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Walking in Circles – Common Bushwhacking Mistakes

Off Trail in the White Mountains
Off Trail in the White Mountains

I got lost in the woods using a compass a few weeks ago when we were bushwhacking West Field, a seldom visited mountain peak near Crawford Notch in the White Mountains. I know how to use a compass quite well, so this experience was a real eye opener for me, and I’ve been thinking about it every day since, mulling over in my mind how I could have fallen off a bearing so badly that I ended up walking in circles.

We did get find our way eventually, but it took a while and got a little scary – given that we were out in the middle of nowhere, at night, and in the snow.

If you’ve never bushwhacked, picture this. You need to walk 1 mile north through moderately thick forest to intersect a trail that runs east to west. Sounds easy, and it can be in open country, but doing it in thick forest in a mountainous region complicates matters because there may be dense brush, big boulders, or blow down chocked stream beds that you need to detour around to make forward progress. We were constantly making little detours like this and I guess the bearing changes compounded over time, so that it took us 5 hours to walk that 1 mile (as the crow flies.)

But there’s more. I made an amazing number of  “mental” mistakes on that hike, that I understand are the norm among bushwhackers from initiates like myself, to very experienced whackers.

  • When we saw what looked like a trail or a herd path in the woods, we tended to follow it instead of rigorously staying on our bearing, because it was easier walking and we hoped it would lead us back to the east-west trail we were aiming for.
  • When we saw footprints in the snow (this is a remote area), I assumed that they were made by other hikers who knew the way out and followed them. They turned out to be our own footprints, from a previous loop through the area!
  • When we discovered that we had been following our own tracks, we started to distrust our compasses. Apparently this is a common mistake. We eventually came to our senses, but it is frightening to think that we could come to such a flagrantly wrong conclusion despite being experienced compass users.
  • Finally, we bended the map (see relevant discussion on Views from The Top) to fit what we were seeing, rather than realizing we were lost and didn’t know where on the map we were.  The local terrain (mainly a steep hill) looked like something we wanted it to look like, when it was another feature altogether.

I’ve received a lot of compass and navigation instruction over the years and been told repeatedly to avoid falling into every one of these traps. I’m not ashamed to have made these mistakes as much as I am amazed and disconcerted to find myself falling into patterns I’ve been warned about.  It’s rather humbling.

My friend Alex, a very experience bushwhacker, is delighted that I’ve had this experience. He thinks the best way to learn how to bushwhack is to make mistakes and learn from them. I can’t fault his logic, especially since I learned most of what I know about hiking and backpacking by making similarly stupid decisions.

What can I do better next time?

  1. Trust my compass and stay on my bearing, avoiding footprints and real or imagined pathways through the brush that look like easier walking.
  2. Find local landmarks on my bearing and walk toward them in order to stay true to my bearing. For example, sight a tree on the bearing and walk toward it. This is easier than constantly checking the bearing.
  3. Measure the time (with a watch) that we walk off bearing around an obstacle, so that we can compensate by walking back to the original line we were following (instead of parallel to it.)
  4. Measure the time we are walking in our intended direction very accurately so we can better estimate forward progress. Duration of travel, if estimated well, is a great clue to where you might be on the map.
  5. Don’t trust the map so much. There are a lot of features on the ground, like streams, stream tributaries, and small rises that never make it onto the map, but can confuse you if you try too hard to map what you are seeing to the map you are holding.

Hard stuff. But I have to tell you, learning how to bushwhack well is one of the most challenging and exciting forms of hiking that I’ve tried recently. There is an extreme level of mental acuity and observation needed, in addition to the physicality and foot work required to push through thick brush and avoid breaking your legs in hidden voids.

I think I’m hooked!

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64 comments

  1. If you haven’t already, you might want to try some competitive orienteering to sharpen your “terrain to map” reading skills. The skills required to be non-terrible at an O-event all directly transfer to the woods.

    Reading the land and map is definitely a practiced skill. I know that when i don’t do it, i get rusty, and to watch and expert perform is amazing. Furthermore, i think all the GPS type stuff makes me rusty.

