Map, Compass & GPS

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

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Food For the Hiker/hunter

There is a new and very favorable dried food option available to the backcountry hiker or hunter.

Julie Mosier has just introduced her line of best quality  dried  available through her web site at

Food for the Sole doesn't have a ton of salt in it.  Selections are packaged compactly, light  and take only a small amount of water to hydrate.

And you can use cold water to hydrate.

This is a great product.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Calling 911

The following post has some very good information about calling 911.  In my county of roughly 100,000 citizens the emergency call center receives over 300,000 calls a year. 

The following post is from

911 is meant to connect you to help. In some areas, it is for serious emergencies only. In other areas, it is for anytime you want police or fire to respond. KNOW what the expectation is in your area. If you are not sure, call them and let them know it is not an emergency. They can let you know if you should be calling a different number.

Get on the line, and let the 911 dispatcher know what the call is about. Answer any questions they have as best you can, and stay on the line follow any instructions they give you while waiting for help to arrive.

They will ask questions to assess the level of response and the speed of response that is needed.

Be ready to tell them: - Your name - The number you are calling from and a call back number if that is different. - Where you are and where help is needed. Not all cell phones or VOIP based land lines give accurate locations. If it is not an address, you need to be aware of how they can find you, even if that means that you get them to a location that they can find and have a person to direct them the rest of the way. - Who needs help - What help is needed. If this is an emergency, tell them everything you know (how they got injured, what is injured, their level of alertness, any medical issues that are known). This is what they use to determine if a squad car can casually cruise through the area or if they need to get police, fire, ambulance all headed out with lights and sirens.

Stay on the line. They may ask you for updates or put an emergency res-ponder on the line to give you assistance in handling things before they get to you.  For more info on this topic go to:

Monday, March 12, 2018

UTM Grid For The Hiker

Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) is a grid system that describes a person’s geographic location in the backcountry.  It is simple to understand and use because:

1.    It is intuitive -  it’s concepts can be understood quickly,

2.    It can be easily self taught,

3.    Young hikers grasp this system easily,

4.    A location on a map can be quickly determined, and;

5.    It is a selection option for Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers.  

A navigation grid is a reference system developed by cartographers that can be used to plot a geographic position on a map.   There are many grid systems available for use such as Latitude and Longitude and Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM).  Several countries have their own national grid system. 

The UTM system is just like a Cartesian Grid.  For example, the grid position below is just 2.2 units over and 2 units up.

 To understand the complete grid we will start by observing that the globe is divided into 60 zones.  Each zone is 6° of longitude wide.  Each zone runs north and south; 84° north to 80° south.

The image below highlights the UTM zones in the continental United States.

UTM grid consists of Northings and Eastings.  The image below highlights the complete layout of a UTM zone.  Notice the Central Meridian that runs north and south through the zone.  Like longitude, this meridian runs from pole to pole.  All values for measuring position are in meters.  At the equator the zone is 500,000 meters wide.  The width of the zone is described by Eastings.  Northings run north or south from the equator; again all values are in meters.

UTM coordinates are presented such that the zone is listed first, followed by the Easting and then the Northing.
                                    10   0524120 E  4891555 N

The hiker should think of a grid as a series of defined squares on a map (see below.)  On a 1:24,000 scale (7.5 minute topographic quadrangle) the grid lines are 1000 meters apart; north or south the spacing between grid lines is 1000 meters.
The coordinate values are known Easting’s (vertical lines) and Northing’s (horizontal lines.)

Easting values increase moving from left to right and Northing’s increase from bottom to top.  Coordinate values are always positive.

 Every location will have a zone identifier.  On the map above the zone is linked to the Easting value and is the first set of numbers.  In this case the zone identifier is the number 10. 

 The letter “T” seen above is a secondary, horizontal (east-west) identifier.  I personally pay little attention to it in my backcountry trips.

All USGS maps identify the zone in the title block at the bottom left of the map.  Note that on some commercial maps the UTM zone identifier may not be in the title block and can be hard to find.

