How can you possibly be lost? The blue dot on the Google Map on your “I” phone shows you exactly where you are. Yes, that’s where you are. Somewhere out in that treed area nowhere near the road that shows. The map doesn’t show the two trails in front of you. You can’t keep the image too long because you are down to 35% on your battery. It looks like if you go West, you should hit the road. You switch to the compass on the phone and find that it just goes in circles as its lost calibration. Try to get it working again. Phone down to 25%. Better phone home to say I THINK I’M LOST.

Three things that could help prevent this situation in the future? A topographic map, a compass and the knowledge of how to use them together.

A topographic map is a drawing of landscape, showing roads, rivers, mountains and topography. As the map shows a fairly large area you may be able to recognize mountains.  Your compass points North – it actually aligns with the magnetic field of the earth, which is continually changing – and a good compass allows making an adjustment so that it really does point North.

Point your compass at the mountain and turn the dial until the arrow falls between the two parallel lines. The number at the top is the bearing to the mountain. Now place your compass on the map, aligning the two parallel lines with the thin blue North-South lines on the map. You are somewhere along the line formed by the edge of the compass. If you can see another mountain about 90° from the first, repeat the process. Where the two lines meet is where you are on the map. Now you can see where you are where you are relative to the road. If you align the compass with where you are to the road and rotate the dial until the two parallel lines once again align with the blue North-South lines, the number shown is the bearing to the road. Keep the red arrow between the lines, find a visible object ahead you and go to it. Then find another and another staying on the bearing until you reach the road. You are no longer lost.

This description of map and compass navigation is a bit brief, granted, but it is meant to demonstrate that just a few simple actions can help you get moving in the right direction. For much more detail, read the booklet that comes with better compasses. The Silva Ranger or Nexus are recommended (expect to pay about $50). If you want pursue your skills further, read the book “Be Expert with Map & Compass – the Orienteering Handbook.”

It’s a good idea to practice your map and compass skills before you head out, and also good to know where you are going in the first place. Guide books and internet hiking sites often give you a more up to date representation of roads and trails.

Special thanks to CSAR member Jim V., a SAR Manager, GSAR Instructor and active CSAR member for 40 years, for putting this overview together!

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