Backcountry Navigation: Map Reading Basics

Old World Map

Art from 1562 World Map by Diego Gutiérrez.

I have always liked maps of all kinds from hand-drawn treasure maps you scrawled out on the back of your ruled notepad paper as a kid to professionally crafted cartographer’s world maps. I have a significant map collection myself. There are some maps that have practical purpose and get used often (like local trail maps) and there are others I have just to have them (like my shaded relief map of Antarctica). Historically, cartography was an important art form and maps were an ever-changing representation of our knowledge of the physical world we lived in. The words “Terra Incognita” on a map have been the inspiration for many an expedition. The progression of the complexity and accuracy of maps throughout history is a direct link to our technological advancement as a culture.

My love of maps has carried over into my professional life. I create and use maps, primarily topographic maps, every day and my work depends on my ability to interpret them accurately. Learning how to read a map is not terribly complicated, more like learning another language..a visual language that uses graphics to communicate. Once you know what you’re looking at, reading a map is pretty straight forward. So let’s dig in…

Types of Maps

Maps are used to present information about a place, therefore, there are as many different kinds of maps as there are data to study (weather, geology, geography, traffic, population density, flora and fauna, water distribution, zoning, political, etc). For our purposes we are more concerned with the typical maps we would use for travel and navigation. There are four primary styles of maps typically used to supply road and trail information for would-be travelers.

Simple Line Maps

simple line map

Most basic type of navigational map.

This is the most basic of maps we can use. Typically it has little or no data regarding terrain and is often not drawn to any definable scale. Named roads and marked trails are illustrated and labeled, maybe some key features of the area are called out and there might be some trail distance data. Most of the time these maps will also label North for reference and even if they don’t, it is normally safe to assume that North is toward to the top of the page. You’ll find these maps printed for use in smaller local parks where “navigation” is not considered necessary. These are not the best maps to use for navigation but in a pinch, they can still be better than nothing.

Detailed Road Maps

detailed road map

Road Atlases and National Forest Maps are typically little more than detailed road and boundary maps.

Your typical state maps you can pick up at any gas station or thick road Atlas used for cross country travel are pretty common road maps. The focus is on known, paved roads with some information on maintained dirt roads and trails. These are great maps for traveling long distances by vehicle and tend to have relevant data for that type of travel. These emphasize main highways, towns and state boundaries, popular areas of interest and note road distances between towns and cities. Very popular and very useful when travelling by road and planning long distance trips but of little use in the backcountry.

Shaded Relief Maps

shaded relief map

Pre-color base shading for a shaded relief map.

Shaded relief maps are visually stunning and some of my favorite maps to look at. They beautifully represent land contouring and geological features through detailed shading giving an almost 3D effect to the map. On their own, they are little more than works of art but when combined with detailed road and topographical data they are incredibly useful and actually make topography easier to read. They also use a more real-world color palette to represent the land (i.e. browns for desert, greens for alpine and wetlands, white for snow, blue for water, etc.). By using shaded relief techniques on top of road, trail and topo data, map reading can be much easier and more intuitive for the average user.

Topographic Survey Maps

shaded relief topo map

Multi-layered map data with accurate topography is ideal for backcountry navigation.

For backcountry navigation, nothing beats an accurate and up-to-date detailed topographic (topo) map. It is the best map for accurately reading terrain and land forms in the field. When layered with road and trail data, boundary information and shaded relief graphics these maps create a very complete picture of the physical world around you. Topo maps use contour lines at set intervals to illustrate relief (see below for more on contour lines and reading topography). For the most part, these are the maps you want to have in the field when trying to navigate. These maps show not only the contours, but also any significant streams or other bodies of water, forest cover, built-up areas or individual buildings (depending on scale), and other features and points of interest. Landmarks and landforms on topographic maps are easily recognizable and make navigation much easier.

Map Components

Map Developer

Map Developer

If you have a lot of maps, or a lot of experience with maps, you’ll learn to place your trust in certain cartographers and map developers. This can vary locally as some small producers are responsible for fantastic local maps but don’t offer anything outside that region. For example, here in Arizona there is a set of trail maps produced by Emmett Barks Cartography for Flagstaff and Sedona. That’s all they do, but they do it really well and produce really nice maps based on up to date information (they generally update there maps every couple of years). I’m also a fan of the trail maps produced by Beartooth Publishing and have grown to trust their products as well. National Geographic maps are widely known and respected as well and most of the printed 7.5-minute maps I buy here are National Geographic publications. This is also where most maps will list their source material which can be important for determining accuracy of information. One Emmett Barks map I have lists USGS, Forest Service Maps, City maps and county GIS data as their primary source information with trail routes and distances provided by multiple GPS tracks compiled and edited. Maps using a single source of data are less likely to be completely accurate. The United States Geological Survey (“USGS”) is a federally chartered organization charged with providinggeologic, topographic, and hydrologic information that contributes to the wise management of the Nation’s natural resources.” Nearly all published topo maps will use USGS information as their primary basis.

