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Ditching GPS for a Topo Map and Compass

Darran Wells, who wrote the book on wilderness navigation (literally), lends his wisdom on navigation sans GPS, from topographic maps to the North Star.

Compass And Map

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of the muscle. He has got a fine Geneva watch, but he has lost the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

It’s ironic, isn’t it? We like stuff — or “gear”, if only because “Stuff Patrol” wouldn’t sound as good — and we like the notion of endurance-testing outdoor living. Yet history’s biggest proponent of outdoor living argues that stuff is what pulls us away from our natural form, the likes of which are meant for hardy nature-dwelling. Emerson’s passage is just a couple sentences away from civilized man’s logical conclusion: “He has bought an iPhone, but has sold his navigational skills; has lost his focus; can no longer remember who William H. Macy is without Googling it.”

Darran Wells, author of Wilderness Navigation and associate professor of outdoor education at Central Wyoming College, takes a less pessimistic stance, at least as far as technology and camping is concerned. “I’m pretty fascinated with new navigation apps — maps, GPS”, he says. When it comes to wilderness navigation and smartphones, he maintains he’s “not one of these Luddites that says ‘don’t carry a smartphone, don’t carry GPS.'” People just have to be smart about how they use that stuff, he says, which amounts to using GPS technology to double-check existing navigational skills rather than relying on it entirely, which is indeed a problem. “I think augmented reality, heads-up displays and apps that tap into that GPS potential are only gonna become more and more common”, Wells says. “And we’re gonna have more and more instances where people rely a bit too much on that and don’t bring along analog maps and equipment.” If they’re taken along at all, analog topographic maps and compasses are viewed as a failsafe for technological failure rather than the other way around.

Which is a little bit like deciding you don’t need to learn to drive because Cruise Control exists. According to Wells, being able to navigate with a United States Geological Survey standard topographic map and a compass is a basic skill that anyone planning to get serious about camping should have in his or her arsenal. That, and topographic maps are simply more intuitive than smartphones at this point; on a size basis alone, surveying the entirety of the national park or reserve you’re traversing on a topo map makes more sense than zooming in and out and calibrating and recalibrating your map and location on your tiny smartphone screen. Any time you rely on an electronic source, you’re putting your fate in the hands of something that could either die on you or give you a misreading. And perhaps most importantly, you’re using a method that disengages you from your surroundings; if the mind is a muscle, orienting yourself with a map and compass is a warmup that makes navigating your immediate surroundings come more naturally. If you make a wrong turn while following a GPS, you won’t have as much of a grasp on what you did wrong as you would if you had figured out the directions on your own with a map and compass.

Ultimately, your topo map should be your first resort; smartphones and GPS should be your second; the North Star-and-breadcrumbs route should be your last (we’ll get to that). For all of the above, Wells highly recommends taking a formal wilderness navigation course — but he did offer some tips to get you started practicing.

Know How to Read a Topo Map

Obviously using a topographic map and a compass is much more involved than following the little blue bead on Google Maps. First things first: know your colors. For the most part, they’re what you’d expect, but there are some caveats. Green means vegetation — but specifically overhead vegetation, i.e. trees. White is the absence of green; “it doesn’t mean there’s no grass, or sage brush, or ground cover of any kind,” says Wells — “it just means that there’s no trees, or the trees are very sparsely located.” Blue means water, as you’d expect. But depending on the season and on other factors, the river you see on the map may have dried up — so if you’re looking for a river, you may also be looking for a deep trough. For this reason Wells refers to such bodies of water as “drainages”. Brown is generally reserved for contour lines, which display elevation.

Next, know your lines. “The reason that contour lines are most useful”, says Wells, “is that they help you visualize the shape of the land.” If you see a distinctively steep hill up ahead, or you’ve been traveling up or downhill for a long time, those characteristics should be easy to find on your map. “The steeper the hill, the more close together the contour lines are. Dense, dark brown lines mean a real steep, cliffy area, then wide-open gaps between those lines mean that it’s flatter.” Elevation, meanwhile, is marked along the noticeably thicker index lines, which occur every five lines — generally 200 feet apart — longitudinally and latitudinally. Depending on your location, comparing those points should give you a proper sense of scale when comparing the map to your surroundings, and noting the density of contour lines within a certain span will indicate the elevation gain of a given hill.

Just Add Magnetism

Using your compass is basic enough in principle. In the words of Wells: “The best use of the compass is to orient your topo map. That’s matching up north on the map with true north.” All USGS topo maps are arranged such that north is the top of the map, making orientation simple enough: hold the map flat and line the north indicator on your compass with the one on your map.