    Glad you made it out OK,
    Tim

    • I did some orienteering as a kid and hated the competitive, time-based aspect of it. I can try it I suppose, but it’s not really my thing. I’m actually quite good at map-reading when I have a trail as a point of reference, but the issue in this case was less about map reading and more about bearing discipline than anything. We were in a box of trails to the east, west, and north so it was really just a matter of walking straight enough in one direction to hit one and walk out. But it’s something to consider. I suppose I should bring a gps so we know where we are in a pinch, but the thought of using an electronic aid like that isn’t something I really want to do because I think it’s a crutch. That’s my personal point of view, only.

  2. Hey, ha….not too esy….following a compass that is. Generally, a few degrees off doesn’t really matter that much. It can really be frustrating sometimes to start thinking the compass is bad after an hour or two and you still haven’t picked up your selected trail or feature only a mile away. You start really wondering if you just missed it in all the scrub and crap you have been going through…been there. ‘Specially in the winter, there is often no real sign of a trail.

    Yeah, as a learning experience, it is great. . . after you get back. Anyway, as you say, if you are going out for a day hike, you need to plan an overnight whether it happens or not. Glad it was nothing more than an education on how NOT to use a compass and map.

    • I’ve concluded that every winter bushwhack should be planned as an overnight trip. We had enough gear to spend an unexpected night out, but next time I’ll bring a real shelter and a bit more insulation to make the experience a bit more tolerable if needed.

  3. Two more useful hint, possibly: have a catch line that you can find and get too, if you get quite seriously lost. And, when aiming for some feature/place, deliberately aim to either side of where you want to go on a catch line that will take you to that place because you’ll almost certainly get off track somewhat and then you’ll at least know which way you have to follow the catch line when you get there. E.g. aiming for a hut on the river, aim deliberately somewhat to the right, so even if you’re off track a bit and hit the river, you’ll know that you’ll have to follow the river to the left to get to the hut.
    I second the suggestion of orienteering, although with some reservations, as the orienteering maps tend to be extremely accurate, which is, as you mentioned, not always the case in hiking.

    • Didn’t realize that orienteering maps are more accurate. There was no catch line or hand-rail in this case and finding the canister was difficult because the top was very flat and surrounded by spruce. We finally found it by wandering around since we knew there was no more elevation to climb. But the real issue was getting out and going straight. The interesting or challenging thing about this peak is that the contours are widely spaced and gradual -at least I found that challenging because it removed a good location cue.

      • Chris is correct. Orienteering maps have a very high level of detail. If you follow the map closely and keep yourself located on the map you can get by without a compass. I’m not recommending that but it is possible.

        I ran into a similar problem last year when I decided to bushwack back to the road from a trail in an unfamiliar area. The road was impossible to miss but I turned the wrong way at the road and walked three miles the wrong way. Had I checked the map and oriented it when I hit the road I would have been fine. I wound up doubting my compass and map.

        I finally made it back to my car tired and humbled.

        Most people don’t pay much attention to their maps and compasses until after they think they are lost.

  4. Good stuff. I went out for my first bushwhack of the season the other day, with rusty navigation skills and a too-late start in the day, so failing to reach my goal was pretty inevitable. Other mistake made– jumping off the maintained trail too early. It helps to start the bushwhacking part when you have a really good idea of where you are in the first place. Whoops!

    On the other hand, I realized I like bushwhacking a lot because life would get kind of dull if you knew you were going to succeed at everything, right?

    • exactly – this adds a whole new dimension to “all who wander…”

    • Hi,

      I don’t have too much experience in bushwhacking, but from my point of view, the scale of the map you are using is a key factor.

      I live in Switzerland and our maps probably belong to the best in the world. However, if the scale is smaller than 1:25,000, I’ve often found it difficult to find my way, even when I’ve used official hiking routes.

      Why?
      – Because the contour lines don’t meet the accuracy needed to identify the landscape surrounding you. So you won’t find represented every single elevation you see around in the map or will follow a rut you can’t find in the map, etc.
      – Because some of the paths, trees or other landmarks you see aren’t recorded (correctly) in the map.
      – etc.

      As long as I’ve used a scale of 1:25,000 or bigger, I’ve never got lost so far. Unfortunately, many of our maps for hikers (where the official routes are marked) are in a scale of 1:60,000 and with these maps I often found it difficult to find my way and even lost an hour or two in the worst case because I was looking for a detail in the map which wasn’t printed properly or wasn’t printed at all.

      Another factor is how well you are familiar with the style of a map. I once planned a trip in Norway which would have taken about nine hours in Switzerland according to how the map ‘looked like’, but it took us twelve hours instead. Why? I wasn’t familiar with the style of the map and tended to read the map as if it was a Swiss map.