The developer will generally provide the basis data for their maps including the reference datum and projection method. This is important to know if you are comparing multiple maps or if you need to communicate your position. There are generally two different datum references in use in North America and they differ slightly so it’s good to know what you’re working with. NAD27 is a North American based geodetic reference system established in 1927 and is wide use across North American maps, the other is NAD83 and is a based on a global reference. The two can be off by a handful of meters from each other. The most common is NAD27 and my preference for North American maps.

Also of some importance here is the projection method used to lay out the map. The large majority of North American maps will be Mercator projection maps, which uses a straight line grid making navigation easier but becomes extremely distorted toward the poles. I’ll cover the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) grid a little more in a minute.

Interesting Note: Google Maps uses a projection method called Web Mercator (or Spherical Mercator) which is a variation of the UTM projection method and is not recommended for accurate navigation.

Map Title

This is pretty straight forward but, again, important if you have to communicate your location to someone. Forest Service maps, city maps, trail maps and USGS 7.5-minute maps all vary slightly in assumed accuracy. It won’t really matter while it’s in use, but could be valuable information when passing on your location so that everyone is on the same page. The map name will be on the cover of folded maps or in the lower right corner of USGS 7.5-minute maps.

The Legend

The Symbols Legend is the Rosetta Stone of the language of maps. How do you know if that squiggly line you are headed to is a paved road, dirt road or primitive trail? That blue line, is it a seasonal wash or permanent water source? Is that green shaded area supposed to be forest, grasslands or a swamp? It sure would be nice to know before you get there…

symbols legend

Most detailed maps will include at least a basic symbols legend to let you know how they mark specific areas and features on a map. Some symbols are pretty universal like a tent-shape denoting campsites, or a picnic table denoting day-use picnic areas. But all maps have their own vernacular that varies slightly from the others. The USGS has standardized their symbols library for use across their collection of topographic maps but the legend is not generally printed on individual 7.5-minute topo maps, so you would need to download the USGS Symbols Legend and familiarize yourself with their standards or risk a misunderstanding in the field.

New Shaded Relief mapping is changing some of the traditional color representations to make them more intuitive, but there is still the need of a legend to clarify and define the language used for each map. Some maps use color to represent elevation instead of land character which can get very confusing if you don’t know that from the beginning. Before heading out with any map you may have to rely on, be sure you are at least partially familiar with what the lines, shades, symbols and numbers all mean.

Scale

map scale

Two of the biggest pieces of information for active navigation using a topographic map is the contour interval and the map scale. You’ll rarely see a scale note on simple line maps, but all others should offer a graphic scale (like the one shown above) for measuring distances on the map. Most compasses will have common scales printed on their edges for use while navigating and you can purchase map rulers at different scales which can be useful if you do a lot of land navigation. Scale should be one of the first things you look at when using a new map, and take some time to get sense of how that scale relates to your map. Why is this such a big deal? If you’re low on resources and need to get to a road, camp or water source on the map and you get the scale wrong you could be in a world of hurt. Or say you want to summit a peak and you misread the scale and misinterpret the contour interval you could have a really bad day.

Some typical map scales: 7.5-minute quadrangle maps (1:24,000 and 1:25,000 scale) and 15-minute quadrangle maps (1:50,000, 1:62,500, and standard-edition 1:63,360 scales)

On the right side of the image above you’ll also see the Key Map which shows where in the state this map section represents.

Declination

Declination-1

We covered how declination works in the Compass Basics lesson. Most topo maps that would be used for backcountry navigation have a specific declination and it will be noted or illustrated somewhere on the map. The typical declination graphic (shown above) will illustrate the differential angle between True North (TN) and Magnetic North (MN). Sometimes there is also notation of Grid North (GN) if the map’s grid differs from both TN and MN. As I mentioned in the Compass Basics, it is important to pay attention to the date the declination was noted on the map. Older maps will likely have outdated information and can throw off your navigational readings. Some maps will state the declination adjustment for that area so you can calculate the current declination with a little math. My suggestion: for local navigation, just keep yourself up to date on the declination in your area and ignore the printed data.

