Map, Compass & GPS

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

Friday, March 31, 2017

Finding Remains in the Field

At a recent Search and Rescue (SAR) conference I sat through an excellent presentation by the state of Oregon's medical examiner.

She offered her suggestions regarding the discovery of human remains in the field.

First, don't move the remains or other items such as clothing, shoes and other personal effects.  You may have found a crime scene.

Second, take a picture of the bone that is found.  A cell phone camera is fine.  Put a reference to determine size for the examiner.  For example, a ruler works best but the sole of your boot or a knife would help too. 

Use your GPS to  record the geographic coordinates of the scene.

Consider marking the location with flagging tape.

Contact and forward the image to the local law enforcement authorities.

The image below says it well.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


In a previous post I discussed the concept of terrain association.  Terrain association is the process of visually confirming a map to land features.

A subset of terrain association is the use of handrails.  Handrails are linear features found on a map and visually correlated to observed land features.  In a building, a stairway’s handrail provides direction for a walkers travel down to another level.

Examples of handrails include roads, rivers, trails and railroad beds.  Handrails can be particularly useful when they run parallel to ones’ direction of travel.

Highway 126 and Cache Creek are distinct linear features that could serve as a handrail.
In the map above notice that the red direction of travel line parallels Highway 126. 

In this example Highway 126 could also be a backstop to alert the hiker that crossing the roadway would take them in the wrong direction.

Be alert for a handrail’s change of direction.  There may be prominent land features that will alert the backcountry traveler to such a change.  A butte or building might be adjacent or near to a change in direction. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Fire and Ice: How To Prepare for Climbing Mount Rainier

Lee Flynn has a new post for us:
Fire and Ice: How To Prepare for Climbing Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier is one of the most iconic peaks in the United States. Rising 14,410 feet above sea level, this active volcano combines breathtaking beauty with unpredictable and occasionally life-threatening hazards. Summiting this unique mountain is an exhilarating and unforgettable experience, but it does take some special preparation.

Focus on Fitness  

To reach Mount Rainier's summit, expect to climb a minimum of 9,000 feet in elevation while carrying at least 35 pounds of gear. The extensive glaciation means that it's not a simple hike, either. You may have to use your hands to hoist yourself up or rely on crampons and other tools that may change the way you move. Start training early and focus on a general fitness plan that works all your major muscle groups. Include both short-term, intense cardiovascular exercises and endurance training.

Learn the Skills

Mount Rainier's extensive glaciation means that snow and ice stick around all year, as do the hazards that accompany them. Make sure to practice climbing in those conditions. Avalanches are less common during the climbing season, which lasts from April to September, but they remain a risk all year. Learn to recognize and avoid avalanche-prone areas. Make sure you know ice climbing skills, such as how to self-arrest with an ice ax. Get basic training in first aid and rescue techniques so you can handle any problems that may arise and choose a route appropriate to your skill level.

Pick Your Partners

No solo climbers are allowed on Mount Rainier, and the National Parks Service recommends at least three to four people per party. First-time or less experienced climbers typically have the best chance of summiting when they hire a professional guide. If you create your own expedition, try to choose teammates whose skills balance each other out. The most experienced mountaineer should generally be the team leader.

Know the Risks

Volcanic activity and glaciation create unusual risks that aren't found on many fourteeners in the United States. In addition to avalanche risk areas, learn to recognize unstable seracs, or ice cliffs, which can collapse and fall on climbers. Lower on the mountain, volcanic activity sometimes causes lahars, or debris flows, which can clog rivers and cause sudden and unexpected flooding. Mount Rainier also has notoriously unpredictable weather compared to many other mountains. Make sure to check weather reports and carry the right equipment to handle any likely weather conditions.

Test Your Gear

Never take unfamiliar gear on a major climb. Giving everything a trial run or two not only lets you identify any defective or ill-fitting equipment, but it also ensures that you know how to operate or assemble things. This can come in handy if you have to set up in the dark or in inclement weather. Make sure to try out any new technological equipment, too, such as testing solar chargers or familiarizing yourself with a vape box mod if you plan to use one on your climb.

Planning Is Everything

A detailed plan is the key to a successful summit. Make sure to create a realistic timeline for your climb. Tailor it to the slowest member of your team so no one feels rushed or exhausted. Plan around typical weather conditions as well. Climbing on glaciers during the afternoon can be grueling and unpleasant due to the warmth and the sun reflecting off of the snow. Most experienced climbers leave extremely early in the morning to maximize travel time while minimizing sun exposure. Stick to your plan no matter what to avoid getting stuck on the mountain in dangerous conditions. Remember that reaching the summit is only half of the journey, so don't spend too much time relaxing or celebrating before turning around to hike back down.

