Top 10 navigation principles you need to know

| August 11, 2014

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Here are 10 things you should know about navigation before heading out into the woods.

1. Your map, compass, and GPS receiver are complimentary tools

You can navigate with just a map, you can navigate with just a compass, and you can navigate with just a GPS receiver. However, each  has its strengths and weaknesses, and when you learn how to use them together you will increase your confidence in being outdoors.

At the most basic level, a map gives you route-finding information, a GPS receiver gives location information, and a compass gives you direction information. How they are used together will be covered in future articles on Urban Outdoor Warrior.

2. A paper map is still essential

Our smartphones, tablets, and phablets have almost become essential tools for navigating around our urban environments. They can display maps at a moment’s notice, and you can’t beat their convenience for finding that restaurant before your date gives up waiting for you. For fun, there are also countless GPS and compass apps to play with.

When you’re planning an outdoor adventure that will take you out of sight of familiar concrete, however, you’re playing a different game. If you get too away from populated areas, or you’re in a canyon, you’ll have no cell phone coverage and that means you won’t be able to download a map. Your smartphone’s GPS receiver will still give you your location, but that’s not much good without a map on which to display it.

If you’ve thought ahead, you may have downloaded a GPS app and some maps onto your phone before you set out. This puts you in a better position, and in a pinch they’ll help, but looking at a map on a phone is like looking at the world through a keyhole. That tiny piece of map that you see is going to limit your route-finding abilities and make your progress slow. And don’t even try to take a bearing off it with a compass!

3. There are two styles of navigation.

There are two main styles of land navigation and it will give you the most flexibility if you learn them both.

The first style assumes that your GPS receiver will always work, so you can forget about navigating while you’re on the move. You can go anywhere you want as long as you don’t move off the edge of your map. Your GPS receiver will give you your location whenever you need it and you can pinpoint your position on the map. This method is more casual and will almost always be sufficient.

The second style is for you if you:

  • Are more risk averse, as it assumes that your GPS receiver may not work
  • Don’t own a GPS receiver
  • Want to learn the traditional art of navigation and be the best that you can be in the outdoors

With this style, you track your location on the map at frequent intervals while you’re moving and familiarize yourself with the features around you. You know where you are at all times and only use your GPS receiver if you mess up and aren’t quite sure where you are.

4. The sun is a useful quick compass

You don’t need to be a boy scout and make a shadow stick to be able to use the sun for direction. You are your own shadow stick. If you live in the northern hemisphere, the sun is always in the southern sky. As your shadow falls opposite the sun, your own shadow will always point towards the northern half of the sky.

Everyone knows that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. This means that in the morning the sun is south of due east, around noon it is around south, and in the evening it is south of due west. As your shadow is opposite, in the morning it points north of due west, around noon it points around north, and in the evening it points north of due east. It’s not the most accurate compass, but if you only need to make sure you’re heading in the right direction on a trail, it doesn’t need to be. For example, if you need to be hiking roughly north and your shadow is falling behind you, you’re going the wrong way.

5. Basic compasses and GPS receivers are enough

It’s more important to have a basic compass and basic GPS receiver that you know how to use than it is to have the latest fancy gear that does everything including confuse you. If you’re new to navigation start with the simplest (and cheaper) quality tools and learn the fundamentals of navigation. When you’ve got it covered and can no longer resist those cool additional features that will impress your friends, don’t hesitate to upgrade if your wallet can handle it.

6. The only thing you really need a GPS receiver for is…

The only thing you really need a GPS receiver for is to give you your grid location so you can find where you are on your map.

If you don’t have a map (please don’t let this be you), you’ll need to mark a waypoint at your car, or turn on the tracking feature. Then when you’re ready to head back to your car, use your GPS receiver to tell you how far away it is and in which direction you need to go. A GPS receiver with track recording turned on will always allow you to re-trace your steps and get back to where you started. This is great, but it may not always be as great as it sounds. It may be a 5-mile uphill climb to the water in your car but it may only be a five-minute hike to a creek with cold, delicious, running water. And remember that if you took a waypoint at your car, your GPS receiver will give you an accurate straight line direction back to your car. However, it won’t tell you about that cliff you’ll fall off if you follow that straight line. You’d better remember that map after all!

7. A baseplate compass is a compass and a protractor

If you don’t understand this you will never progress beyond rote memorization of the steps needed to use it.

To really understand how navigation with a compass works, it’s best to start with a non-baseplate compass for measuring and sighting bearings in the field and a separate protractor for measuring and drawing bearings on a map. Before long you’ll be saying, “Oh, that’s why you do that” as you go through the steps of using your baseplate compass.

8. Nearby magnetic objects will make your compass readings inaccurate

We all forget this from time to time, especially when we’re tired. Often we are just getting a rough bearing to make sure we’re not traveling the wrong way down a trail, but when accuracy counts this can make a difference.

It’s worth checking your gear before you head out to see which items affect your compass. It’s easy to do by putting your compass on a table and one-by-one moving metallic objects towards it noting at what point the needle starts to deflect. Start with your watch (one of the biggest culprits), and include glasses, pocket knives, phone, stove, etc. If that Rambo knife in the top of your pack is going to throw off your compass consider leaving it at home (in fact consider that even if it isn’t!). To be sure, you can always put your pack down and walk away a few yards before taking a reading, but if you’re in bear country don’t be surprised to find that it’s not there anymore after taking that reading.

Also, make sure you’re not taking a reading anywhere near your car or electrical pylons.

9. You have to choose the right map datum

Map datums are one of modern navigation’s little technical annoyances, but you can’t ignore them. We don’t need to get into the theory here, you just need to know that if you don’t choose the datum on your GPS receiver to match your map, your position on the map may be off by  hundreds of meters, enough to confuse you and send you up the wrong hill.

You can learn more here about how your GPS can get you lost because of the wrong map datum.

10. Yes, you do need to understand declination

Declination, also known as magnetic variation, is the hardest concept in navigation but, unless you live in an area where true north and magnetic north point in the same direction, or if you’re sure you’re going to be staying on major trails and only need a rough direction from your compass, you do need to understand it. This is not the time to teach declination, we’ll just leave it by saying it’s worth investing some time to understand it.

That’s it. There are sure to be different opinions about the 10 most important things to know about navigation. Leave us a comment to tell us what you think.

For more awesome articles about navigation, see:

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