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Stay Found: Review these GPS tips before striking out in the backcountry

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Navigation is not hard but it takes practice and repetition. This post covers several GPS considerations before striking out for a destination.

by Blake Miller
The hike into the backcountry has come to an end.  Now it’s time to return to the trailhead.  By selecting “Find” or “Where Is” the GPS provides the direction to the trailhead at a bearing of 298° and at a distance of 10.2 miles. Sounds pretty simple.
GPS Compass display. The bearing to the destination is 298°. The hikers heading is about 115°.
Before striking out, let’s review and discuss some GPS navigation considerations.

The Electronic compass:  It must be calibrated after each battery change.  If the hiker doesn’t remember doing this, calibrate the receiver.  Bearing information will be more accurate.

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Distance information:  This data (e.g., 10.2 miles) is line of sight or more commonly, “as a crow flies.” The GPS receiver doesn’t take into account topography and detours that may be needed.  Thus, a distance of 10.2 miles may really be 11.2miles at the end of the hike.

Bearing: Make sure that bearing information is presented in “degrees” and not “cardinal letters” such as NNE (North North East).  Make this change by adjusting the compass setup.  Degree data is more meaningful and compliments your compass.  As the hiker moves down the trail, expect the receiver to provide continuous updates to the selected destination.  Note that the direction to the waypoint may very likely be different than the heading (direction of travel) as the hiker moves down the trail.  For example, the heading (figure 1 above) is 115° but the direction to the next waypoint is 298°.  Later, as the hiker moves directly to the waypoint, both the bearing and heading may be the same.

GPS Map Page: Select the map page.  Use this page to corroborate the electronic compass information.

Figure 2. The blue squiggly line is my recorded track; it is where I have been.

 The black triangle indicates my position on the map page and the direction travel.  In this view, the wide blue line is the GPS track; the hiker’s historical path through the woods.  The exaggerated black triangle points in the direction of travel. (The other red and brown lines are logging roads.)  To obtain this type of presentation the GPS has been left on capturing satellite data during the entire hike.

Using the black triangle, the hiker can follow his movement down the trail to the waypoint destination such as “CAMP” at the bottom right of the screen.

Bushwhack:  Occasionally the hiker may elect to bushwhack from a current position to a new destination.  The hiker should consult the map to assess the overall big picture to determine if the route is safe, find and identify natural obstacles and evaluate terrain.

Map and Compass:Don’t leave these important tools at home.  Practice with them during the hike.  For example, use the map and compass to orient the map to get the general lay of the land.  Use the compass to further evaluate the bearing to a destination.  For example, the GPS’ determines that the bearing to the trailhead is 298°.  Use the compass to sight a bearing of 298° and following the compass rather than the electronic compass.

Blake Miller

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 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 Global 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 district and conservation groups. He is a member of a Search and Rescue team.

Contact Information :

Website: www.outdoorquest.biz;

Phone: 541 280 0573;

Email: outdrquest@aol.com


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