By Karl Findling
The idea of hunting the backcountry is increasingly appealing to many folks. Today, it seems everyone has a GPS unit and can travel for days over diverse country. But, what occurs when the GPS is inoperable or the batteries die? Do you know how to navigate without your GPS in country you’ve never been in or seen in daylight? How about when fog or snow sets in? How competent are you with a map and compass?
* The 12 Essentials
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
- First-aid supplies
- Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
- Repair kit and tools
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Hydration (extra water)
- Emergency shelter
- Communication (whistle/cell or satellite phone and/or, GMRS/FRS radio/ELB or SPOT®)
- GPS (Global Positioning System)
Classic Ten Essentials:
- Sunglasses and sunscreen
- Extra clothing
- First-aid supplies
- Fire starter
- Extra food
If we are going to travel in the backcountry away from modern conveniences then we need to know how to return to the trailhead. It means personal responsibility beyond the green gate. Make the effort to learn basic navigation skills, determining declination, finding north on a compass and returning to your vehicle. Learn these skills and the backcountry becomes an endless wilderness that has no boundaries.
As a former search and rescue volunteer, I remember a group that was lost in the Cascade Range of Oregon. They called 911 to report they were lost, and when an intervening Sheriff’s deputy asked if they had a GPS, the answer was, “Yes, but we don’t know how to use it!”
A year later a similar call to 911 revealed that this family still had not learned the basics of GPS operation, as they requested “rescue” again from nearly the same location. The point being: know your equipment and how to use it.
If you don’t have navigation skills, even staying on roads and trails can lead to an unplanned overnight in the backcountry. One October an Oregon hunter on an ATV drove on a road away from camp to dispose of a deer carcass. Once he left the carcass, the return to camp seemed simple enough, but somehow he couldn’t follow his ATV tracks back to camp. He spent the night out without essentials. The next day he was found very cold and lucky to be alive. One of the lessons learned: alwayshave the 12 essentials (see side bar). Staying hydrated and warm are two of the fundamentals of survival – add a head lamp to assist in gathering wood, and the fear factor is halved! Carry fresh spare batteries for all electronic devices.
At one time or another, many of us have become disoriented in patches of blow-down or stands of second-growth or dense young trees. Or when we’ve lost a trail due to snow-drifts or while navigating in the dark, but we’re not lost. The difference between disorientation and being lost can be subtle, but the decision between self-help and calling for rescue becomes critical.
The “disoriented” hiker may still have landmarks at his/her disposal, where the “lost” hiker may have none. When truly lost, the hiker typically wanders for hours or days in circles so random that search-and-rescue personnel experience difficulty making sense of the route. There is a common belief to always go downhill, or drop in elevation if disoriented. The reasoning is, “You’ll eventually hit a road.” Not true. That strategy can be very dangerous in many locales. So, how do you stay found?
- Know how to navigate using a map and compass.
- At a minimum, always carry a map, compass, headlamp and fire-starting equipment – and know how to start a fire in any conditions.
- Never go anywhere without the 12 Essentials.*
- Have a communication plan. If hunting with partners, test frequencies. Sample language: “I have a Fox 40 whistle. I’ll turn on my FRS/GMRS radio on-the-hour, starting at 0900. Then, every-hour, if we miss communicating, check back every half-hour.”
- Sit-down once disoriented. Don’t wait until you’re lost. This can be the most difficult survival decision a disoriented person may make. Get your bearings before moving.
- Always tell a reliable friend your itinerary. Leave a hide-a-key and notes with a map of your planned routing at home and in your vehicle, and give contingencies as best you can. If you are diverted from the original plan, decide whether sitting and waiting for rescue is the prudent thing.
Karl Findling, is the Oregon BHA representative-at-large and owner of Oregon Pack Works, LLC. He makes no claims to be an expert in backcountry navigation. The above stories and tips are merely stories and tips. Actual experiences may vary.
Note: The original Ten Essentials list was assembled in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization for climbers and outdoor adventurers. In 2003, the group's updated "systems" approach made its debut in its seminal text on climbing and outdoor exploration, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (The Mountaineers Books, 2010), now in its eighth edition.