Map, Compass & GPS

Map, Compass & GPS
Wild flowers along Fall Creek on the way to the Green Lakes - Oregon

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Trip Panning

Are you prepared for a bad turn of events on your hike?

The hikers had planned well for the trip.  They had purchased their maps and trail guide.  Late night internet searches produced tips, pictures and camp site suggestions.  They were ready to go.  But were they ready for the unexpected?

The unexpected happens even for the best prepared.  Accidents just happen.  I’d like to cover a few topics that we might not think of or practice as we should.

There are three topics that I’d like to cover.

First, always let a responsible person know of your plans.  Pick a person whom you know can be decisive and make a judgment call.  If you tell the responsible person that if you aren’t home to call 911 for Search and Rescue (SAR) at 9:00, you know that at 9:01 that person is on the phone making a very difficult call.  But help that responsible person out.  Give them and the searchers something to go by.  The Boreal Wilderness Institute (BWI) of Alberta, Canada offers a fine trip card on their site at  On my web site I provide what I call the Hiker’s Trip Plan at  Remember that rescuers would like know about the number of hikers in the party, medical conditions, and what animals are accompanying the group.

Secondly, have a back-up plan should your GPS break or become lost.  That doesn’t mean that the trip has to end but the backcountry navigator certainly needs to understand what the options are.  For a deep wilderness trip where the hiker is bushwhacking off trail this becomes more important.  Better still; a backup plan begins before leaving home.  The BWI Route Card includes a section for route planning notes and an escape route.  The Outdoor Quest plan has a section for an alternate route.  It is this data that will help a SAR team to focus and provide containment for the search.

Certainly a second GPS in the party will make a difference for the better.  That said, having a sound knowledge of map and compass procedures is absolutely essential.  All deep wilderness hikers need to have a solid navigation foundation.  I always recommend to my students in my land navigation classes to start practicing two weeks before the big trip.  Take the GPS and compass everywhere.  Mark waypoints, edit waypoints, sight on distant objects with the compass and run a bearing.  The hiker needs to develop the muscle memory for the GPS and recall the logic of placing the magnetic needle over the orienting arrow (e.g., red in the shed, mouse in the house.)  The web site offers a very good review of the fundamentals to navigation.

Third, BWI web site offers a short discussion about an “escape route.”  The hiking group should reflect on the many contingencies that can come into play during a backcountry trip.  Weather, terrain, injury and wild land fires come immediately to mind.  For example, in the Central Oregon Cascade range, the mountainous slopes have vast expanses of beetle killed trees.  Dry summers produce large fires that grow quickly becoming an obvious hazard.  The point is to develop options that should the need arise, evacuation is a matter of choice and planning.  BWI comments that “An escape route is a simple bearing toward a major highway, road or other linear feature.”  Everyone in the party must have an understanding of the geography and terrain.  Should the group need to “bug out,” terrain needs to be used to the groups advantage rather than being channeled in the wrong direction and away from safety. 

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