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Blake Miller: Moving Through the Backcountry (Topic Two)

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Before heading out on  a backcountry trip, there are three important steps to accomplish before leaving home.

by Blake Miller

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First, tell someone where you are going and when to expect your return.

Second, leave a map of your planned route with that responsible person and in your vehicle.

Third, fill out the trip plan I have posted on my web site at www.outdoorquest.biz/Links.htm; the trip plan stays with the responsible person.

As a Search and Rescue volunteer I have learned that these key steps can make a huge difference in you having to spend an unplanned night in the woods and being found – especially if you incur an unexpected injury or loss of communication.

The following are suggestions to consider before and during a trip into the backcountry.

While compass accuracy is important, many underestimate the topographic map as a key component in backcountry navigation. I recommend carrying a set of maps that include a 7.5’ United States Geological Survey (USGS) map and a map like a United States Forest Survey map. The USGS map gives me the detail information of the immediate area while the other map covers a much broader area. I look for significant land features that will surround my direction of travel.

Features such as distinct mountain peaks, a stream, and a ridge line are just of few topographic “hand rails” that
can help. For example, if a large stream is to be on your right and it’s not there, it is time to double check your navigation picture (figure 1).

Additionally, every hiker must account for declination before leaving the trailhead. I like to keep my navigation simple and personally use a compass that can be adjusted for declination such as the Brunton 8010G. This way I don’t have to worry about the math (do I add easterly declination or subtract it?)

Declination information found at the bottom of a topographic map is frequently out of date. Check the web site www.magnetic-declination.com to obtain the declination for the location you will be visiting. For more detailed information on declination visit www.outdoorquest.biz/

The rest of this post expands on Topic One, Walking a Line of Bearing. Topic One essentially gave the directions to plot a line of bearing on a map, discussed how to apply that to a compass and then use that bearing information to get started. This post will provide suggestions on how to maintain a “course” through the woods.

Figure 2: Heading toward Colt Lake.

To begin, this post will follow the scenario from Topic One – the traveler is moving out in the direction from Sunset Lake to Colt Lake; a compass direction of 018° True (Fig 2).

I recommended that the hiker do the following:

Use the Direction of Travel Arrow essentially as a sighting tool; pointing in the direction of the desired bearing of 018° (figure 3.)

The compass on the left has been adjusted to 018° by turning the compass housing. The red Direction of Travel Arrow points to the desired direction. The compass on the right has the magnetic needle directly on top of the Direction of Travel Arrow – accomplished by the hiker turning in place, moving until the needle is aligned.

Look down range (on the bearing of 018°) and sight on a distant object such as a single tree or land feature several hundred yards away.

Using the feature as a landmark, walk as straight as possible to the object without using the compass. On arrival, sight on another object on the bearing of 018°, repeating the process until arrival at the destination. This process is akin to leapfrogging through the woods along the line of bearing to reach your destination. It also keeps you moving in a generally straight direction as you
move forward.

Sighting on a distant object or having a partner go down range will help. Note that in featureless terrain, a hiking partner can purposefully move downrange several hundred yards. To keep the partner on track, his position left or right of the line of bearing can be adjusted by hand signals or voice commands.

The topography of the local terrain will impact the hikers travel. Traversing sloping hill-sides may cause the individual to drift down hill and go off course. Dense cover will impact travel too.

The standard baseplate compass is fairly accurate and adequate for most backcountry travelers. For those who desire more capable equipment the Silva Ranger (515CL) or Brunton Eclipse would be good choices. This Silva compass has a sighting system that is inherently more accurate when the compass cover is used like a rifle sight (figure 3.) Expect to pay more for the better compasses.

To improve accuracy I’d suggest:

  • Ensure the compass is “on the mark” in terms of correct declination adjustment, the setting of the Direction of Travel Arrow and the alignment of the compass to the bearing (are you really pointing in the right direction.)
  • Pick the best land marks to work with such as pinnacles and spires and pronounced land marks; the choices may be limited.
  • Take care when taking a bearing off the map. Compass placement and careful reading of the dial is important.

There are several factors that impact accuracy that the hiker may have no control over but should be aware of. Some of these include:

  • The quality of the hiker’s vision.
  • Polarity of the compass’ magnetic needle – does it point in the right direction?
  • Polarity may change over time such that the magnetic needle my no longer work accurately.
  • Smooth movement of the magnetic needle.
  • Alignment of the compass dial to compass housing.

Local attraction – Similar to declination, local attraction is magnetic interference unique to a specific location. It may be caused by buried metal objects or an unusually high concentration of iron or nickel in the ground.

Navigation is not hard but it does take practice; it is a perishable skill. I recommend to those in my classes that a minimum of two weeks before a backcountry trip that the GPS, map and compass goes everywhere with them. Take the time to compare the three with what is seen.

When in the wilderness compare both map and compass with a GPS when possible. Hiking companions should compare their work too.

Familiarity with your equipment will make you a more skilled advocate for your safe return.

References that I frequently use include:

Staying Found, The Complete Map & Compass Handbook by June Fleming
Blake Miller has made a career out of staying found and knowing where he is at all times. His formal navigation training began when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1973. He served as an officer aboard several Navy ships over his

Blake Miller

twenty-year career; many of those tours included the duty of Navigator. Blake began working with satellite navigation systems at sea in 1976, culminating with the then-new satellite positioning systems aboard the Battleship WISCONSIN in early 1990.

In 1998 Blake started Outdoor Quest, a business dedicated to backcountry navigation and wilderness survival. Blake has taught classes to wild land firefighters, state agency staffs, Search and Rescue team members, hunters, hikers, skiers, fishermen and equestrians. He regularly teaches classes through the Community Education programs at Central Oregon (Bend) and Chemeketa (Salem, OR) Community Colleges.

As a volunteer, Blake teaches navigation and survival classes to students in the local school districts, and conservation groups. He is a member of a Search and Rescue team.

If you have any questions about land navigation or wilderness survival, you can contact Blake through SurvivalCommonSense.com@gmail.com, or you can go to his website.

Contact Information:

Website: www.outdoorquest.biz

Blog: outdoorquest.blogspot.com

Phone: 541-280-0573

Email: outdrquest@aol.com

To hear the Blake Miller interview about choosing a magnetic compass and GPS on SurvivalCommonSense.com Radio, click here.

For more navigation information, click here

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