      If there aren’t any detailed maps available for an area, then it starts to get really tricky. I don’t know how detailed the maps in the States are. In Switzerland, it nearly isn’t possible to get lost, given that there is no fog or any other conditions which change the area in a way you aren’t familiar with.

      Whatever your situation is, I always recommend to make yourself familiar with the style of map(s) available for an area before you hit the trail or even leave it into pristine land. And always take the biggest scale available with you, especially if you are planning to leave the trail! Otherwise, it is really easy to get lost…

      Happy trails / bushwhacking,

      Michael

      PS If you like, you can get an impression of the official Swiss map here and print out whatever you’d like in several scales: http://map.schweizmobil.ch/?lang=en
      (1:25,000 is the biggest scale available; you can easily change the scale by using your mouse wheel)

      • I fell into this exact trap yesterday. I was trying to hard to match the map to the route approaching the peak, that I didn’t realize that the peak was staring me in the face. We figured it out of course, but paying to much attention to the map and trying to match micro-features to it is a hard habit to break.

      • I would say it in other words: If you map is detailed enough, it shouldn’t be a problem to match micro-features to it. But what I want to say is: you need to make yourself familiar with the amount of details the map pictures and then learn how to use the map in an appropriate way. To match details to the map is very important when using a map, but you must not expect more from the map than it can do for you. So, always try to find out first what kind of map you have: test the map in easy surroundings before you leave the trail and learn to use the map there. That’s the hard thing because you often won’t need the map there. Just do it all the same and get to know your map in safe terrain before you head off the trail.

        I got lost last year when I tried to pass a hill over its left shoulder. The problem was: this hill wasn’t recognizable in the map, the map only depicted the higher hill behind the one I was heading to. But I did only realize this too late because before I was following trails and there didn’t put the map to the test since the paths were so easy to follow. Another aspect is: I was focused too much on the contour lines and neglected to look for the edges of the forest: the map would have shown these quite accurately.

        (The good thing about it is: Thanks to my mistake, I found a place where I guess I could set up the tent should I pass there again.)

  5. Dude, really appreciate this. Thanks!

  6. Great posting, but I would add a #6 to your list – bring and use a GPS receiver loaded with the software for the area where you are hiking. We left the 18th Century a while ago.

    • That would pretty much remove the challenge of bushwhacking for me. The point (for me) is not to bag the peak or take the most direct route, but to use my wits. Different people, different strokes. We were never is any really serious danger – but then again we have a fairly high tolerance for such things. To each his own.

      • …I still haven’t joined the GPS age. Because when the battery goes dead you better be able to use the compass.

        Tree to tree or land feature is definately the most accurate way to get to your point. I have done miles between points, can to can to punch the card with really bad maps. It can be done pretty easily if you stay focussed.

        By the way – what a fantastic article. Great! This gives me a few new ideas for my outdoor skills course to make the compass skills portion better! Thank you!

  7. I have had a good amount of orientation/navigation training and experience.
    I remember reading about experienced hikers going in circles or getting turned around.

    I was doing a 10 day hike in the Catskills region of NY and decided to take a short nap on the side of a trail around noon on a nice day.
    After I woke I continued hiking and after a couple miles noticed that my shadow didn’t look right for the afternoon. I took out my compass and realized(or thought) that now my compass was broken as it was pointing 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

    Since I thought my compass was broken, I thought I’d hike a little more and see if the direction of the sun would change as the trail switched back and forth. Eventually I met some other hikers and asked them which way to a known landmark and when they told me, I realized that I had been backtracking for several miles.

    I just stopped and felt like I was somehow in the twilight zone . This kind of stuff can’t happen to me. I rested and rethought my steps and surmised that I must have gotten turned around when I took the nap.

    It was a very freaky an humbling experience!

    Anyway, I watch my compass more regularly after that experience.

    • I have a friend who always points her hiking poles in the direction of travel when she stops to take a break, to avoid a similar experience. It’s a cute trick.

    • I did something similar at the end of a long day – even went back uphill! It took a bit to realize that I should have been going down and it was fairly steep.

      So I guess this happens to everyone sooner or later.

