Confession: I’ve always been pretty hopeless with directions. Whenever someone explains turn-by-turn how to get to a place, I always nod, eyes glazed over, then look it up on Google Maps as soon as I’m back in my car. In regular life, this constant disorientation is a little annoying at worst. But out in the backcountry, it can be dangerous. Luckily I’ve never gotten so lost that I risked my safety. But I have lost hours (and miles) on the trail getting turned around, and I’ve seen helicopters come a rescue other lost hikers. I’ve also read tragic stories (like this one from 2016) of hikers dying on popular, well-marked trails because they got lost — while carrying a compass they didn’t know how to use. Incidentally, the New York Times just published an article about how the pandemic-related increase of inexperienced hikers getting lost, injured, cold, or otherwise incapacitated in the wilderness is straining search and rescue teams. In an effort not to become another statistic, I made a resolution to try to improve my navigation skills.
At first I attempted to learn navigation the way I learn everything else these days — I went to YouTube! But after watching (and rewatching!) several videos where confident outdoors-people patiently explained words like “declination,” I knew I would have to try another method.
I decided to sign up for an REI class. This isn’t sponsored by REI (I wish!) — they just have experts and great resources for anyone looking for an approachable way to learn an outdoor skill. The class itself took place on a cold, windy March morning at Afton State Park. Afton (and a few other state parks in Minnesota) has an orienteering course, which is sort of like a scavenger hunt you follow with a map and compass. Over steaming hot chocolate, we all introduced ourselves, and in some form or another, confessed to our tendency to getting lost. At least I wasn’t alone!
In the first part of the class, we tackled maps — easy enough. Then we moved up to compasses — less easy, but still feasible. Then we spent the rest of the course using our maps and compasses to locate ourselves, set a target on the map, and follow a bearing. In this second half, I feel like everything clicked together. I saw how you could actually use a compass, beyond just watching the arrow swing to north.
In an effort to not immediately forget everything from the class, I decided to try another orienteering course the following weekend. My mom (always down for adventure!) and I went to Lake Elmo Regional Park. Armed with a map and compass, we hiked through forest brambles, across fields, and up to marshy ponds to find the elusive markers. And we succeeded! Every time we saw a post peaking out through the trees one of us would yell, “There it is!!” and run over. It turns out setting a bearing and then actually getting there is both fun and gratifying.
I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert on navigation (if you want to hear from a real navigation expert, check out Andrew Skurka’s Alaska-Yukon Expedition! It’s wild). And in all honesty, with my phone’s GPS and a well-marked trail, it’s unlikely I’ll ever need to rely on a topographic map and compass.
But spending a little time brushing up on navigation has already benefited me in a few ways:
- It’s made me more aware of my surroundings: I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to zone out while hiking (or driving, or walking around a city or…). But when I give myself the little goal to pay attention to where I am every now and then, I notice more of the world around me. I see how the lines of a topographic map show a hill up ahead or where a river should be. I can follow the curves of the trail on the map, then translate them to real life. Some expert navigators are able to look at a topo map and see where certain plants are likely to grow or tell how buggy it’ll be in a low-lying area. I don’t know if I’ll ever get quite there, but at least I can work to be a little more aware of where I’m going!
- It’s made me (a little) more self reliant: I’ve always resented having to constantly pull out my phone on trail, only to find out I’m going in the complete wrong direction. With a bearing set, I can glance at my compass and at least know I’m generally on the right track. As much as I can, I want rely a little more on my own skills and less on my phone (because a phone can run out of batteries!).
By learning how to stay aware, pay attention to my surroundings, and pause to look around if I don’t know where I am, hopefully I can stay safer both in and out of the wilderness!