The UTM coordinate can now be refined to a meter.  Again the spacing between the grid lines is 1000 meters (1 kilometer).  On the maps below, the tick marks between gridlines are in increments of 100 meters.  The hiker can then interpolate the distance between the tick marks.  

The position of the large X on the map above would be described as:

            10 5 25 270 East (the green line)

            47 91 180 North (the red line)

The final three places will always be expressed (10 5 25 270 East.)  The value 2 is in units of hundreds, the 7 is in units of 10 and the 0 is in units of 1’s.   Thus, 50 meters would be written as 050. 

Every point on a map (e.g., a mine, an intersection, a camp site, etc) can be described using UTM coordinates to the accuracy of one square meter.

I recommend consider carrying a small plastic ruler or other suitable straight edge when accuracy is important.  For general hiking and backpacking, one can quickly estimate a current position in the backcountry without other map tools.

UTM coordinates of a destination taken from a map can be easily saved on a GPS receiver.  For example, to do this the hiker “marks” a waypoint and then moves the backlit bar (yellow shaded area) from “save” to the “location” data field.  The “location” data field is then edited per the receiver’s instruction manual.


A fine reference for more practical information about UTM grid is Lawrence Latham’s book GPS Made Easy.  Chapter 5 has an easy to understand tutorial on this grid system; that’s how I learned it.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Getting Accurate Compass Readings

I found these recommendations a while back when I was researching techniques for using a magnetic compass.  A small error when using a compass can result in a significant error in measurement on the ground.

To obtain accurate readings when using a compass:

  • Ensure the compass has been adjusted for declination. 
  • Hold the compass level and steady so the needle swings freely.
  • Hold the compass about waist high in front of the body, except when using a compass with a sighting mirror or a sighting type compass.
  • Raise and lower eyes when taking a bearing, do not move your head. Always use the same eye when taking bearings.
  • Directly face the object that is being measured.
  • Magnetic fields will give incorrect compass readings. Avoid taking readings near magnetic fields such as steel, iron (ferrous metals), vehicles, rebar, and clipboards. Even belt buckles, glasses, and rings can interfere with the compass reading.
  • Take bearings twice. 
  • Adjust for magnetic declination as appropriate.
  • Follow the direction of travel arrow, not the compass needle, when walking a bearing. Always follow the line indicated by the compass rather than relying on judgment as to the direction.
  • Use back bearings to ensure you are on track when navigating.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Taking Good Care of a Compass

A few thoughts on taking care of your compass and what to look for before you go hiking in the backcountry.

Remember that the correct operation of the compass is dependent on the action of the magnetic needle to guide the hunter through the backcountry.  Lots of items in a pack and clothing can effect the needle.  Most understand that ferrous objects such as a rifle barrel, belt buckle, and car keys will deflect the magnetic needle.  Still, take a good look at what is in a day pack.  The batteries from the GPS receiver and a flash light may cause a compass needle to move.

High tension power lines and a vehicle’s electrical system may also cause a magnetic needle to deflect.  Moving a few steps from the vehicle should be sufficient.  One may have to move over one hundred feet from the power lines to avoid deflection.  (GPS Made Easy, Michael Ferguson.)

Some locations will have a high concentration of iron near the surface.  This is known as “local attraction.”  Such concentrations will cause the needle to move too.  Unlike declination, moving away from the immediate area may cause the deflection to stop.  The local Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service Office should be able to identify areas affected by local attraction.

 I recommend that a compass be stored away from electronics (e.g., GPS, radios), batteries and many metallic (knives, saw) objects found in a pack.  I don’t recommend going overboard on this but a compass could simply go in an exterior compartment, a shirt or coat pocket.  Attaching a brake away lanyard to a compass so that is worn around the next is a viable option. This would apply during the off season too; a little separation is a good thing.

It is possible for the magnetic needle to lose its polarity.  This is a function of time and manufacture.  With research, one can learn how to restore the magnetism.  That said, with the modern liquid filled compass this is probably more trouble than it is worth.  Occasionally, check the alignment of the compass.  In the small town where I live, residential streets are aligned true north and south.  Standing on the curb on such a street provides a quick verification of how the compass is working.  To me verification means that the compass direction will mirror that of the street; if the street tracks true north then the adjusted compass should provide a bearing to true north.

