Staying Found

With GPS satellites whizzing overhead, who needs a compass anymore? Why, you do.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Two of the wonders of the Orient that Marco Polo brought back to Italy under the sails of his Venetian galley were gunpowder and the compass. In the 700 years since, man's fascination with the former has gotten him lost in such disparate hunting grounds as the Kalahari Desert and the Kenai Peninsula, while his ability to use the latter has returned him safely to camp. Staying found is simply a matter of knowing approximately where you are at all times, and any discussion must begin with the sliver of steel that points to the poles of the earth.

The earliest Mongol compass was nothing more elaborate than a shard of ore that, when floated on a piece of wood, aligned itself with one end pointing to the magnetic north. Today's compasses, with their steel needles damped in housings of alcohol, offer the cheapest, most reliable navigational tools available to the hunter and, next to a calm, clear-thinking mind, the best insurance anyone has against becoming lost.

Taking a bearing on distant landmarks has been reduced to a simple formula with the protractor or baseplate-type compasses pioneered by Silva. These compasses can also be aligned with the edge of a U.S. Geological Survey map to give a precise bearing between two mapped positions. The only fly in the ointment is that you must take into consideration declination, which is the difference between magnetic north and the true north that is marked on the map. (The angle of declination is marked at the bottom of the map.) For example, I hunt in Montana, where the declination is 18 degrees east. To compensate, I use a ruler and pencil to overlay the vertical north-south lines on my map with a series of diagonal north-south lines that correspond to the magnetic declination. The alternative is to compensate by adjusting the dial of the compass, which I find confusing and bothersome.

Good baseplate compasses need not set you back more than $15 to $20, and I strongly recommend that anyone who hunts beyond the back 40 of his neighbor's farm obtain a manual such as Bjorn Kjellstrom's Be Expert With Map and Compass, then practice on open terrain before taking to the woods. Better yet, sign up for an orienteering course. Compass navigation, which is very simple indeed, seems complex when it is described or illustrated in articles. With an instructor at your side, you'll pick it up in 5 minutes. Courses are periodically offered in my area through adult education programs and by the local outdoor society. The U.S. Orienteering Federation, P.O. Box 1444, Forest Park, GA 30298, telephone (404) 363-2110, can put you in touch with a program in your area.

Once you've learned the importance of marking your progress on the map, taking a bearing between obvious landmarks and looking over your shoulder to see what those landmarks will look like upon your return, there isn't much excuse for getting lost as long as you follow two axioms of compass navigation. The first is to trust that the magnetic axis of the earth is more reliable than your own sense of direction. If your head says camp is one way when the needle is telling you the opposite, believe the steel. The second is to plan your hunt with regard to straight lines of reference.

The lines may include roads, forest trails, power lines, fire lines, rivers, or any other features of geography that follow relatively straight courses. For example, I track elk along the ridges that rise to the west side of a river that flows roughly north to south. No matter how aimlessly I hunt, I can always find my way back to the river by heading east. It's simply a matter of taking a bearing on a distant tree, hiking to the tree, taking a bearing to another tree, and so on, with perhaps a detour around a cliff or thicket thrown into the mix, until reaching the bank.

Because I know the country, it doesn't much matter if I come back to the river upstream or downstream of the ford I waded acrosin the morning. But were I hunting in unfamiliar surroundings, it would be important to plot a return course that would take me definitely to one side or the other of the crossing, so that I'd know which way to turn to find my waders.

Hunting in country that lies beyond the end of a spur road or trail is a little trickier, but by following the principle of setting a course to return to one side or other of the road, rather than attempting to hit it dead on, a hunter can cut back with the certainty of finding his car again.

Pitching camp in a monotonously uniform forest is never a good idea unless you enjoy verging on panic when the tent isn't where it's supposed to be at the end of the day, but sometimes you camp where you can. Here again, a wise man hunts by the rule of straight lines, except in this case it's necessary for him to make those lines. I knew a marten trapper who blazed tree trunks in a cross pattern that radiated from his tent in the Selway Wilderness for more than a mile in each direction. My brother and I often flag a single line from camp, to bisect either a ridge or a creekbottom along which returning hunters will travel. Today, the practice of blazing trees is rightly frowned upon, but marking tape affixed to branches does the job as well; just remember to collect your tape at the end of the hunt.

