How we find our way around in the empty western lands


Into the Great Empty
Oct 14, 2019
We are just back from a month in Nevada and central/southern Utah. While fresh on my mind I thought I would share how we keep from getting lost and find new places. Please ignore if you already have this stuff figured out.

Back in the 1980’s I was exploring the high plateau above Cedar City Utah. The plateau averages around 9600 feet elevation, undulating over old lava flows amid conifer stands. Despite being a life-long visitor to the back country since childhood I rarely ever got lost. That day on the high plateau was different. I had walked through the forest and lava flows for a while, occasionally crossing old dirt vehicle tracks; then realizing that there were no distant landmarks or any unique distinguishing features to the terrain. I had lost my way. Pausing, I set out on what I thought was the right direction. No good. Lost. The gray overcast day hid the sun, so I had nothing to go by. It was a terrible feeling. Eventually I found my way back to my truck.

[SIZE=13.5pt]If you have done something similar, you know the mix of relief and embarrassment when you get back in the vehicle and think about the close call you just had. It could have been much different and much worse.[/SIZE]

[SIZE=13.5pt]I vowed to never even take a walk without navigation aids. It has grown to be a bit of an obsession. I will share how we find our way in remote and even developed areas. Maybe this information will help someone else.[/SIZE]


[SIZE=13.5pt]1 - Stay aware of my location. If I don’t know where I am, I stop immediately and figure it out. I don’t keep moving. [/SIZE]

[SIZE=13.5pt]2 - I use multiple systems such as a mix of analog, digital and paper navigation aids. I once, as a test, used three different turn by turn systems (a Garmin dash mount, my Toyota Highlander’s in-car navigation and Google maps on my phone) simultaneously to get to the address of Trader Joe’s in Bend from a location north of Sisters. Each gave me a different route, time varied a lot, and two eventually would have guided me successfully.[/SIZE]

[SIZE=13.5pt]3 - I never assume a road or trail exists as shown on my navigation tools. I double check by confirming landmarks and terrain features. Time and weather changes on the ground conditions constantly, particularly in off-highway areas. Highways can be different too, such as the bridge washout west of Blanding Utah on highway 95, which forced a detour through winding fairly rough high clearance roads for nearly a year.[/SIZE]

[SIZE=13.5pt]What I use at this moment:[/SIZE]

  • [SIZE=13.5pt]Paper maps: Benchmark and Delorme atlases, National Geographic trail guides, books and visitor information guides.[/SIZE]

  • [SIZE=13.5pt]Analog devices: Brunton compass, Suunto M-3 compass.[/SIZE]

  • [SIZE=13.5pt]Handheld digital devices: Garmin InReach mini-2, Garmin e-trex, smartphone when there is reception.[/SIZE]

  • [SIZE=13.5pt]Dashmount digital devices: Garmin DriveSmart 65, Samsung GPS 10 inch tablet with Avenza maps with Benchmark, Delorme, USFS MVUMs and other digital maps as needed.[/SIZE]

[SIZE=13.5pt]I always set a digital waypoint on both the Garmin handhelds before going off on a walk. They can vary from true location by as much as a 100 yards, so I don’t rigidly follow them. See number 1, above.[/SIZE]

[SIZE=13.5pt]I always bear in mind the old maxim: “The map is not the terrain.”[/SIZE]

[SIZE=13.5pt]Stay safe and have fun out there.[/SIZE]
Yup...been there and walked/swam in is my approach...I use this topside and underwater....before leaving starting point I take a reciprocal compass bearing, essential UW when diving, this is my return vector..I assume at worst I will/may be laterally on the return the reciprocal but if i know the approximate distances out and back, I will know when to turn right or left 90 degrees ....topside I also locate a road or or terrain ridge/feature that will eventually [regardless of distance] get me unstuck before setting out and note the compass compass bearing from my destination/stopping point to that prominent feature/road or depth contour/bottom features for UW...

Just me but I will never trust or depend on a battery anything to not quit when I am in a potentially life threatening situation...and weather/terrain/temp can produce such situations very quickly....I also always carry a topo map [which can give elevations changes on your route] whether hiking, skiing BC or off road motorcycling and a chart when sea kayaking or bathymetric maps contoured on a slate when diving..

I spent much of my professional life in high-risk activities and with the added responsibility for the safety of others...lessons hard won and not far I have avoid the worst.

Sorry to carry on so long and I may have forgotten salient points...and of course I may be wrong! :cool:
Well said!

Julie & I taught land navigation for decades, starting back way before all these devices and apps and such that have changed the world. Because of our background and skill, we started teaching for SAR organizations and then grew to many other organizations and groups.

One of our mantras was "Confirm, confirm, confirm," that meant, even if you are convinced you know where you are, stop and double or triple check. It never hurts. So, Julie and I are in the habit of stopping, pulling out the map and such, and confirming our location.

Second to share, "It's our habits that save our lives." Learn a skill and practice it until it becomes a habit. In times of stress we fall back on habits. Develop good habits.

And a third, "Never trust your life to something that runs on batteries."

Wow...that hits all the points is golden advice....could not agree more...

Old saw in diving, "stop, breath, think, breath and then make decisions"....

AWG, thanks for starting an important topic! Long ago I stopped being surprised with how little people know about basic navigation even when they profess to know so much.

I expect many here feel the same.