Grid Units

To simplify the use of maps and to avoid the inconvenience of pinpointing locations on curved reference lines, cartographers superimpose on the map a rectangular grid consisting of two sets of straight, parallel lines, uniformly spaced, each set perpendicular to the other. This grid is designed so that any point on the map can be designated by its latitude and longitude or by its grid coordinates and a reference in one system can be converted into a reference in another system. Such grids are usually identified by the name of the particular projection for which they are designed. So, Grid Units are a method of segmenting a map for easy reference and is typically related to the form of projection used. In most cases when a map uses UTM projection, the grid units will be based on the UTM grid (Lat and Long may be shown as well as a secondary grid).

Longitude and Latitude

Longitude and Latitude is an older, slightly outdated, mapping grid system that is still in use and still represented on most maps (even if UTM projection is used). Most of us learned about Long and Lat in elementary school and have noted the iconic lines on the typical classroom globes.

Latitude and longitude

From Wikipedia:

The “latitude” of a point on the Earth’s surface is the angle between the equatorial plane and the straight line that passes through that point and through (or close to) the center of the Earth. Lines joining points of the same latitude trace circles on the surface of the Earth called parallels, as they are parallel to the equator and to each other. The north pole is 90° N; the south pole is 90° S. The 0° parallel of latitude is designated the equator, the fundamental plane of all geographic coordinate systems. The equator divides the globe into Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

The “longitude” of a point on the Earth’s surface is the angle east or west from a reference meridian to another meridian that passes through that point. All meridians are halves of great ellipses, which converge at the north and south poles. The meridian of the British Royal Observatory in Greenwich, a little east of London, England, is the international Prime Meridian although some organizations—such as the French Institut Géographique National—continue to use other meridians for internal purposes. The Prime Meridian determines the proper Eastern and Western Hemispheres, although maps often divide these hemispheres further west in order to keep the Old World on a single side. The antipodal meridian of Greenwich is both 180°W and 180°E. This is not to be conflated with the International Date Line, which diverges from it in several places for political reasons.

The combination of these two components specifies the position of any location on the surface of the Earth, without consideration of altitude or depth. The grid thus formed by latitude and longitude is known as the “graticule”. The zero/zero point of this system is located in the Gulf of Guinea about 625 km (390 mi) south of Tema, Ghana.

UTM

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) adopted a special grid for military use throughout the world called the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) grid. In this grid, the world is divided into 60 north-south zones, each covering a strip 6° wide in longitude. These zones are numbered consecutively beginning with Zone 1, between 180° and 174° west longitude, and progressing eastward to Zone 60, between 174° and 180° east longitude. The contiguous 48 States are covered by 10 zones, from Zone 10 on the west coast through Zone 19 in New England (Arizona is zone 12S). In each zone, coordinates are measured north and east in meters. The northing values are measured continuously from zero at the Equator, in a northerly direction. To avoid negative numbers for locations south of the Equator, NIMA’s cartographers assigned the Equator an arbitrary false northing value of 10,000,000 meters. A central meridian through the middle of each 6° zone is assigned an easting value of 500,000 meters. Grid values to the west of this central meridian are less than 500,000; to the east, more than 500,000.

Virtually all NIMA-produced topographic maps and many aeronautical charts show the UTM grid lines.

UTM Grid Map

The UTM grid is shown on all quadrangle maps prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). On 7.5-minute quadrangle maps (1:24,000 and 1:25,000 scale) and 15-minute quadrangle maps (1:50,000, 1:62,500, and standard-edition 1:63,360 scales), the UTM grid lines are indicated at intervals of 1,000 meters, either by blue ticks in the margins of the map or with full grid lines. The 1,000-meter value of the ticks is shown for every tick or grid line. The actual meter value is shown for ticks nearest the southeast and northwest corners of the map. Provisional maps at 1:63,360 scale show full UTM grids at 5,000-meter intervals.

Understanding Topography

Alright then! All the basics aside, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of understanding topography. We’re going to try to keep this really simple and once you understand how it works, it’s fairly intuitive to read. You really just have to remember that we’re reading a 3-dimensional object in 2-dimensional space.

Three Dimensional Space

Working on flat paper it’s easy to graphically represent the two dimensions of length and width. The challenge then, for a 3-dimensional surface, is to graphically show height as well. Throughout the history of cartography, 3-dimensional relief has been illustrated in a variety of ways, few of which were accurate. Most of the representations were simply graphic indicators of mountainous regions, canyons or river valleys to communicate the rough character of the terrain. Today, accurate presentation of height and depth on maps is illustrated using topographic contour lines.

