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?
- Trust my compass and stay on my bearing, avoiding footprints and real or imagined pathways through the brush that look like easier walking.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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!