Julie has an interesting technique she uses. When stopped on the trail, and asked the usual questions such as "how far to the lake?" Her response is, "Pull out your map and let's figure it out!"
Add to that this effective mantra:

The OODA loop (observe, orient, decide, act) was developed by military strategist and United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd.

All comes back to logical, objective decision making, skills sets and knowledge....tough to teach, but by example it isn't.
Lots of good info.
I find that on a trail I am new to ,when I come to a divide to a new trail
I turn around to place in my mind what the route looks on return.

Also since I always have an I phone or camera a photo of a confusing
part of the trail helps.Maybe it's just me but the trail always looks different on the return.
And this particular 68 year old reformed field geologist's favorite adage, oft repeated herein, is "there is no complete substitute for a map, a compass, and the skillset to use them".

During our college years, a group of a dozen or so geology majors went to Table Rock, NC to do some elementary climbing, mostly top-roping a particularly easy route. We were accompanied by our Department chairman, a very field oriented structural geologist who'd done mapping projects in the Southern Appalachians for his MS and PhD at Virginia Tech. He was at that time also the full time Director of Virginia Tech's field camp, teaching field methods to dozens and dozens of VPI undergrad students each summer. No stranger to land navigation, this old bird.

Well, after starting down the trail from the climbing route on Table Rock, about 3/4 of our group decided to bushwhack down a long and very steep slope to replace 3-4 miles of switchbacks with a one mile plunge through a rhodo hell. Same group which had imbibed a bit topside once off belay. The good professor told those with him "if those damn hippies got ripped and beat us down to the trucks, I'm going to flunk them all". Well, he had the topo and he managed to take a wrong turn at a trail intersection, so we did in fact get to the trucks first. After a short while we started one of them up and went out hunting the Boss. We found him, madder than a hornet, around 2 miles off course on a gravel road. I don't think he spoke a word all the way back to Boone, NC.


Great story! It is always important to retain a bit of humility when faced with nature's wiles!
I like to tell this story at this point when none of the above seems to work :oops: !

Our very experienced archaeological survey team was doing some inventory work for the USFS up on the -I think it was Stanislaus NF -in 1973-4. Anyway, it was back in the dark ages before GPS was available to the public (meaning using compasses, common sense, and USGS Maps and land features) and we were just starting to work this new area. We had been warned that because of the high mineral content that we should ignore our compasses and use geographic and cultural features, especially painted rocks and an old trapper cabin, to find our way around out there.

So, of course, on the first day, we ignored this sage advise and headed into woods following our compass bearings and an old marked up topo map in search of the cabin and (of course) a couple of hours later we found ourselves back at the starting point-hmm, maybe the advise was right. So off we go again into this very forested area with lot's of boulders, trees and rock flows and features, old mine shafts and can't see the mountains and other land features to get our bearings, so we really get lost this time! What saved us -the newest member of the team-first time out in the woods. As we stumbled around out there trying to figure out where we are, he popes off with " hey isn't that the sun up there thru the trees-can't we use that somehow to find where we are?"

Oh gees, here we are this great experienced field team and we got so pissed off and flustered that we forgot about the first thing any traveler learns -use the sun idiot. Well, we did, found the cabin and did not become one of those Darwin stories! I guess there are to many lessons learned from this tale-take your pick, so enough said!

Smokecreek1 said:
We had been warned that because of the high mineral content that we should ignore our compasses
I forgot to mention -- don't stand near your truck to get a magnetic bearing. 100 feet separation is probably adequate!
Thanks for sharing your navigation wisdom, It's always rough getting lost in the great outdoors, especially when there aren't any distinguishable features around. I'm definitely taking your advice on double-checking information and not assuming things on my next hike off the beaten path. Keep the good times rolling, and stay safe out there!
Map question. Many of my FS maps are huge. Difficult to unfold in the cab and real pita if the wind is blowing (as it would be in my open top Jeep). Fold it to just the area you need and you'll never get it properly folded back up again. Anyone have any tips or tricks for this problem?
Only thing I can add is to learn to read the terrain features from the topographic map you are carrying....takes practice but you start to visualize the map in 3D...


"Not lost, just wandering" :cool:
craig333 said:
Map question. Many of my FS maps are huge. Difficult to unfold in the cab and real pita if the wind is blowing (as it would be in my open top Jeep). Fold it to just the area you need and you'll never get it properly folded back up again. Anyone have any tips or tricks for this problem?
A life long problem which I have never solved. End up with some mutilated and weirdly folded maps. Maybe someone else has an elegant solution?
AWG_Pics said:
A life long problem which I have never solved. End up with some mutilated and weirdly folded maps. Maybe someone else has an elegant solution?

I always operated on the assumption that the cost of a map was only in proportion to the use. I do most of my adventures solo, so the cost of a map is not significant in that context...I tear out pages from Benchmark Map books to cover where I am or could wander to and put them in a zip lock [folded of course] along with my USGS topos for the same areas...before my ventures I pour over them and develop a visualization of me route and of features that I can expect to encounter on that route...

Don't "save" a map/topo for another trip, cuz without them on your current adventure there may not be 'another trip'; treat them as expendable, the maps/topos that is.... :cool:
Thanks for sharing your navigation tips - it's important to have multiple tools and methods to avoid getting lost. Double-checking for road and trail conditions is a great reminder, and I appreciate the mix of analog and digital devices used. Happy exploring!
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