Contour Lines

Height and depth on maps and charts is referred to as relief and is represented by imaginary lines called contours. Contours, or isolines, represent the physical intersection of the bounding edge of a 3-dimensional object when sliced through at set intervals parallel to a given reference. The image below is the best representation of the way I was taught to view contour lines.

contours

 

The dashed lines (shown at 25 unit intervals) represent the horizontal slices through the object. The intersected edge at each interval is then projected onto the 2-dimensional map giving us a fairly clear graphic representation of the 3-dimensional object’s shape and height. As the diagram notes, the tighter the contour lines are the more steep the slope and the more spread out they are the more shallow the slope. The tighter the interval between contour lines, the more accurate the representation.

Intervals

The contour interval is the vertical distance between two adjacent contour lines. The tighter the interval, the more relief detail can be illustrated. Working with smaller maps of individual properties I am used to seeing one-foot intervals which provide a pretty clear picture of how the land is shaped. At larger scales, this tight interval is not practical and would render the map unreadable. For larger scale maps, intervals of 10-foot, 20-foot, 40-foot or 50-foot are common. This is extremely important when estimating slopes and identifying potential routes on a map. The trade-off for better readability is less fine detail of relief elements.

contour map intervals

Section of 7.5-minute USGS map showing a 40-foot contour interval.

Index lines on a map are heavier (thicker) contour lines every 4th or 5th contour and are usually labeled with the elevation reference. So, for example, on USGS 7.5-minute maps the interval is 40 feet. So all contour lines represent a difference of 40 feet in elevation and every 5th line is emphasized as an Index line so the interval between Index lines is 200 feet. Index lines will also be labeled with an elevation number allowing you to quickly reference your vertical position. With few exceptions, elevations will be noted in feet or meters from sea level.

Take some time to look over your maps and get to know how they’re put together: Who made them, how they’re projected, the basis for the data as well as the age and accuracy of the information presented.

Next we’ll put the Compass Basics and Map Reading Basics together and work on some real-world navigation exercises.

Backcountry Navigation: Compass Basics

I grew up in a time before GPS. I learned how to use a compass in Cub Scouts and learned how to navigate with one as I grew older. I think I got my first GPS system sometime in my late 20s and never really used it for much beyond tracking my route, I still always preferred a map and compass. Knowing how to use a compass is one of those things that seem unnecessary and archaic until you find yourself in a situation where your life depends on it. Knowing some compass basics should be a part of everyone’s skill set if you spend any amount of time outdoors, on the trail, on backroads or anyplace where accurate use of a map can mean the difference between making it home and not making it home.

A recent article pointed out that most people are “too reliant on technology, expecting smartphones and satellite navigation systems to do the hard work for us” when it comes to map reading and navigation. It’s true that we rely too heavily on technology. This can be exceptionally dangerous when we put ourselves in risky situations. What happens when that technology doesn’t work? Batteries die? Signal is lost?

Right. So go grab your dad’s old compass, dust that thing off and let’s start developing some of those life skills you’ve been hearing so much about.

Anatomy of a Compass

Before you try using your compass in the field, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with it’s basic anatomy. Read through the instruction book that came with it and identify it’s components. There are a lot of different compass designs out there with different ways to adjust and read them. This old Brunton Elite of my Dad’s is a pretty basic model to learn with.

Compass-Basics-text--2

360 Degrees

Compass BasicsYou remember basic geometry, right? A full circle is represented by 360 degrees (with Zero and 360 being the same point). The four cardinal directions (North, South, East and West) are located exactly 90 degrees from each other (360 degrees divided by 4) and are read clockwise from North (North is always Zero/360). So when reading a compass we universally recognize North as Zero, East as 90 degrees, South as 180 degrees and West as 270 degrees. Remembering to read clockwise from Zero is probably the most important part of reading a compass (otherwise you’ll end up heading the wrong direction).

From there, further refinement is pretty easy. General directional headings are usually given using a set of 8 (45 degree increment) or sometimes 16 (22.5 degree increment) standard directions. How does this work? If we are told to follow a Northeast heading we are looking for an angle halfway between North (0 degrees) and East (90 degrees) which would be 45 degrees. So what would a Southwest bearing be? Halfway between South (180 degrees) and West (270 degrees) we would have 225 degrees. Easy enough, right? Breaking our directions down even further we can provide more accurate headings. Dividing 45 degrees in half we end up 22.5 degree increments and a set of 16 standard directions. Given a bearing of East-Southeast we would look for the point between due-East (90 degrees) and Southeast (135 degrees) which would be 112.5 degrees on the compass.

