How I Navigate Backcountry

To me, navigating means knowing where I am, where I want to be, and how I want to get there. The primary system I use is quite simple. A grid is drawn over the paper map and the GPS gives me a number that references a point on that grid. That point is where I am.

Sounds easy? After a little practice, it is.

I’m focusing on the things that I have figured out after implementing what I call the Dick Blust System, so the article may seem incomplete. This article wanted to morph into a navigation how-to but there are already many great resources for learning how to stay found and at best I would only do as well. At the bottom of this article I have included links to the tutorials that got me started and they are the best I know of.

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Some folks like to use a mapping GPS or smartphone for everything, the plotting, planning, mapping, etc. I prefer a paper map that is 8.5×11 or 11×17 over a 4×6 screen. Additionally, relying on a single device gives you no redundancy which is a bad move in backcountry. I use a map, GPS, and compass. Each one can help me find my way on its own but when used in concert they make a fantastic system. Let’s look at the paper map first.

I have access to both an 8.5×11 laser printer and an 11×17 inkjet. I have found for both printers that the 1:24,000 and 1:25,000 scales yield the best results. The printer resolution needed to get good detail on smaller scale maps (like 1:50,000 and 1:100,000) is much higher than what these printers can deliver. Fortunately 1:24k and 1:25k scales are convenient for navigation and work with these paper sizes. After printing the map I fold it in half and hold it in place with a clipboard. I use a letter size clipboard for the folded 11×17 maps and a half letter size clipboard for the folded 8.5×11 maps. I use a plastic half letter clipboard like this, it is low profile and water resistant. The clipboard makes writing on the map and plotting points much easier.

I have found the 11×17 size is kind of awkward when on foot in backcountry but when in a vehicle driving down logging roads it is great. At first I thought I could take the 11×17, fold it into quarters, and clip it onto the half letter clipboard but it didn’t work well and the larger size isn’t needed. The 8.5×11 works great for hiking. Printout the maps you need to cover the route or area you intend to travel in and change them out as you move from one map to another.

For my maps I really like to use Caltopo.com. It is FREE. At first that seems like the coolest feature but mess with it for very long and you will want to start sending donations.

Below is a video of how Caltopo works.

Caltopo is a fantastic service with a myriad of mapping tools and options. You save the maps to a PDF, set the printer to 100% (not shrink to fit), and print out your maps precisely to scale. Here is a tip for printing out overlapping maps. When selecting the amount of overlap for two maps try to ensure that there is enough margin at the edges of both maps so they share an entire grid square. This makes navigating at the edges with the protractor much easier. If that sounds cryptic, check out the Blust tutorials at the end.

All this talk of printing begs the question, What paper to use? The enemy of maps is water. Humidity, condensation, rain and the like can make ink run and paper hard to write on and tear easily. Because my 8.5×11 maps are made on a laser printer I’m not worried about ink running or smearing. I have gone out with unprotected maps (i.e. not in a map pouch or Ziploc bag) made with standard printer paper. These outings were fairly brief (a day or two). However, dropping these maps in a creek or dousing them in rain would quickly turn them into a soggy mess. Putting them in a Ziploc would prevent this but would also make writing on them difficult and I really like writing on my maps and making notes. I have just started using Rite in the Rain copier paper. The first thing I did when I got this paper was to printout a map and then immerse it in a tennis ball can full of water. A day later it was a bit fragile but still usable. On the trail I found the maps on this paper work well. I’m curious how the Rite in the Rain inkjet paper would work. Since I only use my 11×17 maps in the truck I haven’t bothered with getting any. Neither of these papers are cheap but for me they are worth it to have durable maps I can write on.

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To plot the point I get from the GPS I use a UTM protractor. Right now I am liking the MapTools Pocket Slot Tool. I run a thin piece of cord through the hole and tie the slot tool off to my kit bag. I’m thinking about tying it off to the clipboard next time out.

For a pencil I use the Koh-i-noor 5201CL lead holder. I tried a 0.5mm mechanical pencil but it tended to gouge the map rather than write smoothly. At first I thought that the fine point of the 0.5mm would increase the precision of my plots but the Koh-i-noor has been more than adequate (especially when I sharpen the tip with the sharpener in the “cap” of the holder). I like its yellow color which makes the pencil easy to find if I drop it. The holder itself is all metal and quite tough so it is unlikely to break.

For my GPS I’m just using an old Garmin eTrex. In the picture up top is an even older Garmin Geko 201 that I carry as a backup. With the Dick Blust System it doesn’t really matter what you use for a GPS. I would recommend getting a GPS with a fast startup that finds satellites quickly and ideally uses the same batteries as your other equipment. I’ve been looking into getting the Garmin Foretrex 401 but there are some serious hikers and hunters who have been using smartphones with GPS receivers. The Foretrex does have a barometric altimeter, an electronic compass, and can be worn on the wrist which would be quite handy but I need to look into using a smart phone (which I already own) before I drop $190 on the Foretrex.