At the end of the hiking or hunting season take a look at the compass.  Flush away dirt or sand that may be on the baseplate or sighting mirror.  Look for bubbles that may appear internally and adjacent to the compass needle.  A small bubble may not be something to worry about but a large bubble may impact how the needle swings and moves.  A compass with a large bubble should be permanently removed from the hiker’s kit.

Lastly, keep in mind that a quality compass will retail for $20 or more.  Also, a quality compass can be mechanically adjusted for declination.  Such a compass is a precision piece of equipment.  This is especially true of the Silva Ranger style or the Brunton Eclipse models.  Note that I am prejudice (won’t buy them) towards the cheap stuff found on the racks of the major box sporting goods stores.  If a hunter is willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a rifle scope why not spend a bit more for a decent compass; it can make a huge difference. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

That Old Compass

Grandfather’s compass from decades ago may no longer be the best selection for the hiker.  The image below is of a compass made between 1910-1920.  Though the dial is fairly detailed, the accuracy may be reduced due to the polarity of the magnetic needle. 

 In general terms, the polarity is how the magnetic needle will react to the earth’s magnetic field.  Over a period of almost 100 years, the compass’ magnetic needle may not move in relation to magnetic north as it did when new; that could mean the differences of several degrees.  

To prove this point take a new baseplate compass and compare the two (do not hold them near each other.)  A navigator can also compare it a new compass or a location where a street or trail is known to run true north.

My recommendation then is to leave the old antique compass in a place of honor at home.  It is time to consider buying a new compass.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Magnetic Compass Accuracy

Navigating with a magnetic compass is a skill that takes study and practice.
When plotting the hiker’s position on a map the objective is to have three lines of bearing intersect just like in the image below; this is a position fix.  That is “pin point” accuracy. This is hard to do with a magnetic compass and may not be achievable.

Blake Miller/Outdoor Quest Image
Many factors impact accuracy.  Some the hiker will have no control over.  
These include:

  1. Visual acuity (e.g., how well the hiker can see.)
  2. Polarity of the compass’ magnetic needle – does it point in the right direction? Polarity may change over time such that the magnetic needle may no longer work accurately.
  3. Smooth movement of the magnetic needle.
  4. Alignment of the compass dial to the compass housing.
  5. Local attraction – Similar to declination, local attraction is magnetic interference unique to a specific location.  It may be caused by buried metal objects or an unusually high concentration of iron or nickel in the ground.
  6. Lack of distant objects to sight on.
  7. Weather (e.g., Fog, clouds, and smoke.)
  8. Terrain may hide the objects that the hiker wants to sight with the compass.
The hiker does have control over the following.

  1. Purchasing a quality compass such as the Silva Ranger.
  2. Correctly adjusting for declination.
  3. Staying away from iron and steel objects such as a car, high tension power lines and a hunting rifle.
  4. Practiced sighting techniques.
  5. Practiced with the procedures of plotting the various lines of bearing.

Blake Miller/Outdoor Quest Image
 The image above closely represents what the hiker will have to deal with and accept.  The crossed lines of bearing provide a rough approximation of a position plotted on the map.

Terrain Association will further "dial in" the hiker's backcountry position.

Blake Miller/Outdoor Quest Image

The image above represents the error of the plotted lines of bearing.  Notice that the lines of bearing have poor angular separation. But by using terrain association the hiker might be able to refine the position fix.  If the hiker is near the river and on the on the river's east side then the position close the road  will better define location.

Navigation is not hard but it does take practice; it is a perishable skill.

When in the wilderness compare both map and compass with a GPS when possible.  Hiking companions should compare their work too.

Read other compass related posts:

     Buying a Magnetic Compass


A solid reference is June Fleming's Staying Found and Bjorn Hjellstrom's Be Expert With Map and Compass.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Nine Navigation Steps to Take at the Trail Head.

