Navigation Skills in the Wilderness

Navigation Skills in the Wilderness

For a properly prepared Outdoorsman there really is no good excuse to go into the wilderness without the company of a good GPS, a map of the area, or some form of navigation readily available to you.  Whether you are going out on a backpack trip or just out for a day of fishing, you should always carry a GPS if the area is unfamiliar to you. That said, if you find yourself lost because your GPS has died, basic navigation knowledge is vital to anyone who spends time in the wilderness.

"Around 2000 hikers and backpackers are lost in the wilderness every year"

In a survival situation, you have many decisions to make but really only two options to choose from:  Stay and wait for help or try to navigate your way back to civilization.  It seems like a simple decision to make however there are a few factors to consider when making this decision that could ultimately mean the difference between life and death.  The first thing that you should always do is evaluate your situation so that you can make decisions based on what you know to be true and accurate.  Here are a few important items that you should consider:
  • Will anyone be looking for you?
  • Did you let anyone know where you were going or when to expect you back?
  • Are you prepared to spend the night in the elements?
  • What is the weather like?
  • Are you dressed for the elements?
  • Do you have any supplies with you?
  • Do you have shelter or are there materials to make a shelter?
  • Are you able to make a fire?
  • Are there enough materials to keep a fire going?
  • Is there a water source nearby?
  • Should you relocate to a different area that has more resources?
  • Do you stay put or try to find your way out?  
If you have decided to try to navigate your way out, you should always mark your starting location with an indication of which direction that you are headed so that if a search team is lucky enough to find it, they will know the general direction to look.  A simple arrow stomped in the snow or an arrow made of sticks branches or rocks should be enough to help.  Using the sun, the stars, and a little ingenuity can help you find your way in the wilderness and is easy to do more often than not. Remember, people have been using the heavens to navigate for thousands of years. The following techniques can be used anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere  and are sometimes incredibly accurate, but give you only general direction:
In the northern hemisphere, the location of north can be determined by the North Star. The North Star, also known as the Pole star or Polaris, is a valuable navigation aid because it's located almost above polar north. The North star is not a very bright star, but unlike the other stars, it remains at a fixed location in the sky and therefore will always be an accurate indicator.

The North Star forms part of the Little Dipper handle and can be confused with the Big Dipper. Prevent confusion by using both the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia together. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia are always directly opposite each other and rotate counter clockwise around the North Star. The Big Dipper is a seven star constellation in the shape of a spoon (or as known on the
other side of the Atlantic, a dipper). The two stars forming the outer lip of this spoon are the "pointer stars" because they point to the North Star, also known as Polaris. If you draw a line from the outer bottom star to the outer top star of the Big Dipper's bucket. Extend this line about five times the distance between the pointer stars. You will find the North Star along this line.
On a sunny day you can find North with the help of the sun by casting a shadow from a stick embedded in the ground.  Find a stick roughly 2 or 3 feet long and drive it into the ground in a location that is unobstructed from the sun.  The stick should cast a shadow.  Place a marker of some sort on the shadow about 3 feet from the base of the stick.  This will be "Marker A".

Wait 15 to 30 minutes while the shadow moves to the right of your "Marker A".  Now Place another marker on the shadow's new location.  This will be "Marker B".  Place your left foot on "Marker A" and your right foot on "Marker B".  You are now facing North.  To your left is West, to your right is East, and directly behind you is South.
Always take time to consider the facts and the questions above when making decisions about staying put or trying to find your way out.  Don't be overconfident and don't try to make yourself do things that are outside your skillset.  Most people that are lost in the wilderness are rescued safely within a couple of days.

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