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How To Cultivate Skills To Get Around Without A GPS

I stumbled through the woods wearing blaze orange, carrying my rifle. I was fourteen and on my first elk hunt in the Colorado Rockies.  It was getting dark, not because it was late in the day, but because a storm was moving in. Thunder had been booming over the ridges for the last half an hour or so and I was scared – scared and lost. Well, not really lost, but the road wasn’t where I had been told it was supposed to be.

My dad and his hunting buddy, Gary, had dropped me off about a mile back up on the ridge and told me, “Just walk down hill and bear a little right and you will hit the road down below.”  Well, that was a long time ago, and I hadn’t hit any road.

Then it started to sleet—wet, stinging sleet. The lightning started hitting closer, and I could feel the thunder rattle my bones. I finally stopped and realized I wasn’t going to find my way out, so I swallowed my pride and fired three times in the air, sat down in a sheltered spot by an opening in the trees, and waited. Quicker than I expected, Gary walked into the opening, grabbed me by the collar, and towed me out to the road.

This incident was years before GPS devices were common, and it motivated me to learn navigation skills so that it wouldn’t be repeated. I have found these skills to be valid in the city, country, or even the wilderness. They can be used separately or together to keep you found and on the right track.

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Get a Map

In the example above, if I had studied a map before we went hunting in that area, I would have known that the road they wanted me to come out on paralleled the road they had dropped me off on only so far.  It then turned and ran directly away. I had gone beyond where it turned and could have kept going at least another five miles before I hit a different road.

Topographic maps are available for all of North America. They show waterways, ridges, predominant peaks, and even tree cover. If you study them and carry them with you, you will most likely be able to determine where you are and which way you need to go.

Maps are good for a city dweller also. If you are new to a city, study the road map for the main thoroughfares. It will take years to learn all the little streets, but if you know the main north-south and east-west roads you will be able to find your way if you ever become lost. If you get turned around, just drive until you hit one of the main streets and turn onto it. Then follow it until you hit another. You should now know exactly where you are.

Get a Compass

But a compass is so passé, you might think. Get one anyway. I had one in my little adventure, but I didn’t use it. In my case, it really wouldn’t have helped me without a map, even if I had gotten it out. While I was lost, I could have pointed to camp or town. I was more misplaced than actually lost, plus I was panicked because of the storm, which I am sure you can relate to. I just wanted to get out of there and back home!

To use a compass, you should decide on a course when you leave a known spot. Take out your compass and look at it, find north, and decide which direction you wish to travel. If you decide to hike southeast, you will know if you get turned around that in order to return you need to hike northwest.

Using a compass and a map together is called orienteering and is taught by the Boy Scouts. Orienteering is like geocaching without the GPS. You use a map and compass to locate certain points and then proceed to follow a predetermined route on your map. There are even orienteering competitions, races, and treasure hunts. Orienteering is a fun way to learn or brush up on your map and compass skills.

Finding Your Way Without a Compass

There are ways to stay found in the city, but they will differ somewhat from town to town. The general rule is simple: learn the main roads. You can almost always find a main road when you are turned around. I have lived in Denver and learned to get around there quite well. In Denver, if the mountains are on your left, you are going north. Conversely, if they are on your right, you are going south.  Simple, even for the most directionally challenged person.

Other cities will have similar schemes to learn; study your map and you won’t have a problem. If you get lost, overcome your pride.  Stop and ask directions. In general, women don’t have an issue with this. We men, well, we’re bullheaded.

When I am driving out in the country, I like to sight see, so I travel many different routes, even when I am going to familiar places. I play a game with my wife called, “Which way is north?” (I should tell you that she hates it.) If you know the general direction of your destination, you should have no problem getting into the right area, even while wandering around.

If you spend time in the backwoods, you should learn the old time skills of our forefathers. They paid attention to detail. Not just any detail, but things that were out of place. The old timers ignored taking note of things that belong. If you have ever been in the deep woods, you may notice the sameness of it all, but what is that sycamore tree doing in the middle of this pine forest? See how that rock outcropping looks like a three-legged dog? Taking note of landmarks like this in your mind as you walk will help you to retrace your route.

Finding North

Look at the sun in the morning or evening. In the morning, if you face the sun you are generally facing east, depending on the season. In the summer you will be facing more northeast, and in winter, southeast. The opposite is true if you face the setting sun; you will then be facing westward.

If you are wearing a watch, hold it up and point the hour hand at the sun (if it is digital, you will have to visualize the hands).  The point directly between the hour hand when it is pointing at the sun and 12 o’clock will be directly south in the northern hemisphere, and directly north in the southern. Always count up to 12 before noon and count down after noon. As an example, if it is 8 a.m., then 10 o’clock would point south. If it is 8 p.m., then it would be 4 o’clock pointing south.

You have probably heard that moss grows on the north side of the tree.  Well, yes – sort of. It is true of moss; however not true about lichen. Lichen grows on all sides and looks similar to moss. Also, it must be a vertical tree with no branches or burls creating a shaded spot for the moss to grow. Then, finally, you must be in some part of the country where moss actually grows on trees.

The tops of evergreens will generally dip toward the rising sun. This is not a constant, but is something that can be used to help determine, along with other factors like prevailing winds, which way is north.

The Big Dipper is probably the most recognized constellation in the northern skies. If you line up the two stars on the side of the dipper away from the handle, they will make a line pointing directly to the North Star.

One last way to find north is by using shadows. Put a stick in the ground and mark where the tip of the shadow is. A few minutes later, when the shadow has moved, mark that spot, and so on until you have a line of spots. The sun travels from east to west so the shadow will travel the opposite direction. Your first mark will be west and your last east.

Finding your way, city or country, does not have to be difficult. Daniel Boone once said, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” Even expert woodsmen can get turned around on occasion, but if you cultivate your staying found skills the chances become very small.

©2012 Off the Grid News

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