  8. Wushwacking + a GPS = smart.

  9. This is scary. I’ve never had the problem because I’ve never bushwhacked. After reading this, I shall be very careful, even if I have to bushwhack a tiny distance. I can see how I, too, would tend to follow a path rather than stay on a compass bearing. A helpful post.

  10. Nice write up Philip, a good learning experience and an adventure. Taking an orienteering class is on my list for this year. Map reading is much easier out west where you can actually see, but add in the brush and tree coverage like we have in the east and it’s a whole different game. Glad to know all turned out well

    • Indeed! I was thinking about you last week. I met the CEO (and a Blacksmith) from Wetterlings in Sweden. Do they make good axes and hatchets? She seemed to know her stuff.

  11. I’ve always had a good sense of direction and when I lose my North fix, I get jumpy and nervous. I don’t know if I have an innate sense of North or just stay generally attuned to direction changes and topography since I grew up around maps.

    I did have a recent experience that showed me how easily I can totally lose sense of direction. Over the Thanksgiving break, I took two grandsons backpacking in the Caney Creek Wilderness in Arkansas and we camped one night on top of a mountain in pea soup fog and rain. During the night, I got up to relieve myself, and being the conscientious backpacker I am, I moved a couple hundred feet away to take care of business. When done, I couldn’t find my way back in the foggy, rocky woods. I could only see about twenty or thirty feet and everything looked the same. After stumbling around a while, I climbed a rock to yell for my grandchildren so they could holler back and give me a direction to travel. From the rock, I saw a faint glow in the distance where they had left a light on under the tarp and I made my way back. It was not in the direction I “felt” it should be. Had I been alone, I would have spent the night out because I never would have found the tarp.

    I learned a few lessons from that. I always take a couple sources of light when hiking. If I ever have to leave shelter during the night in like conditions, I’ll leave a light on for homing. I keep a few small plastic clips with reflective tape on them for marking the junction from trail to camp if I decide to watch the sunset from a nearby area. I’ll set a couple of those on my path to the designated lonely tree. Also, if it’s raining, I don’t think I really need to go so far. It’s all going to wash away anyway.

    • Grandpa,
      From my boy scout days forty years ago I have learned that I can easily lose my way back to my tent/tarp after a late night bathroom trip. So I currently use a tiny “Egear” battery lantern which I leave on in my shelter for use as a homing device.

      Earlylite,
      I love the idea of your friend’s to point the hiking poles in the direction of travel when taking a trail break…simple, effective.

      Also, I have practiced boy scout versions of orienteering and I always fail miserably because of the time pressure. That is why I carry a top map with a UTM grid and a wristwatch gps with UTM readings.

  12. All of these issues are so familiar to me.

    I think of compounding the compass errors as being similar to a golf hole that has a dogleg.

    On one trip, all we had was birch trees to sight one and every time I looked down I was unsure if I was using the correct birch tree when I looked up. Finally I had my hiking partner go out as far he could and still easily talk to each other. I would have him move left or right til he was on the bearing we were trying to hold. Then I moved forward to him. That way both of us you could move without worrying about keeping the bearing.

    The A-Z trail is very easy to cross without realizing it; so it wan’t a very reliable backstop. I would have been worried about ending up in the drainage west of Mt Tom. In a real emergency, the best way out of there might be to follow the drainage south down to Ethan Pond Trail and the North Folk. Can’t cross either of those without realizing it.

    Had you started to consider that you might camp and continue in the morning? did it get to that point?

    Not unknowing exactly where I am is always disconcerting to me. Exciting and scary all at once.

    • The A-Z trail was a little hard to spot once we were standing on it. I think I noticed it first – it was dark of course and snow covered. I had started thinking about camping, but figured we could still try to find or way our for a few more hours. My biggest worry was my wife actually, and what she’d be thinking. Luckily I called her when we got to the Highland center just as she was calling Fish and Game. Nice to know that my emergency contact knows what to do, at least.

  13. I like the hiking pole idea. Once, my brother and I were hiking in the Bob Marshal Wilderness in Montana and decided on a sixteen mile round trip day hike to the Chinese Wall from our campsite, which was already a two day walk from the nearest trail head. We knew we’d get back well after dark and we were camped in the woods a couple hundred feet off trail. We arranged several sets of sticks in the trail as arrows pointing off to our campsite so that we could find it after dark. Of course, heavy snow hit that day and the arrows were under about a foot of white stuff. Fortunately, we’d also hung an LED light in a tree and that glow let us know where camp was.

