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Backcountry Navigation:
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Instant Expert: Go Find Yourself
Perfect the art of backcountry navigation and wherever you go, there you are.
Text by
Robert Earle Howells   Photograph by Mark Gilbert/Getty Images
Photo: Man with map
YOU ARE HERE: Terrain association takes practice. 

Darran Wells learned navigation as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon in the mid-nineties. While visiting villages deep in the rain forest, he constantly sought shortcuts. "Sometimes they worked," he remembers. "Sometimes I got desperately lost." Now a senior instructor and program coordinator for the National Outdoor Leadership School and author of NOLS Wilderness Navigation (Stackpole Books, $15), he makes his living helping people get their bearings.

All it takes is a topo map and a compass, but to use them you must be able to associate real terrain with its mapped version. "That's a critical skill," says Wells, "and the only way to learn it is to spend time in the wilderness with a topo map." Here are his tips for avoiding those worrisome moments of backcountry disorientation.

Know This: Plot a Course and Go
1. Orient Yourself: Use your compass to align your map to reality. Turn
the compass bezel to the local declination (the difference between true
and magnetic north, listed on every topo map), line up the edge of
the baseplate with the left or right margin of the map, and turn them
together until the magnetic needle is inside the orienting arrow on your compass. Or, as Wells puts it, "red Fred is in the shed." Your map is now
oriented to true north.
 
2. Take a Bearing: Keeping your map in place, align the compass baseplate
with an imaginary (or pencil) line between where you are and where you
want to go. Make sure the direction-of-travel arrow is pointed the right way,
otherwise you'll end up going in exactly the opposite direction. Turn the
bezel of the compass until Fred's in the shed. The direction-of-travel arrow
now shows your bearing. "Don't touch it!" Wells says.
 
3. Follow It: Wells recommends that you hold the compass at chest level
and "imagine there's a laser coming out of the middle of your chest,
through the direction-of-travel arrow, to some distant landmark (a rock or
tree, say) that you can keep in sight." Walk to this object. When you get
there, pick a new sight point and repeat the process until you reach your goal.
 
4. Don't Charge Ahead: "Next thing you know, you're miles off course and still haven't figured out where you are," Wells says. If you lose confidence in your direction, stop and reverse course back to your last known point.

Gear Up
The Brunton 8099 Pro Eclipse compass ($99; www.brunton.com) is graduated to one degree (two is typical) and has a mirror that lets you view goal and compass simultaneously.
 
Keep it basic with the lightweight Silva Explorer 203 compass ($27; www.silvausa.com). An extended baseplate helps when drawing map lines, and a magnifier highlights topo details.
 
Ziplocs aren't waterproof, but the Aquapac Large Whanganui map case ($30; www.aquapac.net) is. It protects your topo, passport, and even your iPod inside a clear, durable pocket.

Field Study

* NOLS 13-day Wind River Wilderness Course ($2,715; www.nols.edu) in Wyoming's Rocky Mountains incorporates extensive navigation instruction, including off-trail travel and route-finding.
 
* Orienteering turns map-and-compass navigation into a sport whereby you find your way (usually on foot, but sometimes by kayak, skis, or mountain bike) to checkpoints on an established course. Events and clubs are listed at www.us.orienteering.org.
 
* Rogaining is Australia's answer to orienteering. Checkpoints are assigned values, and teams bag as many as possible in an up to 24-hour endurance race. Learn more at www.rogaining.com.


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