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In general a compass is a good idea. I use an older version of the Suunto MC-2/G/6400. I think it is the best version of a mirror style of compass out there. However, it was designed for a different approach to navigation than I use. My style (taken from Dick Blust) appears to be more closely related to a military approach and so it is not surprising that I’m looking into getting a lensatic or prismatic compass. I don’t like trying to line up the needle with the bezel while trying to take a bearing with my Suunto. I want to be able to point the compass at something and get a number. True, you have to account for declination with a lensatic/prismatic compass reading but always adding or subtracting a number is easy. In fact I do that with my present compass anyway and leave the declination adjustment set to 0. I also like the increased accuracy and precision of the lensatic/prismatic compasses over my Suunto.

The way it seems to work in the field is I plot my location about every ten minutes. I leave the GPS on and plot my UTM coordinates when I stop. I circle the point and write the time down near the plot but hopefully not obscuring an important part of the map. I then orient my brain to me being at that point on the map and decide what to do from there. That “orient my brain” instruction might seem silly but not taking that step seriously has taken me off track. If I’m following a trail on the map and the point is on the trail I just keep heading down the trail. If I’m bushwhacking I may measure a heading or see if I can determine my bearing through terrain association. If you are on a well established trail then you’ll likely only really need to plot your location at trail junctions but when off trail I like the ~10 minute plots, especially when I am following sign or terrain features.

Don’t get hung up on doing it just this way or that way or trying to figure out what exactly will work before trying it. The most important thing is to just do it. Try navigating while walking around where you live. Once that feels familiar go take a day hike out on a trail and keep track of your location. After doing it you learn very fast what does and does not work for you. Everyone has his or her own specific requirements and you want to find what system best addresses those needs.

*Dick Blust Jr. wrote a series of outstanding articles that have taught me almost everything I know and use for navigation. They are found on the Kifaru website.

Dick Blust Articles:

Hill People Gear Mountain Serape

The Hill People Gear Mountain Serape. A great piece of gear.

The Mountain Serape is rather like a beefed up poncho liner with a hood and is a tremendously flexible piece of kit. It can be used as blanket, a poncho, various styles of overcoats, and a sleeping bag. Although it is not waterproof, it could also be used like a tarp to shield you from the rain or sun. This versatility lets the Mountain Serape augment other equipment. In mild to cool weather the Serape can actually replace your coat and your sleeping bag. All this reduces both bulk and weight in your pack and when you are loading up your pack to hunt it is hard to keep it light.

These videos give you a good idea of some of the Mountain Serape’s functions:

And the picture to the lower right shows another permutation for those who need to access chest mounted gear.

Mountain Serape chest rig

During my hunt the weather was never cold enough to warrant wearing anything more than my half-zip top while hiking but the Mountain Serape worked marginally well as a sleeping bag in the roughly 35F, damp, humid, dew-filled nights. To stay somewhat comfortable I had to augment with a poncho liner and all my clothes including the M-65 field pant liners I had brought for sleeping in. This is not a criticism. I was not sleeping in a tent and every morning a third to a half of the bag (serape) was wet through but it still insulated pretty well. I don’t know what system would have performed well in such a wet environment without some covering like a tent, tarp, or bivy bag. In the mornings the Serape dried out quickly once it was in the sun. Should I plan on sleeping in similar circumstances I will bring the Mountain Serape as an outer bag and I will have some sort of covering to fight the dew. Using the Mountain Serape as an outer bag will leverage the weight and insulation of my coat in increasing the warmth of my sleeping bag and this means that I can use a lighter and smaller sleeping bag.

The Mountain Serape worked well as an ambush cloak. Worn as a poncho while I sat and watched for game to pass through a choke point, it obliterated my human shape, kept my butt fairly dry while waiting, and kept me warm as I waited for several hours. One deer came within 15 feet and was looking right at me without understanding what it was seeing (I was also wearing a ball cap and a balaclava). I think it might be too loud for bow hunting. The fabric is smooth, slick even, and quite light but it does have a quiet but present rustling sound when moving. I’m not experienced enough to say it with certainty but I felt like moving would have been too loud with the animal inside of 10 yards. That said, it did not interfere with my draw stroke or the bowstring and cables.

In closing I heartily recommend the Mountain Serape. If you think it would be good for something it almost certainly will be. I think it is a good value when comparing it to the price of the kit it replaces and it works well which is the consideration when purchasing and packing gear for the backcountry.