Mount Rainier's unique geology and environment combine to create an exceptional climbing experience, but reaching the summit can be dangerous. Planning, training and preparation are the keys to a fun and successful climb.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Changing Scene of Backpacking

One of the most popular things for young people to do today is to spend some time backpacking around the world. There are many benefits to having a backpacking adventure. Young people learn more about the wider world when they travel beyond their borders. They come back from their experiences more educated, more tolerant and respectful of other cultures, more flexible and better able to solve problems. Backpacking has been around since the 1950s when backpackers first started travelling the famous Marco Polo Silk Route. That evolved into the Hippie Trail from Europe to Asia in the 1960s, and backpackers have spread around the world since then. Here is a look at the ways backpacking has changed over the years.

The People

Perhaps the biggest way that backpacking has changed over the years is the types of people that go backpacking. When backpacking was in its infancy, it was only hippies and adventurers who would be bold enough to travel the world with nothing more than a backpack on their shoulders. Nowadays, all kinds of people go backpacking. It is not just the young people who are highly adventurous. Now that there are many more resources available for backpackers, people do not need to be as fearless and willing to blaze their own trails as they had to be by necessity in the past. People today can use Internet resources to plan every single detail of their trips. In the past, travelers often had to fly by the seat of their pants when they arrived at a new destination.

The Equipment

Another huge change in backpacking over the decades has been the updated technology. The main way that technology has changed backpacking is by making everything smaller and lighter. Backpackers today can fit a lot more gear in their packs than they could even 20 years ago. Clothing, shoes, tents and most other gear has both become lighter and smaller. It has also become easier to pack by stowing up into smaller spaces. Instead of packing cartons of cigarettes, backpackers can use e-cigarettes and pack a vape starter kit to save space.

Of course, the abundance of electronic gear is one of the biggest innovations in backpacking. With one smartphone, travelers can document their trip with photos and videos, keep in contact with the folks back home through email and video chat, translate a foreign language, call for a taxi, research their next destination and navigate their way through unfamiliar territory with GPS guidance. Smartphones have made travelling much easier than ever before, but they also take out some of the sense of adventure in backpacking.

The Destinations

When the backpackers started spreading out around the world in the 1970s, towns where they spent a lot of time started rapidly evolving. Quiet fishing villages and sleepy mountain towns started sprouting many hostels, restaurants and nightclubs aimed at the backpacking crowd. Backpackers started to fall in love with many of these destinations, putting down roots and opening up businesses of their own.

The result of this is that there are many stops along the popular backpacking routes where travelers can eat Western food and speak in English without ever having to immerse themselves in the local culture. This makes it much more convenient to be a backpacker, which is one of the reasons so many more people are backpacking these days. It also means that something is lost because many backpackers do not gain the cultural enrichment that was once inevitable for backpackers.

As you can see, the world of backpacking has changed a lot over the decades. The people, places and gear may have changed, but the experience is still essentially the same. It is still all about people expanding their worlds to learn about other cultures. Although they may not get the same wild experience that was possible in the past, it is still a good way for people to expand their horizons and learn about the world.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Terrain Association

“A good view will help to form a picture of the shape, the patterns and grain of the land itself.  High ground will tell a story of the geological formations and erosion.”
                                    The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley

Terrain association is a key step in land navigation.  While the topographic (topo) map identifies terrain features through the use of contour lines, colors and symbols, terrain association is a process of confirmation of map to land features.

In the field, the key first step in terrain association is to orient the map.  Orienting a map is a starting point to identify where I am, where I want to go and where I have been.  When oriented, map north will match geographic north on the ground. For information on how to orient a map read my supporting post.

 I orient my topo before I leave the trail head and at regular intervals during a hike.
A key component of terrain association will be the evaluation of the information provided by the contour lines.  Contour lines identify five key terrain features that include hilltops, valleys, ridges, depressions and saddles.

“Match the terrain to the map by examining terrain features.”
                                    US Army Field Manual FM 21-26 Map Reading and Land Navigation

Gain a clear view of the land in the immediate area before comparing map to ground features.  If needed get an elevated view of the surroundings.

While looking at the map, I break down the terrain and lay of the land into two components that I refer to as pathways and boundaries. 
Pathways make up my route through the backcountry.  Pathways are trails, old “jeep roads,” government roads (e.g., Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management gravel and unimproved roads.)  Not all trails and roads are pathways.  In an area lacking trails and roads, an open area clear of significant vegetation may be a pathway.  Similarly, a valley or ridgeline might be a pathway too.  Importantly, the pathway will be in the direction of desired travel.  Finally, the hiker needs to ensure the pathway is safe and he is physically up to the task. 
Trail guide books are an excellent source for finding a pathway.  Many of the newer publications offer coordinates for the GPS receiver, map views and a description of the recommended route.