    • Ive lost my tent in the dark – leaving a light on inside is one way to find it again – but I also like to use reflective guy-lines for this very reason. They really show up when you shine a head torch on them.

  14. When Orientating my map to a known or identified spot on the map I then pay a lot of attention to where the Sun is in relation to my compass heading..For instance, if I am headed North west I know the Sun will be working its way from my right shoulder across my back to my left shoulder.

    Or

    On a bearing of 345 deg’s I also note the Sun is at my right at 120 deg’s and so therefore it must move in relation to it’s orbit by slowing rotating to about 270 deg’s at the end of the day..So therefore I make note of where it is on my back..This helps me maintain my heading when going around thick stands of Prickers or dense brush.

    Also in some area’s of Up State New York, the amount of Iron contained in the rocks can throw a compass off a bit. So if the Compass does not look right..I walk about another 100 yards or so and check again and sometimes that makes all difference..I also carry two Compasses..My Dad’s brass pin on Marbles he bought back in the 40’s and my SIVA and occasionally my Boy Scout from the 60’s.

    I make it a general rule not to follow animal trails nor other peoples footprints. If I’m disorientated I sit down and make a cup of my favorite tea and chew on a Biscuit or some Beef Jerky until my mind clears..Never leave a known site for an unknown site…So on occasion I have backtracked to a known…

    Hope that helps you…

    • I’ve heard about bringing two compasses and will start to do that. Does the liquid in them every freeze?We have the same iron issues up here in the Whites, that’s in part because we were willing to believe our compasses were being affected.

  15. Both my Old Boy Scout and my Dad’s old Marbles Compass which pins on your shirt or where ever you want to pin it, are “Free Floating” meaning no liquid! SO freezing is not an issue…

    I just checked the web and you can “Still” buy the same all brass Compass as my Dads after all these years though the “Dial” is more modern than my Dad’s old German Cross type. $16.25..

    And my Old Boy Scout you can find on Ebay every now and then for about $80.00 the last time I saw bid on..Actually I think it is cheaper for the Companys to use a liquid float type verus a true magnetic type and from what I see all the Silvas are water encased….

    I’m not sure if there is any accruacy difference between the two other than that..But Marbles has been making them for a long time…It would be interesting to check that out on my next trip for I have Siva as well..I just have to find a local Mountain with a big iron ore deposit..Mmmm the Red Georgia Clay is loaded with iron…lol’s

    Another method some people have used is keeping track of the wind to a location on their face but the wind is variable in the Mountains, it might work on the Plains and in some Desert areas but not in the forest or Mountains..

  16. I just checked ebay and they have a number of the old red Compasses up for bids right now for less than $25.00..I’d grab one..

  17. Two tips:
    (1) carry a GPS, not to navigate, keep it in your pack and use it just to log your track. I found it VERY instructive and helpful to compare, once back home, where I was with where I thought I was. It also gives you a bailout option if you really end up in the deep you-know-what.
    (2) backtrack your own bushwhack. I’m surprised that you didn’t recognize your own footprints and gait right away. Grampa, who taught me the map & compass bit back home in Switzerland, made sure to chase me back on my own track often enough until I had internalized all my habits and moves, and until I paid attention to the terrain. Thanks to him, I can now follow my own bushwhack trail back without compass and map, in almost any weather and terrain.

  18. I also think it helps to look behind you on a consistent basis.

    This summer I was on southern section on the Shoal Pond trail and had to bactrack cause I could find the trail ahead of me.

    Took me a while to be sure I had found the trail BEHIND me but having a few visusal reference in my head was a big help.

  19. Two person bushwhacking technique:
    One person holds the compass and is stationary, second person advances in the general directions of the desired bearing. Compass person guides the walker by shouting till the latter is on the bearing. That person stops, waits for the compass bearer and then they do the again and again… GPS is my preferred method nowadays, but have used m+ cup for many years in SAR.

    • I’m getting the hang now of something similar – site a point on the bearing in the distance and walk to it. It also helps to ameliorate the effect of micro-detours.

  20. Yeah, I’ve gotten turned around once or twice as well. Usually when I wasn’t paying close attention at the beginning of a long bushwack and hadn’t set up a backstop ahead of time.