Now that we understanding the traditional directions and how they relate to each other (in degrees) we can start navigating.

Getting your Bearings

Navigation is all about getting from point A to point B. Accuracy is important otherwise you will just be getting from point A to somewhere-kinda-near-point B. Taking and following a bearing is a key component of using a compass for navigation. So what is a bearing? A bearing is the directional heading between two points, measured in degrees and using North (0 degrees) as a reference. To take a bearing, hold the compass in front of you with the direction of travel arrow pointing at the object of interest. Hold the compass level and steady, and rotate the housing dial, until the orienting arrow lines up with the red end (north end) of the magnetic needle, all the while keeping the direction of travel arrow pointed at the object. Read the number indicated at the index line, and that is your bearing.

Finding a bearing using a map is not terribly difficult either. First, identify your current location on the map, this will give you your point A. Next, identify your destination on the map (point B). Assuming your path is a straight line between these two points you can line up the edge of your compass so that it passes through each point on the map. Turn the housing dial until the arrow points the same direction as North on the map. Read the number aligned with the directional arrow, that is your bearing. In the example below, I want to get from Columbine Campground (point A) to Webb Peak (point B). I line up the edge of my dad’s old compass with the two points and then turn the orienting arrow until it lines up with the map’s North. This gives me a bearing of 290 degrees (just shy of West-Northwest). See below for adjusting for declination.

compass basics

Following that bearing becomes relatively easy. Set your compass to the bearing of your heading, then, holding the compass level, turn your whole body with the compass until the magnetic needle lines up with the small orienting arrow. Now walk straight forward keeping the arrows aligned and you are following a set bearing. As long as you keep the dial set to your correct bearing and the magnetic needle aligned with the orienting needle, you should travel in a straight line to your destination. But how often can you really travel in a straight line?

compass basics

Using Visual Landmarks

It’s much easier to follow a bearing if you don’t have to keep looking down at the compass and no one walks holding the compass out in front of them as they travel. The easiest thing to do is to identify a landmark along the direction of your heading and walk toward that. Using visual landmarks along your path you can easily travel along a bearing for great distances only having to check your bearing on the compass once you reach each landmark. If visibility is good, you can also take note of a landmark behind you to help insure that you are traveling in a straight line. Using both the forward and rear landmarks you can double check yourself regularly to make sure you haven’t wandered off course. It may also be useful to draw a crude map noting landmarks and bearings as you go, it will help you keep track of your path even if you don’t have a map to reference.

Declination

Magnetic declination is where a lot of people start to get confused about navigating by compass. Declination is only important when using a map to get your bearings.

There is a difference between Magnetic North (where your compass wants to point) and True North (geographical north used on most maps). The difference between magnetic north and geographical north is measured in degrees of correction and is referred to as Magnetic Declination. There are places where the two norths are the same, these places fall on the so-called Agonic Line. In areas to the left of the agonic line the magnetic compass needle points a certain number of degrees to the east of true north, and on the other side of the line the magnetic needle points a certain number of degrees to the west of true north (in other words the magnetic needle points toward the agonic line). We say areas to the left of the line have east declination and those to the right have west declination. It’s important to know which side of the line you’re on.

compass basics - declination 2015

Depending on where in the world you and your compass are determines your declination adjustment. If you use maps often, it’s a good idea to know the declination in your area. Since the Earth’s magnetic field is not constant, declination is not a constant either. Many maps will tell you what the declination is for that area (bottom center of all USGS maps), but older maps could have outdated information. In the US between 2005 and 2015 the Agonic Line (0 declination) has moved from east of New Orleans to West of New Orleans. In 1975, the year I was born, New Orleans was at 4 degrees east. Unless you’re using 20+ year old maps, the information should be “close enough” to get by for backcountry navigation.

The good news is that you don’t have to know anything about declination to adjust for it, you just need to do some simple math. Here in Arizona I know that the eastern part of the state currently has a 10 degree declination and the western part has an 11 degree declination. I also know that I am west of the Agonic Line so I am adjusting to the east. So as long as I know where I am in the state, I can figure out how to adjust my map bearing for magnetic north. Using the example from above, if I wanted to get a true magnetic bearing on Webb Peak I would have to adjust my compass bearing 10 degrees to the east making my revised bearing 280 degrees (east declination subtract, west declination add).

