Finding your way around in the woods
By By Otha Barham / Outdoor writer
March 8, 2002
Traveling to out-of-the-way places is what we who love the outdoors do to find the objects of our passions. Such places so attract us that the places often become more of our reward than the game or fish or arrowheads or whatever we originally sought.
Sometimes we satisfy that longing to be "away" by visiting familiar woodlands or fields or waters. But often we want to see what is over the next mountain or what cache of nature's surprises await far upstream beyond familiar water.
These sojourns have their hazards that we gladly accept, one of which is the possibility of getting lost. Becoming lost, disoriented, or confused usually leads to one of two reactions; resourcefulness or panic. Opt for the former.
Finding ones way back to safety after becoming lost brings a certain visceral satisfaction that nourishes self reliance. I long ago decided that being lost was not a good thing and I determined that an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure in the matter. And so my strategy comes down hard on the side of preventing my becoming lost.
Carrying a compass that has a rotating arrow on it virtually everywhere I go outdoors has paid off more times than I can remember. I point the arrow toward the way out and then keep up mentally with my wanderings right or left of my entry point. Correcting for the deviations and following the arrow out will get me close to my starting point, close enough for most short trips.
Having my pocket compass in my boat paid off handsomely once when a fog rolled in on a big Tennessee River lake. It also has saved many steps for me after having trailed fatally hit deer at dusk and finding them some distance from the green field after dark. A fun game would be to require someone to follow a blood trail in the dark with a flashlight, looking down at the ground for a couple hundred yards through briar patches and then ask them which way is north. Thereafter the participant would likely be a believer in compasses.
Now we have new technology that really makes staying un-lost fun; the global positioning system (GPS) and its little pocket-size units. These things are wonderful! Here I offer no technical guide, not even an elementary guide, to operating a GPS unit. I still don't understand television or computers or much of anything electronic. And I am perplexed by something the size of half a sandwich communicating with swirling satellites and telling me precisely where I am and a dozen other things. But after learning just a couple of my Garmin's most simple operations I can trek off into the mountains confident that I can return to camp even in the worst of snowstorms.
Here I'll mention just one simple way I use the GPS unit. Before I leave home, I pull up on my computer screen a U.S. Geological Survey topographical map of the area where I will be hunting elk for example. I use software called Maptech, which has these maps for the whole nation on disks. Wherever I move my mouse arrow on the map it reads out the precise location in latitude and longitude in degrees, minutes and seconds. It will even mark these points (which I select because they are ranch houses, road crossings, campsites etc.) on the map which I print out in color.
These important points are transferred and recorded into the GPS unit that I take along in my pack in the mountains. I make the entries manually because I haven't learned the transfer procedure yet.
Anyway, when a snowstorm cuts visibility to inches, I can ask my GPS to point to any of these sites, say an old sheepherder's cabin that I know is in the area. It not only shows me the direction but reads out the direction in degrees, tells me how far it is in tenths of a mile and how long it will take me to get there at the speed I am walking! All this on one screen of the little bugger.
The last time I needed the GPS I had left my 4-wheeler atop a flat mountain in thick juniper and climbed down the mountain into a basin. I marked my position at the 4-wheeler with the GPS and recorded it. Climbing out later that day, I would have had to circle a half mile or so to pick up my wheeler tracks to find it. Instead the little GPS took me straight to it. As I neared the ATV in the thick brush a message appeared on my screen. "You're getting close," it said. I looked up and was about to run into the machine. Now ain't that something?