    My favorite way to deal with bushwacking is to pay a lot of attention to the rivers and topo before leaving a known point. That way if everything goes south I have a decent idea of where following the drainage will get me. Unfortunately if you need to go up river in an area without defined landmarks it’s just hard.

    If you want to be really paranoid I’ve been able to get within about 2 degrees of accuracy over just under a mile with the following technic. Have one person go out as far as you can see and tell them to move until their headlight is on the correct bearing. Then have them site back to your headlight to confirm. Then you can walk up past them and do the same thing again, but with you being further forward. You can even count your paces if you want an approximate distance. As an trick blinking headlights are easier to see than solid on ones, even in the day time.

    It’s a slow way to travel, and I haven’t used it on a pleasure hike ever, but it works if you want to be really paranoid. (And as I’m reading it it’s pretty similar to what Amir is is saying)

    Mostly I’m a bad person and bushwack in areas I don’t have a map for though, which is a totally different ballgame. Good luck on your next hike.

    • Oh, also being able to find North from the sun and stars can be handy. I was actually on a trip where the compas was reverse magnetized and it was helpful to be able to verify it with something other than intuition. ‘Course that requires good weather ‘specially at night.

    • I like that headlamp trick – good for bushwhacking after dark.

  21. Thanks for this posting. Have been working on the NE HH for a short time and though there are many herd paths out there due to the popularity of “the list,” I am taking nothing for granted in my prep. I can see myself making all these mistakes, but then again, I am a pre-initiate!

    Winter landscape is disorienting, footprints or no, it has been quite easy for me to get off an established trail. Am saving my trailless challenges for long days, warmer weather, bringing both GPS and compass- knowledge of both, and my well established respect for the elements and terrain.

  22. Enjoyed your post. It’s not difficult to lose track of your bearings when you get involved in your surroundings. Another technique you may want to add to the mix is to consciously alternate which direction you go around obstacles in your path. Go left around, then right around the rocks or what-ever is impassable. This tends to keep you a little better on course. When you get stuck on one direction, you can gather a lot of distance off bearing.

  23. I just remembered something else I do when starting a hike that I just do out of habit I guess and need to sit down and actually think out what I do besides orientating the map and the compass and noticing where the Sun is. I also note the general wind direction in the area by studying the Trees branches and towards where they point. In some places the wind is so strong the entire tree points in that direction.. Granted if your traveling large distances the pattern or direction will change and it is up to you to notice the change. So as with the Map and Compass and identifying a prominent land features on a verified compass heading, noticing where the Sun is and then the general wind direction should one get turned around or disorientated one can use all of the above to re-orienatate themselves.

    I was always jealous of now deceased hiking and camping companion of mine “long leg” Paul Taylor who was a graduate of the U.S.Naval Academy who had to learn the Stars and Constellations and how to use an Astrolobe as well as a Map and Compass to locate his latitude and longititude with nothing but the materials at hand. It was great fun to sit beside a hatful of fire on the side of a tall mountain sipping on some JD while snugged down in our goose down bags and bivy sacks as he detailed out to me the contents of the Night sky…He was a great Teacher and thinker and helped develop the Programs for the current Aegis System on Navy ships..Brilliant man…

    Currently eHow has a litte lesson on how to find your Latitude and Longitude using some sticks that I am going to have to study….

  24. me bad, not an Astrolob but a Sextant…sorry

  25. I’ve only really done three backpacking trips in my life. My first, the AT in ’08. My second, the JMT in ’10. My third, a three day, the Eagle Creek Tanner Butte Loop off the Columbia Gorge in Oregon. I learned to use a map and compass decades ago in the service, a half day in class and a half day in the field, but have never touched it since. That said, even on the JMT I had two instances where I ended up hiking the wrong way for some miles and was totally shocked when I finally figured it out, and that was while ON a trail! After reading this article and all the posts (and given my experiences on the JMT), I realize that I truly NEED to make a serious study of orienteering. It is obviously a very critical skill to have and continue to develop, and will add to my safety, enjoyment and success of spending time in the wilds. Thanks to all who shared their stories and tips.

  26. On a trail like the AT with so much of it in the woods, one can be fooled by compass readings which is why the maps are key. While hiking north towards Maine, the trail in many spots actually swings south in very subtle slow turns barely noticeable as one hikes along.