The following are nine quick navigation steps to take to ensure one’s navigation kit is set up to best support a hike.
Blake Miller/outdoor quest image

1.     GPS Batteries – load fresh batteries and carry extra for both the GPS and flashlight.

2.     Calibrate the GPS receiver’s compass after every battery change.

3.     Magnetic Compass adjusted for declination – Visit for the most current declination value.  Declination changes over time (how old is that map?) and location.

4.     Dump the junk – How many waypoints are stored in the waypoint manager file.  Dump the old waypoints to the absolute minimum; this helps to keep navigation simple.

5.     Match the GPS receiver’s compass to the magnetic compass and the map.   .  Maps are usually set to degrees true.  Have the GPS and Magnetic compass match the topo map.

6.     Erase old track data – clean up the old the track (bread crumb trail) information.  Get rid of 
Blake Miller/outdoor quest image
the clutter.

7.     Remember to stow the maps.  I use maps from and will occasionally carry maps from a hiking guides.  Maps are stowed in a zip lock gallon bag or rugged water proof map case.

8.     Mark a waypoint – Give key waypoints a name like “trl hed” or “camp.”  Select waypoint manager to verify that the information has been saved to memory.  If “trl hed” can be viewed on the waypoint manager file or viewed from the map page the hiker is all set.

Blake Miller/outdoor quest image
Orient the map at the trail head.

Everyone in the hiking group should be on the same page in regard to navigation settings.

Winter Travel

I recently did a search on, looking for some tips and recommendations for backcountry travel in the winter.
 ."Winter can be a dangerous time to hike or camp in the backcountry, but with planning and proper preparation, a winter hike can be a safe and enjoyable experience. Please keep the following in mind when planning an outing:
  • For safety, never hike alone in winter. The potential consequences are simply too high.
  • Daylight hours are short in the winter and the sun goes down quickly. Begin your trip early in the day and be prepared with a headlamp and extra batteries. Lithium batteries are more reliable in cold weather than alkaline ones.
  • Leave a trip itinerary with a friend who knows who to call if you are late in returning."
, has several other recommendations that the hiker should consider..


The Great Outdoors

Guest Post by Lee

The Great Outdoors: Why It's Great For the Whole Family

We all know that spending time outdoors plays an important role in living a healthy and fulfilling life. Ultimately, that's what we want for ourselves and our children, right? As our culture has nurtured its relationship with technology, our relationship with nature has been put on the backburner. With mental and physical disease on the rise, it is time to pay more attention to the fact that our often neglected relationship with nature could be a major contributing factor. There are many ways to reconcile this relationship, and the benefits are sure to be felt by the entire family and even the community around you. Adventuring outdoors can be a learning experience that is exciting and liberating, and there are plenty of things to do! But first, let's look at why outdoor play is important and how exactly you and your family can benefit from it.

The importance of outdoor play

Children and adults alike are spending more time indoors than outdoors on a daily basis, and it could be causing problems with their mental and physical health. According to Kenneth Wright, director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado, staying inside all day can contribute to difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, and lower energy levels. Absorbing nutrients provided by the sun such as vitamin-D, aids in our bodies ability to more effectively regulate itself.

Since most of our indoor time is spent in front of a phone, television, or computer screen, children and adults are becoming less and less active. This can lead to weight gain, lethargy, and impaired vision. Richard Ryan, a professional psychologist suggests that even 20 minutes a day can make a large difference in vitality felt by both children and adults. Studies show that wilderness therapy, or outdoor behavioral healthcare, can help to address behavioural and mental health conditions using nature as a therapeutic tool. If you or your child are particularly restless or have a hard time focusing, spending more time outside could help in a number of ways. It also helps exercise imagination in children, facilitates social skills, and provides new learning experiences.

How to incorporate outdoor play into your family's lifestyle

There are many different ways to incorporate outdoor activity into your family’s lifestyle. Look up the parks in your immediate area and see if there are any of interest to you or your children. If you have the means to go on a big adventure, plan a trip to a National Park! You and your family can take in some incredible scenery and learn about a completely new environment. You may even have one close to you already!

