Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Where You're At and Where You're Going

Knowing where you're at is vital to survival. Knowing where you're going is even more so. So, how do you determine these things? These days the simple answer is GPS, be it a standalone unit, Google Maps on your phone, or any number of other digital applications. What do you do when the battery dies, though, or you can't get signal, or your GPS sends you down a cow path in the middle of nowhere?

Situations like these are where maps and compasses truly shine. With some very old-school technology and a bit of practice, navigation is still fairly straightforward, whether on foot or in a car.

Maps come in a vast range of sizes and types, for a variety of different purposes. The US Geological Survey offers maps of the entire United States, at varying degrees of detail. They can be downloaded for free, or picked up or printed on demand for a nominal fee. Some local sporting goods stores also offer similar custom or pre-printed maps at varying charges. These maps tend to be of the topographical or "topo" type, giving details of terrain with elevations, rivers and other natural features, frequently showing only major roads. They also often show whether parcels of land are privately held or owned by federal or state agencies, and are quite popular with hunters and backpackers. Make sure to have current copies for your local area, as well as any areas you plan to head into.

Atlases are a different type of map, focusing far more on roads and automotive navigation. The better ones show some topographic data, but without the level of detail of dedicated topo maps. They do, however, show both major and lesser-traveled roads, and indicate the road type and maintenance status. This can help you see that your GPS is sending you down a cow path before you find yourself irretrievably stuck.

An atlas is also extremely useful when planning a trip. Before you set out on the road, sit down with an atlas and follow the route you're considering. Note any seasonal roads, or roads that indicate a lack of maintenance, or have other restrictions. This simple habit can save you loads of embarrassment, hefty recovery bills, and possible death or injury. The best survival situation is one you avoid, and this is an excellent way to avoid bad situations. Rand McNally has long been the gold standard, but there are many other good brands out there.

A good quality compass is vital to finding your way around, and will last a lifetime.  The key features to look for are a liquid-filled dial and a high-contrast face.  While cheap button compasses are serviceable enough, they're very sensitive to being held level, and give only very rough direction.

There are two styles of compass that are preferred for orienteering or navigation: the baseplate style and the lensatic style.  Honestly, they're both affordable enough that owning one or two of each style is entirely reasonable.

Baseplate style compasses are by far superior for use on a map. They feature clear bases that sit on a map and allow you to orient the map properly and line up routes and landmarks. The downside is that they're far more difficult to sight actual landmarks with while you're moving.

Lensatic compasses don't work nearly as well on a map, but are designed to provide very accurate sighting of landmarks while moving. You determine the direction you need to head from your map, then turn the compass so that bearing lines up with the sight wire on the lid, and fold the sight arm up, lining the wire and notch up like rifle sights, and select a landmark along the heading you need. Lensatic compasses are built into quite durable cases, making them easy to toss in a pack and keep handy. I've been carrying my personal lensatic (identical to the linked model) for almost 20 years now, and it still works as well as the day I bought it.

Whichever maps and compasses you acquire, be sure to spend a bit of time getting familiar with them before you head out on the road or into the back country. The time that you find yourself lost is not the time to be trying to figure out how to read a map and orient your compass. A few hours spent practicing in your back yard or at the kitchen table may very well save your life some day.

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