SPOT Gen3 Personal Locator Beacon

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The SPOT Gen3 Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). A personal locator beacon of this type is like a combination GPS and satellite phone. It sends the device’s GPS coordinates via the satellite phone network. This purchase was a concession to my sweetie so she would worry about me less while I was out alone in the boonies. The Gen3 has two basic functions: it transmits its present location every 10 minutes and it transmits messages, both via satellite. The messages are sent by pressing one of four message buttons: OK, custom, friends please come help, and direct to SAR help. While it can send messages, it cannot receive them.

The Gen3 can have the satellite signal blocked just like any GPS unit but I did not have any troubles with it. In fact I found it pretty robust even in what was fairly dense tree cover. While I was hiking around all over the hills I left the Gen3 in a pouch at the top of my pack with the logo shown in the picture facing the sky. It rarely showed that the signals were not being sent and when I pulled it out of the pouch and held it flat in my hand the tacking signal went through.

As I mentioned before there are four messages I can send. All except the S.O.S. message can be customized to display any message I please but I have to set them up prior to the trip. It is a pretty simple process for customizing the messages and it is all web based. The first message is the checking in/I’m OK message. The second message is labeled as a speech bubble. The third message is a help message that goes to the emails you designated online while setting the device up but the message does NOT go to emergency services. The last button sends a message to emergency rescue. The button is labeled S.O.S. but it should really be labeled $.O.$. This is the money button. When you press it you are mobilizing resources and somebody has to pay for them and that somebody could be you. You press that button when you don’t care about being on the hook for $10,000-$60,000 and perhaps much more. One of the neat things about the SPOT is that you can buy SAR insurance through them. I paid about $18 for it. For more information on SAR (Search and Reascue) costs check out this article, Who pays for search and rescue operations?

A really cool feature of the Gen3 is the message confirmation. There are eight lights on the Gen3. The top three are power, GPS, and send confirmation. The bottom three are custom message, tracking, and Ok. There are lights on the side for friends come help and S.O.S. Here is how they work. Let’s say we want to send a check-in message. We press that button down for about a three count and the light below it begins to flash. This means that the Gen3 is trying to send that message. You will know it has been successful when the message sent light (at the top right) is also flashing green. If the message sent light is flashing red then you know something didn’t work. If for some reason the PLB does not have a good GPS signal the GPS light will also flash red instead of green.

I paid $150 for the Gen3 at REI. There was a $75 mail-in rebate which is just now processing. Then to buy the insurance and a year’s worth of satellite coverage I paid $170. Other devices offer monthly arrangements but I like the idea of the PLB being good to go at anytime.

Once you get it all setup it is very simple to use. There is a power button on the side. Hold that down until the lights start flashing. This is apparently some sort of self diagnostic. Once this is completed the lights stop flashing and the power light starts flashing slowly. When you want it to begin tracking you press the center bottom button with a boot print on it. The device will send a message via satellite every 10 minutes to the app with your GPS location at that time. It’s sort of like a breadcrumb trail on a GPS. The frequency of breadcrumbs varies based on the plan you get. It was a 10 minute interval for the basic plan I got. This allows those at home to see your progress and to have your last known location should a search and rescue be initiated by them. There are other plans which offer greater tracking frequency and some other features. I imagine there are situations which call for these services but I didn’t need them. With regard to the plan, my sweetie found the level of notification completely satisfactory (Except the first morning when I forgot to hit the check in button when I woke up!).

When looking for a PLB we read about a bunch of different devices. Some have a long antenna while others have two-way texting capacity. With all the technology available it is tempting to not simply want a satellite phone. There were complaints about the texting PLBs not reliably sending or receiving the messages. While I’m sure they were all great devices, it seemed to me that the more the unit could do, the more that could go wrong. After reading online and talking to the guy at REI I decided that the Gen3 had the right balance of features.

This device is for improbable and extreme emergencies. I have found that when dealing with this kind of emergency equipment one starts using fear instead of thinking to make decisions. When you look at these plans don’t get sucked into worrying about all the “what-ifs.” An examples of getting sucked into the “what-ifs” is buy a plan for services that you don’t need. Remember that this is just a machine and no machine will work in all situations. Don’t stress out about finding one that will. Just remember that it will work most of the time and when it does it gives you a huge advantage in an emergency and folks at home piece of mind.

