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:

Our Vulnerable Power Grid

Couple this with our just-in-time shipping and need for refrigeration in our food system and we have a problem.

Just take a moment and consider how long you could do without power and what you can do to deal with it.