Most compasses you will use for navigating in the backcountry can adjust for declination on the compass itself, allowing you to offset the declination and use the compass without having to do the math in your head for declination. Just make sure it is set properly or you’ll be off in all your bearings.

Compass Dip

We know magnetic needles are affected by the horizontal direction of the Earth’s magnetic field, that’s how we are able to reliably use them for navigation. Knowing this, you might not be surprised to learn that they are also affected by the vertical pull as well. The closer you get to the magnetic north pole, the more the north-seeking end of the needle is pulled downward. Whereas, at the south magnetic pole the north-seeking end of the needle is deflected upward. Only at the equator is the needle unaffected by vertical magnetic forces.

earth-magnetic-field-poles

To overcome magnetic dip manufacturers must design compasses that have the needle balanced for the geographic area in which they will be used. A compass built for use in North America, will not work in South America. The North American compass will have the pivot point the needle rests on slightly into the north half of the needle thus offsetting the downward pull. When the compass is taken to South America, the imbalance will work in the same direction as the vertical pull and the needle could very well rub against the roof of the housing making the compass unusable. In other words you will need a compass manufactured for use in the part of the world you intend to use it. As a result of these magnetic variances, the compass industry has divided the earth into various zones. Make sure your compass is compatible with your area or look for a global compass that can be used internationally.

Clinometer

Some compasses will also be outfitted with a Clinometer. The Clinometer is a simple mechanism for measuring angles and slopes. Using a compass clinometer requires sighting the point you’re measuring down the length of the compass housing which means you can’t read the face while your taking your measurement. You will need a mirror (built into some compasses) or another person to actually see the clinometer reading. The clinometer will tell you the vertical angle, measured in degrees, from your eye to a given target. How is this useful? Well, aside from letting you know how punishing that trail up the mountain might be it can also allow us to measure height or elevation if we also know the distance to the object. It’s handy, but unless you are a surveyor you will probably never really need to use this.

Beware False Readings

Magnetic compasses are influenced by any magnetic fields, not just Earth’s. Local environments may contain magnetic mineral deposits and artificial sources such as MRIs, large iron or steel bodies, electrical engines or strong permanent magnets. Any electrically conductive body produces its own magnetic field when it is carrying an electric current and can easily exceed the Earth’s comparatively weak magnetic force. Keep your compass away from all metal objects since these can result in false readings by deflecting the magnetic needle. Common objects to avoid include wristwatches, keys, tables with metal legs or steel screws, mobile telephones and even heavy framed eyeglasses. Many geological formations, and for that matter, many rocks, are magnetized and can affect compass readings, as can electricity power lines.

Best advice is to check and double check often. Learn to recognize the potential influences and avoid taking bearings when near them (rock outcroppings, vehicles, power lines, etc). Don’t store your compass near computers or speakers at home, keep it away from your phone when traveling with. When using it in the field, be sure you’re clear of any metal or electronics you might be wearing when taking a reading and hold the compass in your hand, don’t set it on large rocks, tables, car hoods or other flat areas you might be using to read your map.

Go Practice!

There’s really no substitute for practice in building your navigation skills and compass basics. Get out to your favorite park or wilderness area with a good map and do some basic orienteering. Follow one of your favorite trails and take bearings at each turn in the trail, find a landmark and see if you can reach it only using a compass bearing, whatever you do have fun with it and practice.

In the next installment of Backcountry Navigation I’ll get into some map reading basics and talk about grid projections and topography…

Solo Travel: How Far Will You Go?

Bush Highway into Superstitions

The open road is calling. Can you hear it?

I can hear it loud and clear. It calls to me from every book, blog, map, photo and travel show I see. It speaks to me through Google Maps quite often showing me skinny, scrawling ribbons of dirt in lonely places I would love to visit. I think of all the great things to see along the way, all the unique places to stop, all the promises of adventure and I just want to get out and drive. But how far am I willing to go on my own?

My wife and I like the road. We’ve put nearly 30,000 miles on our Subaru since we got it just over a year ago. Not drive-around-the-world mileage but still quite a bit. We love to pack up the dogs and some camping gear and go see what we can find, always making sure we’re open to surprises and plan changes (Bedrock, New Orleans). But I have more flexibility in my schedule than my wife does, more opportunity to get out (usually) and the road calls to me more often. That was part of the reason I got the KLR, to increase my enjoyment of the solo travel I end up doing sometimes.