    Bushwacking on a straight line with a compass becomes difficult when fallen trees or thick undergrowth make walking in the know straight line impossible. Trying to count steps one has to take laterally becomes problematical, too, as the terrain might make full strides impossible. For example, how many strides are use if one has to scramble over a fallen tree? This is when a GPS waypoint setting on your destination can really help to get you back on track and also from hiking past your target.

    Do you know how to tell which direction a stream or river is flowing by reading contour lines?
    Just as a contour line crosses the water it will swing up-hill. When does the contour line go straight across the stream? At a water fall where the water falls straight down.

    These details show up well in the 1: 24,000 scale maps.

  27. Around Mt. Washington in NH I would highly recommend Brad Washburn’s map 1: 20,000

    http://home.earthlink.net/~ellozy/nh-hiking-maps.html#tocref16

  28. Completed a lot of solo bushwhacking. “Confused” a few times. I carry several compasses, you never know when one may actually break, but if two of them are saying the same thing, then quit questioning the gear. I carry bio-degradable tape for backtrack marking, but make sure you can see it looking back. Good outline on your process.

    • I’ve been thinking about how to stay on bearing when walking around small ponds or streams, when you need to cross off bearing for safety reasons. That bio-gradable tape sounds like just the right thing. Where do you get it?

  29. In some area’s, Forests, State Parks, Wildnerness area’s it is illegal to use this tape, so make sure you check with the Authorities before using….In one National Forest I visit between the Hunters, Hikers and Forest Surveyors some area’s look like a Christmas tree with all the tape tied to bushs,trees and even fluttering from Rock out Crops…Same with the “Hunter Tack” which is a thumb tack with a a highly visilble reflective material painted on the top of the Tack…

  30. Two things I do that may help when bushwhacking; I always shoot a bearing of the road my car is on. Say the road travels E-W. Then when/if you get lost you know to just head S(or north depending which way you went.) Just a nice backup plan I like to do. The other thing I was taught in SAR was to periodically look backward when you’re hiking. What this does is give you a mental picture for the return trip so you can recognize features from the other side. The “I’m lost” feeling is no fun. Glad you made it back okay.

  31. One of the things I started doing was wearing a thumb compass while bushwhacking. Always glancing at it to see how well I am holding course. Compensating after I am forced off course. The most important thing I have learned over the years in navigation is to trust my calculations, nav plan and most of all, my compass, never trust my confused instincts. They suck. LOL

  32. Hi, after reading this remarkable piece of writing i am too
    happy to share my know-how here with friends.

  33. Ralph 'Andy' Drollinger

    How did I get on this site?
    Way back when I was in ‘Mountain Rescue’ we made distinctive cuts in the soles of our boots so we knew the searchers from those searching..

    • Cool! I am a much better bushwhacker now – having that experience really upped my whole navigation game. Winter is almost here and I plan to do a lot of bushwhacking!

  34. Footprints can be useful. Just check the patterns.

  35. It happened yesterday! Came upon 4 young men in their late teens and early 20’s who were totally disorientated as to their whereabouts on the Pinhoti Trail. I know this because I heard them arguing about which way to go at 300 yards minimum as I came cross country towards them. I was able to settle them down to listen and brought out my topo map and Compass and asked them a few basic questions as in; Where was the Sun when you parked your car? How long did you hike before making camp? Did you pass a Shelter? How about Water sources? As we calmly talked our way through these questions I showed them spots on the Topographic Map where they had likely been or passed..They had a working GPS unit but the batteries died due to someone forgetting to replace them after the last trip. I asked them if they just kept heading in the same direction and if they did, why not just turn around and go back the way they came..Well, they took a couple of “short cuts” that appeared on the map of the GPS unit and then they “Stealth Camped” and when the unit died, the got turned around…So with the use of map and Compass I got them headed the right way back which just happened to be the same spot where I parked my truck earlier that morning…….Yeah I led them on a bit, but I bet the next time they carry a backup Map and compass…

  36. I didn’t ask them that question, I just assumed they did since nobody asked me what that thing in my hand was as I orientated the map to the North…Old Compass too,.It was my Boy Scout Compass I bought in 1961 and it still is very accurate. I still have most of my Boy Scout gear from the 60’s, the world famous Hatchet, 3 knives, Match Safe, Sharpening Stone, Compass, Pack, Mess Kit, Flint&Steel set, Firebow,Tent, Whistle and Pin On Compass.

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