If you want to embrace your creative side, come up with a scavenger hunt and get to exploring. You can even start a garden to be used as an educational tool. An added bonus is that your kids will be able to grow and eat their own food! Even indoor activities such as painting or playing an instrument can be enjoyed out in the yard or at a park. It's also a great idea to have quiet time outside as taking the time to tune in to your surroundings can have an instant calming effect on the body.

Whether it's building confidence, promoting creativity, or teaching responsibility, the benefits of outdoor play are many. Now more than ever it is important that we not only engage our children more in nature but ourselves as well. Spending time outdoors can bring a family closer, and there are lessons that are sure to be learned on everyone's part.

Saturday, January 13, 2018 is web site that I keep my eye on regularly.  The comments section of this excellent source routinely has truely relevent information as well; that is a rareity on most sites.  In an older post about the "Ten Essentials" a reader's comment was:

" Map or at least a good look of the lay of the land to identify a few good backstops in case I get really turned around (mostly only for well marked trails.)" comment by Jess, March 15, 2012.

Jess' comment caused me to write the following post.


A backstop keeps the hiker safe.  By using a natural and man made land features, a backstop keep the hiker in the right area.  Backstops are found by a careful study of a topographic map. 

One feature every outdoorsman should pay attention to is called a “backstop.”   A  backstop is a boundary or a natural barrier that keeps one in their specified hiking area.  If a hiker goes beyond the backstop, then they will know they have gone too far.

When looking over a map of a hiking area, it is essential to understand the impact of terrain and land features.  Doing so will allow one to build an association of topography with a general lay of the land.  Key on natural and man-made features that includes roads, streams, buttes and buildings.  Take the time to really examine the map’s topography by studying the brown contour lines. This attention to detail will give the hiker a “feel” for elevation changes, shape and important land marks.  More importantly, it will allow the hiker to develop a mental map of the hiking area.  This concept lends itself to map training for those not backcountry experienced, and it is an excellent  teaching tool for children.

For example, in the image above ForestRd 32 serves as a backstop.  The hiker should remain west of ForestRd 32 because traveling east of 32 is hazardous due to the Swamp. Additionally, note that key terrain features associated with the trail include the river, mountains, a road and the swamp.

The example above is very simplistic but demonstrates the importance of having that “mental map”, especially if visibility becomes an issue.

The image above offers another example.

The map above is an area of steep terrain to the west, a lake to the east and trails surrounding most land features.  If the hiker planned to bushwack west of the campground (just below the larger lake) and hike in fairly flat terrain with gentle elevation changes, then the steep terrain to the west (Tam McArthur Rim) would be an excellent backstop. This is because it provides confirmation of the hiker’s general location. Care should be taken when using  trails that border Little Three Creek lake-note that the trail doesn’t continue west.  In such a situation, it is possible for the hiker to walk beyond the lake.

Backstops are another navigation tool that can keep the hiker in a safe location, and should be utilized as a visual resource.

Tips On Traveling to Canada

A guest post from our frequent contributor Lee.

If you are thinking about taking a trip to the Great White North, you probably want to make sure that you are as prepared as possible. Canada can be a great country to visit, but there are a few things that you may want to do before you take your trip. These are five suggestions that can help you get your trip started off right.

1. Find Out About Getting a Visa

First of all, it is important to make sure that you are able to legally enter Canada. You will need a passport, for one thing. You may also need to get a visa, depending on where you are traveling from. It's smart to look into these things beforehand; then, you can help ensure that your trip doesn't get ruined due to not being able to enter the country in the first place.

2. Make Sure You Have the Right Clothing

It is important to make sure that you dress appropriately for your trip to Canada. If you are going to be visiting during the winter, you should know that many areas of the country can be very cold. Therefore, you will definitely want to make sure that you pack accordingly. In the summer months, however, some areas of Canada are actually quite warm, so you may want to pack shorts and T-shirts. Consider checking the weather forecast for the area that you are visiting so that you can get an idea of what to pack.