Where it gets a little more complicated is adjusting for declination. “Declination is the angular difference between magnetic north and true north.” Our planet’s magnetic fields shift over time, so the north that we see on the compass doesn’t lead precisely to the north pole; it misses it by a number of degrees, and that number changes from year to year, which is reflected in each new edition of USGS topo maps. “That angle is also gonna vary depending on where you are in the world. In the US, if you’re farther out on the coast, you’re gonna have a bigger angle between magnetic north and true north.”

“Everyone tries to make it as simple as possible”, says Wells, “but I really think it’s worth it to buy a book on navigation and learn it that way.” For a quick guide to adjusting for declination, see the USGS’s guidelines.

For beginners, Wells reiterates that it’s a good idea to practice using a topo map with a GPS on hand to verify that your navigational efforts are correct. Then you can gradually ween yourself off of digital tools — again, at least as your first resort. One easy tip is to “thumb” your way through the map; once you’ve oriented yourself and verified your location, place your thumb on where you’ve discerned yourself to be and move it as you walk, as though your thumb were the aforementioned blue bead on Google Maps. Just don’t put the map away once you think you’re back on track.

Nice One, Big Shot.

But what if you think you’re Rambo in First Blood, and you wander into the woods with nothing?

If you’re miles — or mere feet, for all you know — from camp, defer to boy scout training. Ideally you’ll have a rough idea of where you started from, if you took note of which cardinal direction you left camp from. With that in mind, finding your way back empty handed isn’t terribly different, in principle, from doing so with a map and compass; you’ll just have to find your cardinal directions via different means, and hope you don’t happen upon an impassible hill, ditch or body of water that you otherwise could have seen coming with a map.

How you find north depends on your situation. In the daytime, if the skies are clear and you’re not completely shaded by trees, you should generally be able to use your shadow and the position of the sun. Given that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west in the Northern Hemisphere, your shadow will roughly indicate the opposite cardinal direction from the sun’s position: west in the morning and east in the evening. And accordingly, north and south will be adjacent to what you discern as east and west. If it’s overcast, defer to the old Boy Scout rule of thumb: in the northern hemisphere, moss tends to grow on the north side of trees; in the southern hemisphere, it grows on the southern side. (Moss likes the shade.)

And at night? “Practicing navigation in the dark is very valuable”, says Wells. “It’s one of those things that nobody practices because they figure, well, I’m just not gonna travel at night. But as soon as there’s some emergency, you’re almost always gonna travel at night.” As you likely learned as a kid, there’s the North Star, or Polaris — which is actually 0.7 degrees off of north, but, close enough. To find the North Star, locate the Big Dipper; seek out the two stars that make up the outer edge of its “cup” (i.e. the two stars farthest from the “handle”); trace an imaginary line from the floor of the cup to the rim and continue, and it’ll eventually lead you to the North Star, which marks edge of the “handle” of the Little Dipper — and which, helpfully, is the brightest star in the constellation. Take as much time as you need to get accustomed to the position of the dippers so that you can easily find them again. Additionally, Wells says you can use stars in the southern sky to keep you on track as well. “They’re gonna vary a little bit depending on where you are in the world and what year it is — but if you can pick out the North Star, then it’s a fairly simple thing to turn around 180 degrees and pick out a constellation that is due south.” Simply find one that sticks out to you and take the time to get used to its spacial relation to the North Star.

If it’s an overcast night, then you’ll have to rely on any trails, roads or rivers you can find — what Wells calls “hand rails”. Plan ahead and identify a distinctive one from which you can figure out your direction: for example, “if I’m walking along this river and it’s to the left of me, I’m walking west.” If you planned ahead, that should lead you to some distinctive landmarks you may have noted earlier — points at which rivers and trails cross one another; lakes and ponds, particularly in unusual shapes; high points on the skyline — or at least re-orient your sense of the cardinal directions.

Another common bit of wisdom is to follow running water. But according to Wells, “The only thing you can really count on is that water flows downhill; so if you’re high in the mountains and you want to get down to the valley, yeah, follow a river. But that river doesn’t know where you wanna go; it’s just gonna go down. But it’s helpful, because most most towns and cities and population centers tend to be at lower elevations.”

Common sense goes hand in hand with the spirit of camping, here: as you’re traveling to your destination, periodically stop and take note of your surroundings. Getting to know the landscape is what all these methods boil down to; if you’re not doing that, then you’re not just being a shitty camper — you’re also setting yourself up to get lost. Stop and smell the roses — if not for your enjoyment, then for your own good.

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