Navigation: Preparing for the New Season

by Phil Romig Jr

 

Yesterday I stepped out the door to go to work and something didn’t seem right. It was uncharacteristically warm, the wind wasn’t blowing, and the strange, dark lumps in our barren trees were robins— fifteen of them. Then it hit me. Spring will come again, days will grow longer, new life will appear in the trees and grass, and snow will melt in the backcountry, inviting us to renew our search for solitude, beauty and self-awareness.

 

The first sign of the earth waking from its winter sleep calls to mind the line from Tennyson’s Locksley Hall: “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” However, readers of The Backcountry Llama are more likely to be turning to thoughts of days on a trail and evenings by a campfire. But instead of just thinking, why not do something about it?

 

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season is over, tax returns aren’t due for a couple of months, and there will be more long, cold evenings before spring takes over. This is the perfect time to take care of details that will help make this year’s trips the best ever.

 

PLANNING
It’s never too early to plan—or dream—about trips you want to take. Plans made now probably will change by summer, but, for me at least, if I don’t make plans now, the season will be half over before I get out on my first pack trip. Decide now about the trips you would like to take: where, when, with whom, how long, how many llamas, etc. Then make lists of the equipment, supplies and skills you will need and do whatever is necessary to be ready when the season starts. Planning now will help you decide which trips are practical and will increase the likelihood that you actually will do them.

 

EQUIPMENT AND SUPPLIES
Now is the time to check every-thing you use on a pack trip:

  • Is it in good condition?
  • Do you need new equipment? (I tell my wife that “want” is the equivalent of “need”)
  • Are your supplies of consumables (stove fuel, batteries, etc.) adequate and up to date?

With regard to backcountry navigation:

  • Do you have up-to-date maps for the areas of interest?
  • Are your compasses working properly?
  • Do you have radios and/or GPS devices?
  • Are batteries and the battery compartments of devices in good shape?
  • If you take a smart phone, do you have extra batteries or a solar/hand-cranked charger?
  • If you don’t have a stand-alone GPS (not smart-phone app), consider buying one
  • If you don’t have an emergency communication device, consider buying a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger

SKILLS
This is the most important area to focus on at this time of year. Planning and equipment can be taken care of on short notice, but refreshing, refining and learning new skills can take weeks or even months. Start now, and you will be in good shape for the season.

 

Focus first on the essential skills. Test yourself to determine whether you are able to:

  • Use a topographic map
  • Make a continuous plot of your location using dead reckoning
  • Determine current location using triangulation

 

If you are rusty on some of these skills, take time to learn (or re-learn) and practice them before the first pack trip. Sources of information include:

  • Boy Scout Handbook (Orienteering merit badge)
  • Land Navigation Handbook by W. S. Kals
  • The internet
  • You also need to practice, and you are more likely to practice if you make it fun. For example:

    • Volunteer to teach a merit badge in orienteering. Teaching is the surest way to learn.
    • When you walk around town, carry a compass, count paces, and then compare your dead-reckoning track with a street map. This also calibrates your pace.
    • Join an orienteering club or participate in open events.

    As you master the essential skills, you can begin working on advanced skills:

    • Know the importance of map datums, coordinate systems, magnetic declination, etc.
    • Convert between different coordinate systems and map datums
    • Read and plot position coordinates on a topographic map
    • Use online maps and satellite photos to plan routes and identify waypoints
    • Save routes and waypoints on your computer and upload to your GPS unit
    • Install topographic maps and satellite photos on your GPS
    • Practice following a route using your GPS unit
    • Practice recording and reversing tracks on your GPS
    • Download GPS waypoints and tracks to your computer

    Finally, consider developing some fun skills, such as:

    • Learn to use mapping and route planning software
    • Experiment with online resources (AllTrails.com, etc.)
    • Use software for geotagging photos with GPS coordinates
    • Post trip logs w/photos online
    • Take up geocaching

    Developing a full suite of backcountry navigation skills enables you to go more places with greater confidence and might even save your life someday. Your GPS user manual, software instructions, books and online resources are good places to start, and I will be covering some of these skills in future columns. If you want to learn more, check your local community college or adult school (e.g. the Colorado Mountain Club) for land navigation classes and participate in orienteering and/or geocaching activities. Finally, don’t underestimate the usefulness of your local library.