Solo travel has some inherent dangers above and beyond the potential pitfalls associated with travel in general. And when alone in the middle of nowhere, the “usual issues” can have more severe consequences. Simple things like injury, mechanical problems, running out of fuel, dehydration and getting lost all become just a little more worrisome if you’re going solo. You’re out there without a net, without a ready support system. Help can be hours away sometimes and getting to that help can be problematic. But is solo travel really more dangerous that traveling in a pair? In a group? Aside from a rescue scenario where more hands make the work possible, I would argue it’s really not that much more dangerous. You really just have to be more aware of your limitations and be better prepared to handle situations that can come up. But how far should you push your limits?

motorcycle on Arizona backroad

The allure of traveling to far off places, of exploring the unknown, is nothing new. Humans are a species of curious and creative explorers that find great satisfaction and reward in seeking out the wonders of the world. We are seekers by nature, travelers by consequence and explorers at heart. The sedentary nature of our recent domestication is not normal for us, and many of us refuse to live that way. That’s why travel is so important. By foot, peddle, paddle, four wheels or two we need to get outside and seek the dusty, quiet corners of the map where human voices are rare and alien.

These places challenge us. They challenge who we think we are, what we think we can (or can’t) do, what we think is possible.

large saguaro stand in Arizona

Often it’s these remote places that can pull us out of our comfort zones. Comfort is a four-letter-word that breeds complacency, stagnation and mediocrity. Life should not be comfortable, clean, easy, or safe. There’s no room to grow, improve or develop yourself in the confining space of comfort. That only happens when you can face challenges, push past your pre-conceived limitations and explore your potential…all things that take place outside your comfort zone. So how far is too far? When does challenging yourself become putting yourself in danger? Where do we draw the line?

The reality is that you will never know where your limits are unless you go beyond them now and again. You should push your boundaries occasionally, draw those lines and then choose wisely when to cross them. There is a difference between taking calculated risks and acting recklessly. Reckless action is taking unnecessary risk without caution or thought to the consequences. We have to understand the difference, especially when traveling alone. Because that’s where we draw the line, somewhere between risk and recklessness.

So traveling alone, how far will you go?

I look for that shaky ground just on the other side of comfortable and just shy of dangerous. The trick is to venture cautiously into new territory without getting in over your head.

Solo Travel on the Beeline Highway

Tools For Solo Travel

Probably the single greatest tool a solo traveler can possess is the ability to constantly practice solid Risk Assessment. Risk assessment is about situational awareness. It’s about understanding where you are, identifying potential hazards, evaluating the risk associated and then determining how to eliminate, avoid or manage that risk to keep yourself safe. Ask yourself, “If this goes bad, how bad will it be?”.  The US Military uses an “Individual Travel Assessment Worksheet” for assessing risk whenever personnel are to travel alone. It allows them to document the departure and destination points, the state of the driver and their ability, the state of the vehicle and it’s ability, when the trip is to occur and how long it should take, possible stops/breaks and a list of potential hazards that may be encountered. All important things to consider AND communicate to those that will be expecting your return.

And that leads to the second greatest tool for solo travelers: Communication. As a hiker and backpacker that has often gone out on the trail alone, I have learned the value of communicating your travel plans with someone back home. Making sure you tell someone where your’re going and how long you expect to be gone is important but there’s a lot more valuable information to pass on. I found a great form online for providing detailed information about your backcountry travel plans [download here] that is designed specifically to provide key information to rescue services in the event that something really does go wrong. It includes things like vehicle identification, clothing, supplies you’ll have with you, purpose of the trip, proposed check-in times, and a lot more that can be used by rescue personnel to trace your whereabouts. Going out on longer trips I will fill out this Trip Plan Form, attach a copy of the planned route and leave this on my desk at home for my wife. Handing this form over to rescue can easily and quickly clear up an hours worth of questions that she’ll likely not have the answers to.

Last, but not least, in this list is Preparedness. Simply stated, have the skills and tools in place to manage the risks associated with your chosen activity. Most of this is pretty basic and universal like first aid, repair kits, etc. but if you are traveling someplace where help is less available you might consider some basic survival gear as well like firestarters, flashlight, knife, and whatever else is appropriate where you are. Be familiar with your gear…practice with it, know how to use it, know how to fix it, replace it when it’s worn out. Sharpen your skills…practice, study, take some classes. Have the right mindset…part of your preparedness is being in the right mindset, keep a good attitude, stay positive and stay focused. All skills in the world will do you no good if you give up.

