches on the ground I walked on earlier.

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