Saturday, July 5, 2008

Backcountry Navigation, AKA Land Nav Part 1

One of the cornerstones of woodsmanship is learning the art of knowing where you are and planning where you want to be. It is the bedrock of staying found instead of getting lost. The backcountry can be immense, but it can also be as small as the woodlot down the street.

The basic (modern) tools of navigation are map, compass and GPS.

However, the mantra of bushcraft is "the more you know, the less you carry." With that in mind, I am going to discuss some of the alternative means of direction finding available. In the future I will write about map, compass and GPS techniques.

Moss doesn't only grow on the north side of trees... this is an old wives tale. It grows 360 degrees. It usually is heavier on the north side though. This would be a last ditch way of getting your bearings. You have to understand that it grows thicker on the north side because it is the shaded side to understand why this isn't a good method of direction finding. Since north facing slopes are typically the slopes that are timbered, and the north facing slopes are more shaded, it is natural that the moss (which by the way is often lichen and not just moss) grows 360. I will say that the more north you go, the better the odds that the moss will be exclusively on the north side. But I digress,

You can find your north from south with a tree, the sun and either snow or some time.

The snow to the north side of a tree will remain longer than the exposed southern side.

Since the sun moves from East to West, try this experiment next time you are out hiking. It has to be a sunny day. Find a stick a couple feet long. Stick it in the ground, pointed straight up. Notice the shadow of the stick and either place a smaller stick into the ground at the end of the shadow, dig a shallow trench along the shadow or place another stick in the shadow.

And wait.

15 Minutes later you should notice the shadow has moved. Again mark the shadow using a different stick, pebble, etc. Next, simply connect the dots between the ends of the shadows. You now have an east- west line. The first marker you placed is west, the second is east. And as you know, if west is on your left, then north is to your front, east to your rear.

Not as accurate as a magnetic compass, but a useful skill non the less. And it forces you to stop and think, which is oftentimes more important if you are turned around than actually finding out direction.

Of course, direction can be intuitive as well. One particular area I like to hunt elk is the front range of the Whitecloud Mountains. From the valley floor at 7000 feet, the mountains rise up to 10000. The valley is large enough to make its presence known 99% of the time. The other 1% is covered by "if I am climbing, the valley is behind me." Unless of course I have climbed over the ridgeline. The ridgeline runs roughly north south, so I know the valley is to the west. Although I am in the "backcountry" hunting there, I am confident I can find my way out, in the dark, without a compass simply by ensuring (and I know that here I would know if I went over the ridgeline) that I didn't cross over the ridge, and heading downhill. At the bottom there is an access road, and beyond that, a river.

But I don't always hunt there... and, having been turned around before, and the ensuing miles long walk back to camp or the truck being lost is no fun.

Another technique for staying found is using natural landmarks such as a stream. When I am out hunting or scouting for a hunt I try to avoid regular parking areas and trailheads. I will drive a road until I cross a creek, crick, stream, or river and will hike along it. When I am ready to turn around and head home or to camp, finding my way back is easy.

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