Solo Travel into the backcountry Sheeps Bridge

Solo Travel really is not much more dangerous than traveling with partners, except that the responsibility is all on you. There is no back up, help is not necessarily close by and you are at the mercy of your own resourcefulness. But if you can pay attention, avoid reckless behavior, leave your plan with someone at home and prepare yourself for the challenges of the road then you have all the pieces in place to come home from your solo trip safe and sound.

Thermawool: My Favorite Terramar Layer

I’m picky about fit…

I’m not built like an Abercrombie and Fitch model…far from it. Really, it makes buying clothes pretty difficult. A lot of outdoor wear fits “just OK” at best but if it does it’s job, I can accept it. The Thermawool Half-Zip from Terramar Sports, however, has been an all-around outstanding piece in fit, form and function.

What it is

The Men’s Thermawool 4.0 Half-Zip is a very versatile, mid-weight, superfine Merino Wool blend that has all the cozy, softness of a great fleece. The natural wool material makes it a great insulator in the cold, but also help regulate your body temp in warm weather. The Thermawool 4.0 Half-Zip can be found at various online retailers for around $55. A good price compared to other brands’ Merino Wool tops.

Yoga Camping-1

Thermawool CS 4.0 Long-Sleeve Half-Zip Top Features:

  • Outer layer constructed with 70% Micro Polyester, 30% Merino Wool
  • Inner layer constructed with 100% Micro Polyester
  • ClimaSense (CS) treatment is designed to respond to your body’s changing conditions to keep you comfortable no matter what your activity level
  • The CS system adapts to the skin’s surface temperature, providing a warming effect when you are cold and a cooling effect when you are active, with a dynamic moisture transport system
  • ClimaSense offers advanced odor control and uses bluesign approved, performance based technologies
  • Wicking, fast-drying, breathable, and no itch
  • Retains heat and radiates it back to the body
  • Forward-rolled shoulder keeps seams away from pack straps to eliminate chafing
  • Functional thumbholes
  • Stretch comfort neck tape
  • Smooth, beautiful heathered outer fabric glides into outer shells with ease
  • Flat seam construction
  • 1/2 zip with zipper garage for chin protection
  • UPF rating 50+ to help shield from the sun’s harmful rays
  • Regular fit

Why I like it

I’ve always been a big fan of Merino Wool in a performance layer. It’s soft, breathable, light, naturally anti-microbial, doesn’t lose it’s shape, holds up to a lot of abuse and insulates well even when wet. What’s not to love? Couple that with a great design and cut and you have a very nice piece of clothing. I love the half-zip for adjusting the insulation value, the chest pocket doesn’t get used much but it’s handy at times and the stretch cuffs with the thumb-holes makes it a great layer for under an outer shell. I’m also a big fan of the fact that it’s not an obnoxious color (like a lot of other stuff on the market right now).

The material is incredibly comfortable. I fell in love with this product as soon as I put it on and it won my loyalty more and more with every use. And I DO use it a lot.

Verde Glenn Merelyn-12

It’s style and function make it a hugely versatile piece of clothing and I wear it for active outdoor activities, lounging around the house, work, or going out to dinner. It goes anywhere and looks good doing it. I dread the days it has to sit in the laundry.

It turned out to be the perfect layering solution under my motorcycle jacket for morning cruises through the Arizona mountains and backroads. It works really well to regulate my temperature under the jacket whether it’s early morning cold or afternoon heat.

thermawool

I probably wear it more than I should. But really, when I find something I like wearing I tend to keep it at the top of the rotation and wear it often. There’s nothing wrong with that, right? Right?

Merelyn got the women’s version using the Thermawool technology and really likes it as well. The Women’s Thermawool 2.0 Long-Sleeve Half-Zip has the same great fit and performance as the men’s and comes in an attractive color.

Verde Glenn Dave-20

 

Verde Glenn Dave-26

The Thermawool is great for a hike, a run, the gym or just around the house. It effortlessly makes the transition from rugged outdoors to stylish casual wear. There were a few criticisms about the women’s top: Merelyn found the collar was restrictive when zipped all the way up and it doesn’t have thumb-holes like the men’s. But it did keep her warm on a chilly 20-something-degree run in Idaho and some frosty day hikes. She just REALLY wanted thumb-holes.

Verde Glenn Dave-32

As a brand ambassador for Terramar Sports, I was provided these pieces to test and review as part of the ambassador program. The opinions stated above are my own and are entirely based on my own experience with the product and not influenced in any way by the manufacturer, distributor or their marketing agencies. I have used the product in a variety of conditions and activities and have formed my opinions based on real world performance.