Point Me in the Right Direction

Northeast Outdoors Experience Staff


Most people, like most wildlife, are creatures of habit. One of those habits is a tendency to take the “path of least resistance” when traveling through the woods. For wildlife and the “game trails” they use, they often are a combination of ease of use and either cover to keep from being seen, or along routes that allow them to see for great distances, both examples of ways animals stay safe while traveling in the woods. While many game trails have been traditionally used over the years, in changing times when human development springs up along these trails, their paths can and do change from time to time. Trails created by and for humans are generally more stable as to their locations.

One of the advantages to using trails, whether animal or man-made, is that as long as you don’t deviate from the trail, as it leads in it also leads out of the woods. But few hunters walk on game trials knowing all too well they are leaving human scent with their footsteps. Sometimes hikers may use a trail to access a remote area but then leave it behind as they explore adjacent areas. It is not unusual for both of these pursuits to eventually lead the outdoorsman astray in the woods. At the point when familiar fades and indecision takes over, having the confidence to negotiate one’s way back out of the woods many times relies on being able to use a compass and topographical map. It might even be said that if you have a compass and topographical map and know how to use them you really can’t ever be considered “lost”.

Compasses are not magical devices that can lead you out of the woods. All they do in truth is point to magnetic north, it’s that simple. Every other direction you might want to travel will take some approximations and interpretation of “relative to north” travel. In big woods sometimes just using a compass can lead the hiker or hunter on a path that misses a familiar landmark, trail or road and multiplying the “lost factor” by several times. After a while of wandering aimlessly through big woods, everything almost seems to look the same. Climbing a hill or mountain nearby to get one’s “bearings” can be a tiring side trip, especially if that high ground happens to be in the opposite direction from where you need to go.

Topographical maps are the best way to know within a hundred feet or so exactly where you are. You might think that a hand-help GPS device might be a 100% guarantee, but they require batteries and always pose the risk they might become damaged or lost. A laminated topographical map rolled into a tube is pretty hard to lose and is never going to lose its functionality. Most experienced woodsmen will have two compasses rather than just one. They are inexpensive and can be attached by a string to prevent loss, neither descriptions of GPS units.

Learning to read and interpret a topographical map may seem a bit daunting at first, but an hour or so of studying them and the legend printed on it can give the user an accurate representation of the area he is in at a glance. “That mountain” quickly becomes “this mountain” and “this stream” becomes “that stream” when you consult a topographical map. Learning to interpret elevation contour lines and various landmarks on a topographical map is not rocket science.

When the map and compass are used together it is nearly impossible to ever be lost. The map will have a compass orientation line on it that can be used to align the compass needle with the map’s position and tell you exactly what lies ahead, behind and to both sides of you regardless of where you are in the woods as long as you remain calm and study the visible terrain around you. If you can’t see that terrain because of thick woods, carefully climb a tree or head for higher ground to increase your visibility. It’s not often an inexperienced hiker or hunter heads blindly into large expanses of undeveloped land, but with knowledge and the right tools at his command, even these remote instances are non-negotiable. The secret to traveling through unfamiliar woods is to be observant and remain calm. Take note of obvious landmarks such as rivers or mountaintops, fields or valleys and don’t be afraid to consult your map often to track your path. While not usually considered by most as essential to bring into the woods, a small pad of paper and a pencil can allow you to take notes of compass bearings and direction of travel that will help tremendously when it’s time to return home.

Exploring trails and where they lead is simple. You go out, turn around and come back the same way you went in. But if you have a mind to get off the beaten path and “go where no man has gone before”, do yourself a favor and learn how to use a topographical map and a compass and never go into the woods without either. You’ll be amazed at what you can find once you know what it is that you’re looking for.

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