Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It Helps to Know Where You Are

"Of course we all know that the sun rises in the West and sets in the East."
WAIT! If you didn't instantly realize that sentence was written backwards you need a compass.

Of course we all know that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, right? Still not sure? You need a compass. Just to be clear, the sun rises over New York and sets over California. That is to say it rises over NYC and sets over LA if that's easier for you to remember. (OK technically it's not exactly over them, but you know what I mean. That's right the sun really does rise in the East and set in the West, honest.

But what'da ya' need a compass for if, when the balloon goes up, you plan to put the pedal to the medal and zoom straight over the river and through the woods to grandma's house?

Well, in a crisis, if yours isn't one of the first few cars to get over the river you're likely to get stuck on the wrong side of that bridge as the grandmother of all traffic jams develops on said bridge.

There are thousands of scenarios where you could be evicted from your vehicle and forced to hoof it in an emergency. Stumbling along among the ill-prepared hoard with your Bob (Bug-Out-Bag) full of preparations is definitely not where you want to be unless you have enough to "share" with a thousand or so fellow travelers.

And what about the "through the woods" bit? Have you ever tried to determine which way is North whilst in the midst of the deep woods? Hard enough at Noon let alone at Midnight. Yet, if you don't know which way you're going you could be wandering in circles or worse making good time, heading in a straight line -- in the wrong direction.

You don't need an expensive lensatic compass to tell north from south and east from west; a simple Silva type compass or even a Cracker Jack compass will do. Want'a go it alone? Quick, which way is west?

Is the North Star there for you?
Is it? Go outside and find it right now. What? It's daytime so you can't see the stars? Guess you'll have to wait for nightfall to travel unless you have a compass. What if it's night but trees or clouds or fog or smoke are in the way? You'll have to wait for dawn or risk going in the wrong direction unless you have a compass.

In daylight without a compass you'll need to memorize landmarks (mountains) at dawn to guide yourself through the day. If you lose sight of your landmarks you'll have to stop and do the old shadow and stick trick to find your direction.

You and yours are three days late and there's that that nice family of lumberjacks with a compass outside grandma's house offering to help and protect her if she'll let them come live with her. The stores you stored with her will just barely feed her and them. But there are outlaw bikers in the area. What will granny do? Gee won't that be an awkward scene when you finally show up.

It helps to know where you are at all times so you'll know which way to go to get there. A large part of seldom being lost is attitude; the rest is paying attention to landmarks and baselines. A baseline is any prominent immobile feature like a mountain range, road or river.

I am never lost. I am always right here. (Attitude!) The place I'm going to may be misplaced, but I'm not lost, I'm right here. People tend to discount that statement thinking I'm joking. I'm not joking but I've never found a way to communicate what I mean to them so that they grok it instead of chuckling at the joke they think I've made.

(If I can see the sky (angle of the sun & time of day/ stars at night) or prominent landmarks (sun rose here or set there so North is THAT way!) I can figure out where I am in relation to where I want to go. My sense of direction may not be accurate enough to lay in artillery, but only overcast skies or so many trees I can't see the sky can keep me from getting orientated. Once orientated, it’s only a matter of time till I find my baseline and then my destination.

I nearly got lost once when I was out hunting coyotes after work one evening. I looked over my shoulder and saw a bank of very dark clouds had come in from the west over the mountains. The clouds were very low and descending fast. It wouldn’t be long until they’d descended to the point where they’d lose their ‘cloud’ designation and be reclassified as pea soup thick fog.

Once the clouds settled over me it was going to get dark a whole lot sooner than I'd planed. There would be no landmarks, stars or even the fading light of the setting sun to guide me back to my pickup truck. I realized the cloud/fog bank would block out not only the stars but also my view of my primary baseline (the mountains), which ran generally north and south behind my secondary baseline the dirt road I'd parked on which ran the same direction as the mountain range.

Navigating via dead reckoning in an area of the desert I knew, I'd angled south as I walked east calling coyotes so all I had to do to get back to my truck would have been to walk west (back towards my mountain baseline) and then turn right (north) on the first dirt road (my secondary baseline) I came to. Then I'd planed to follow the road back to my truck.

That plan wouldn't work if I couldn't tell which way was west. I was already losing sight of my primary baseline (the mountains) which were my guide to which way was west. I had to get back to that dirt road before the fog bank settled around me. I hot-footed it back towards the mountains and my secondary baseline, the road. I had to trot the last hundred yards on instinct, faith in myself and the old trick of lining up on two or three sand dunes (or bushes or trees) that happened to be in a more-or-less straight line in the direction I wanted to go.

I completed the triangle (southeasterly from my pickup, westerly back towards the mountains, northerly on the road back to my truck) and carried a compass after that even when going to areas I knew well.

You can't get "there" from "here" unless you know where "here" is because you don't know which way to go to get to "there." Still haven't found the North Star? Those outlaw bikers and the lumberjacks are getting closer and Granny is getting impatient.

Bottom line; if you think you might be forced to travel under adverse conditions: get a compass and learn how to use it.

One of my better critics has pointed out that if navigating by compass alone without taking the Angle of Declination into account you'll likely miss a designated point. That is true. However, that goes beyond the intended scope of the article. I was urging you to get a compass so you could navigate into the general area of Granny's bunker. Remember "baselines"? If you want to be more accurate you'd do well to take his advice and learn a bit about map reading and declination diagrams.

This man knows a lot more about compasses, maps and probably orienteering than I do so if you're planning to hoof it into the high hills, swamps or deep forests take his advice seriously and learn a few things about map reading, map orienting and declination.

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