The tracking feature is accessed via the website:

https://login.findmespot.com/

or the SPOT App:

http://www.findmespot.com/en/index.php?cid=7075

TAD Pursuit Half-Zip

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The TAD Pursuit Half-Zip. This is an awesome layer. I wore it all day as a base layer. There is not much wool in it (75% Polyester/25% Wool) but it never stank and it was tremendously flexible with regards to its insulation. I’ve been noticing that wool in general has a really broad range of comfort. It seems to spread out the comfort range considerably. I can be too warm but not so warm that I need to drop a layer and I can be too cold but the wool takes the edge off. This is doubly so with the Pursuit and the half-zip feature really helps with this too. When zipped up all the way the short collar lays flat and smooth against your neck. I found this to function like a mini neck-gaiter and significantly added to the warmth. This was usually too warm so I would run the zip a little below the collar most of the time. However, there were times when I was exerting myself pretty strenuously and would run the zip all the way down. Since I was wearing the Pursuit as a base layer this exposed a good amount of bare skin and let me cool well. If the weather gets decidedly warm you might want to run just a t-shirt but if the weather gets too cold for just the Pursuit then you can wear a t-shirt underneath and really bump up the insulation. With just those two garments, the Pursuit and a t-shirt, you can work in a very wide range of temperatures.

The Pursuit really does the moisture wicking stuff. I got back to my camp the second night and there were hundreds of little tiny drops glistening on my front in the light of my headlamp. In the woods the thumbholes are fantastic. I wore fingerless knit wool gloves and pulled the sleeve over them locking both the gloves and the sleeves into place with the thumb hole. I did notice a little pilling where the pack rubs after the hike in but I did not notice an increase in the pilling after getting home. Even after wearing it in the woods where I was primarily bushwacking I would still wear it around town. It is a great looking garment.

When I bought this I got a discount but I would buy it again for the full price. The Pursuit is made in the US and just like every other TAD piece of gear I have purchased, it is exceptionally well made. With the prices other folks are charging for clothes from sweatshops in Bangladesh I think this is an extremely good value and recommend it without any reservation.

Magpul Is Being Awesome Again

Magpul has long had a reputation for coming out with innovative, functional, cool looking, and largely affordable products. Not everything they do is a home run but the likelihood of their products solving real problems is high. While they do have some metal and nylon products their primary area of innovation has been with polymers. Magpul had released lots of cool things like AR platform buttstocks, back up sights, and shotgun accessories.

Then it seemed to fall off. There were developments of the already popular PMAGS including the introduction of an AK PMAG but nothing really different that got you stoked. Aren’t we ungrateful? None of their stuff stopped being awesome, we just got used to it. I suspect their move out of Colorado is at least partly to blame.

Well, now they are making up for lost time.

G17 PMAGS ! !

“But what is that solving?”

True, the stock Glock mags for the 17 have never given me any trouble either, except when I buy them. I’ve paid $35 each. Ouch! Now, I have noticed that the price seems to be dropping with three packs selling at Brownells for $73 (plus shipping) but even at ~$24 each that is not $16 and made in the USA. I’m wondering if they will come out with the 33 round G18 mags at some point.

The Magpul Hunter 700 Stock System

More of a film hinting at things to come, I would like to see what this stock system entails. Because it is Magpul and there are already tons of 700 short action stock options I am curious. What will set it apart from everything else?

Magpul AK Furniture (Zhukov and MOE)

At first I thought this was just a comedy piece but it is in fact introducing a new line of AK accessories. Again, because Magpul consistently comes out with cool stuff I am interested, especially in that folding stock.

Magpul PMag D60

Not something that regular folks would have a day to day need for, this is awesome just by virtue of its existence. However, I could see it be useful for competition and possibly some military applications.

Seeing things like this, as well as having the truly insane gun demand subside and this allowing manufacturers to come out with new products, I’m really looking forward to the videos and reviews coming back from SHOT Show this year.

Practical Pepper Spray

This is a great article on good daily carry options for OC spray.

Everyday Carry OC

There are a lot of options out there. Some are too big (good for cops but not regular folks) and some have strange or impractical safeties. Pig Money explores some good options.

EQ on a Macbook

I just got a MacBook Air for school. It is such a relief. I have consistently found that when I want to get an Apple product because I think ti will let me do something it does. I’ve been at bat four times and each time I got the device I was stoked with what it did for me. Apple is not perfect and I miss my Linux box in the office (Mint rocks!) but this is small, and powerful (with crazy battery life).

The MacBook was one of two pieces of equipment I knew I needed to really lock down my ability to be truly portable in my school work. The other piece was noise isolating earbuds. I originally had some Ear Bombs and those were great until they started intermittently pegging the volume to 100%. So I needed new ones.

After searching for a while I landed on a-Jays One+. To cater to the crowd who buys $50 earbuds they have skewed the bass response significantly louder. They don’t suck at all but the boom is more than I want when I have the higher frequencies at the right volume. I needed to roll these bass frequencies down.

Google to the rescue!

A quick search took me to LifeHacker’s How to Equalize Your Computer.

With the small adjustment of 3dB down at 20Hz rolling smoothly up to 1.5dB down at 80-Hz and the earbuds are perfect!

Of course I have been writing this instead of writing a paper so the system isn’t perfect. Fortunately that is just a software issue.