Steep, heavily forested country, where it's impossible to walk more than a few feet in a straight line, can make exact compass navigation exasperating. This is where an altimeter shines; it will tell you when you've reached the elevation of the saddle where your tent is pitched, or if you have to climb another 300 feet to reach the contour of the ridge where your partner got into the elk last week. I never leave camp without both tools in my pack, together with an aerial photograph of the country superimposed with contour lines; still, on more than one occasion, I have caught myself turning in circles through thickets of pine.

Last fall, my brother Kevin and I left an elk wallow to hike back to camp at dusk, found ourselves right back at the same wallow an hour later, tried again, and wound up quenching our thirst in the tiny spring by that wallow after a third circuit well past nightfall. We both carried survival packs and I was all for spending the night then and there, envisioning a Jack London scenario with two men spinning ever tightening circles until dropping from exhaustion. Kevin talked me into trying again, and this time navigating by the stars, we stumbled back to camp in the small hours of the morning.

This brings up several points. One is that trying to navigate in failing light leads to poor judgment. Allow plenty of time to hike back before nightfall. If you insist on hunting at last light, at least pick a place beside a trail that will lead you directly back to camp. Remember, too, that staying found is knowing only approximately where you are. My brother and I were found, all right; we simply couldn't locate a tiny tent on the flat top of a broad, densely timbered ridge. Most hunters who panic when they can't find camp are no more lost than we were. The difference -- and in cold weather it can be a fatal difference -- is that some may be unprepared to spend the night. A pack will see you through the darkness, and as long as you are carrying a map or know your position with regard to one straight line of reference, your compass will guide you home in the morning.

**GPS -- too good to be true? **
If staying found is knowing approximately where you are at all times, then getting lost with GPS (Global Positioning System) technology is just about impossible. With a tap of your finger, satellite triangulation renders your position to the screen in longitude and latitude to within 50 feet. If you have stored the location of your truck or camp in the system's memory, the unit will give you its bearing and tell you the distance you must travel to find it. A backtracking feature can retrace your steps to each waypoint locked in during the hunt.

The question isn't whether GPS technology works; it does. The question is whether it is the greatest navigational aid since the invention of the compass (and GPS is to the compass what word processing is to the pen) or a formula for disaster.

I believe it is both. For threading together the trails that lead you back to that elk wallow you stumbled across in the pines last fall, for finding downed game in a thicket, or for straightening out your steps in one of those cedar swamps where whitetail bucks take cover, GPS technology is unsurpassed. Had my brother and I carried a GPS unit, we would not have turned three circles through the Montana wilderness last fall.

But GPS can also serve as a crutch that takes the place of woodsmanship and acts as a security blanket that encourages hunters to wander farther than they should in country where they shouldn't. Those who end up in the obituaries are, four times out of five, the ones who have blindly followed tracks or blood trails into unfamiliar country and are trapped by storms or failing light before they can get back out. These hunters are lost not because they don't know where they are, but because they don't have the skills or gear to survive cold weather in unforgiving terrain.

My advice for anyone who is considering using GPS is to first lay the groundwork with map and compass. It is the more careful system of navigation, and develops the skill of knowing where you are inside your head, without having to punch a button.

-- K.M. g and tell you the distance you must travel to find it. A backtracking feature can retrace your steps to each waypoint locked in during the hunt.

The question isn't whether GPS technology works; it does. The question is whether it is the greatest navigational aid since the invention of the compass (and GPS is to the compass what word processing is to the pen) or a formula for disaster.

I believe it is both. For threading together the trails that lead you back to that elk wallow you stumbled across in the pines last fall, for finding downed game in a thicket, or for straightening out your steps in one of those cedar swamps where whitetail bucks take cover, GPS technology is unsurpassed. Had my brother and I carried a GPS unit, we would not have turned three circles through the Montana wilderness last fall.

But GPS can also serve as a crutch that takes the place of woodsmanship and acts as a security blanket that encourages hunters to wander farther than they should in country where they shouldn't. Those who end up in the obituaries are, four times out of five, the ones who have blindly followed tracks or blood trails into unfamiliar country and are trapped by storms or failing light before they can get back out. These hunters are lost not because they don't know where they are, but because they don't have the skills or gear to survive cold weather in unforgiving terrain.

My advice for anyone who is considering using GPS is to first lay the groundwork with map and compass. It is the more careful system of navigation, and develops the skill of knowing where you are inside your head, without having to punch a button.

-- K.M.