3. Ensure Your Car is Prepared for the Trip

If you are going to be driving to Canada, you will definitely want to make sure that your car is ready for the trip. Of course, you'll need to handle the same basics that you would handle for any road trip, such as getting your oil changed and making sure that your brakes are in good condition. If you are going to be visiting Canada in the winter, you may want to invest in a good set of snow tires or chains for your tires. This can help you ensure that you are able to drive in the winter weather conditions as safely as possible. Additionally, you'll want to do your research about any roads that you will be traveling on to ensure that they are safe before driving.

4. Purchase Travel Insurance

It is always a good idea to purchase travel insurance, and it may be something that you will want to consider for your trip to Canada. Then, if you have an emergency, be it a car accident or a sudden intense toothache, you could get your car taken care of or visit Emergency Dentist Calgary without worrying about being covered or not. Knowing that you have this coverage can also give you peace of mind so that you can focus on enjoying yourself while you are on your trip.

5. Make an Itinerary Beforehand

There is a lot to see and do in Canada. If you travel without any plans in mind, then you might miss out on some the good things. Therefore, it's a good idea for you to consider doing your research so that you can make an itinerary beforehand. For example, you may want to go skiing or check out one of the beautiful national parks. There is something for just about anyone to enjoy in Canada, so you should be able to come up with an itinerary that will work for you and your traveling companions if you do a little bit of research.

As you can see, if you are planning on visiting Canada sometime soon, there are a few things that you can do to help you ensure that you are prepared for your trip. If you follow these tips, you can help ensure that you and your family have a great time. Then, you might just find that Canada is one of your new favorite vacation destinations.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Night Navigation

What should the hiker consider regarding hiking and navigating at night?

First, let us decide  that  this is not in a “lost hiker” scenario.  If lost, the best thing to do is to
just stay in place.  This makes the job much easier for the searchers. 
At night the term used to describe our ability to see is “night vision.”   Good night vision is important.  Therefore, avoid bright lighting.   Flashes of bright white light will ruin night vision.  Recovery can take about 30-45 minutes.  Low level white light and low intensity red light are better.
Care should be taken with the use of a GPS.  The normal white backlight function of the GPS receiver will impair night vision. The good news is that the backlight can be adjusted. 
Here are a few recommendations about hiking and navigating at night:
  • Stay on the trail and thoughtfully use flashlights and head lamps. A head lamp may be of more use than a handheld flashlight.  Two free hands are better than one.  Have extra batteries.
  • Examine the topographic map of your planned route.  Study the contours to evaluate the terrain. Your visual cues will be gone so you will need to establish new ones, larger        objects. Lanes of extraction might present themselves on the map such as a power grid line, a road, a lake or an old jeep track. 
  • Discuss your plan with all involved so that you are all on the same page.
  • Follow your trace on a map. Plot your position frequently.  Agree in advance how often you will do that.  Take your time with your navigation.
  • For night time travel a consideration may be to have one person designated to read maps (with dim lighting) while others in the party preserve their night vision and lead the way.
  • Move forward deliberately and cautiously.  Move more like you are stalking.
  • Others might be moving too.  Be alert for bears, coyotes, cougars and in some areas perhaps wolves.
  • Trekking poles or a walking staff provide support.
  • Sound travels well at night.  Be alert for audible clues to roads and running water.
  •  If you don’t have a GPS and are navigating with just a map and compass it is very important that you start from a known position.  Navigating without getting position fixes from a GPS or by visual sighting is called dead reckoning.  Such navigation requires you to plot your compass heading and distance traveled.  Distance is accounted by pacing (counting your steps) as you move
Night time navigation is not something to be taken lightly.  From reviewing my books, US Army field manuals and conversations with experienced backcountry travelers it should be carefully considered and practiced before an actual outing.  Practice your navigation at a local park with map and compass.  Consider geocaching to improve your GPS skills. 

It just gets down to being careful when hiking and navigating at night.