Boundaries are major land features that help guide the hiker along his path too.  They are features that provide containment and may prevent the hiker from going far off track.  Boundaries can be rivers, streams, rail road beds, roads and large features such as a mountain range or ridge line.  Boundaries keep the hiker within the route of travel.  For example, if a stream is crossed then perhaps the boundary has been violated.  

Figure 1 In the image above the blue line is the pathway with the borders and boundaries in red.
In the image above the blue line mirrors an existing trail and is a pathway.  The two red lines border steep terrain and are the boundaries for this hike.

Start the terrain association process at home.  By reviewing the route on the kitchen table one begins to develop a mental map.  Maps reviewed with trail guides and conversations with those knowledgeable of the area improve the hiker’s familiarization of the backcountry pathway; this is the detail that improves and supports navigation.  The refined mental map aids in the correlation process while in the field.

Practice and frequent review makes the task of terrain association simpler over time.  Involve children in the process too.  They will be your future navigators.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

GPS Setup - Using the Right Coordinates

A good friend has given you the coordinates to his favorite fishing spot at Elk Lake.  He was genuinely excited and pleased to give you this treasured location.  Now you can enter this information into you GPS and you will be all set.

Well maybe not.

A GPS is a very versatile backcountry computer and satellite receiver.  Today’s receiver can be taken anywhere around the world and when setup properly will provide accurate position information.  Coordinate information can be uploaded/downloaded to a PC and edited.

It is the setup process that our fisherman needs to be aware of.

There are two setup features that I’d recommend the user become familiar with.  These two features are the coordinate system used and map datum.

In my GPS classes these are topics of frequently lengthy discussions.

Coordinate system refers to the grid used to describe your position in the world or on a map; “X” marks the spot.  Latitude and Longitude are the most common terms associated with coordinates.  In elementary school geography we were introduced to Latitude and Longitude in the format of “degrees – minutes-seconds” or as found in your GPS “hddd mm ss.s.”  This is the format used on topographic and Forest Service maps.  There are two other formats available in GPS receivers and these are:

  • “degrees-minutes.minutes” referred to as “degrees-minutes decimal point minutes” and found in your GPS as “hddd mm.m.”
  • “degrees.degrees”, referred to as “degrees decimal point degrees” and found in your GPS as “hdd.d” - This looks a bit odd the first time you see this coordinate read-out.
To learn more about Latitude and Longitude visit: or check June Flemings’ book “Staying Found;”it is a great reference.

So what is the big deal?
Blake Miller/outdoor quest image

New GPS receivers are setup to use “degrees-minutes.minutes.”  If the fisherman’s friend got the coordinate from a USGS topographic map that data is in “degrees-minutes-seconds.”  The difference between the two (in Central Oregon) will be many meters apart.  So, while you may think you are going to the right spot, you’re not.

The lesson here – find what coordinate system is being used.  Not all GPS users are aware of this.

How do you set up your GPS for the right coordinate system?  On a Garmin select main menu, then select “set-up,” then select “units”
Sometimes graphics can be more illustrative.  First, select the main menu and then select
Blake Miller/Outdoor Quest image

Then select “units”

On the “units” page select “position format.”

From the drop down menu you will be able to select the format you desire.


This leaves us with a short discussion of map datum.  My favorite explanation is from Garmin’s web site.

“Datum is a mathematical model of the Earth which approximates the shape of the Earth, and enables calculations such as position and area to be carried out in a consistent and accurate manner.  Lines of latitude and longitude on a map or chart are referenced to a specific map datum. Every chart has a map datum reference.  The map datum is usually listed in the title block of the chart.[1]

This model is essential for taking the geographic features from a spherical earth and representing it on a flat map.
New GPS receivers are set to the map datum “WGS 84.”
But, similar to our coordinate system review, USGS topographic maps are set to “NAD 27 CONUS (North American Datum 1927, Continental United States.)”
The datum your map is using will be identified in the map key of your topographic map (above.)                                 
As with coordinate system, if you are using the wrong datum you could be about 100 meters west and 35 meters north (in Central Oregon) of your intended destination.

To wrap this up, I would always recommend you check the coordinate system and map datum of position information that is provided to you.
Some considerations that I’ll offer:
  • Most GPS users are not familiar with the various types of coordinates and datum.
  • If coordinates are coming from another receiver, shift your receiver’s setup features to match those of your friends unit.
  • If coordinates are coming straight off a map, take a look at the map to ensure that the coordinates given are in the right format.  For example, if you are getting coordinates from a USGS topographic map verify that they are in “degrees-minutes-seconds.”
  • Most countries have their own datum and many use their own coordinate system.  Check the map key for the country you will be visiting.  The drop down menu (for datum) on the “units” page will indicate which country your receiver will align to.  If you can’t determine what the host country is using select WGS 84.