Low-Tech Wilderness Navigation

Dawn came to Tuesday, December 11, 2007 as it does for any ordinary day.

But for a few guys from the University of Florida CPR and First Aid Training Center, this would be no ordinary day. Before the clock struck midnight, they would be called on to use wilderness navigation skills to find their way off-trail for miles through the north Florida woods, relying on a simple map, and the sun and stars to guide them.

The next day, they would do the same thing, but this time there would be no map. Using only a compass, they'd still find their way mapless through the forest and back to their vehicle.

Wilderness navigation

These were students in FloridaAdventuring.com's 16-hour Low-Tech Wilderness Navigation course, an introductory course in wilderness navigation.

What's so different about this course is that it goes back to nature on direction finding. Although students learn compass basics, the emphasis is on using the sun, the moon, and the stars as direction finders.

In today's high-tech, digital world, it's indeed ironic that people can use--even understand--all sorts of complex machinery, yet many of them could not find the North Star if their life depended on it. And who knows? Some day it just might.

Baselines and Checkpoints

This course introduces the idea of using baselines (terrain features of length such as rivers, roads, fences, and trails) and checkpoints (distinctly recognizable places along baselines) to find your way across wild areas. A long trek should be broken down into legs, each of which ends at a checkpoint. At least when you find your checkpoint, you now know where you are, and can continue on your way with renewed confidence.

Finding your way

Finding Directions

To find direction, students first learn to use a compass.

The Sun
Then, they learn to use the sun. They learn where the sun rises and sets, its path across the sky, and how to determine its approximate bearing at almost any time. Once you know the sun's bearing, you can find your way in any direction.

The Moon
Next, they learn to use the moon to find their way. While, it's not the best direction finder, the moon still indicates direction, and on a cloudy night, it may be the only celestial pointer available.

The Stars
Finally, the stars are the best source of direction available. They never change in relation to one another (planets excluded) and, if you know what you're looking for, on a clear night the stars make the way obvious.

The North Star--Polaris--is key. But certain constellations also act as heavenly direction finders, pointing the way to the North Star.

Cassiopeia, the Big Dipper, the Charioteer, the Great Square of Pegasus all help you find north. Then there's Orion. What a guy. The lead star in his belt--Mintaka--rises due east and sets due west, no matter where you are on the planet. Using that knowledge, you can trace Mintaka back to its rising place in the east or forward to its setting place in the west.

Is that cool, or what? The summer brings us the Summer Triangle, the Northern Cross, and Scorpius, usable all to find directions.

By the end of the day, the students are making their way through wooded terrain using only the stars to find direction. Normally, they use compasses only when the sky clouds over.

No Map? No problem

Finally, the last day, the students learn to make their way through thick woods without a map.

Finding your way with a dead-reckoning travel diagram.

Dead reckoning, it's called. It might seem complicated, but it's really pretty simple. Keep up with the distance and direction of each leg you travel. Then, when you're ready to return home, plot these on the ground to find the distance and direction back to your starting point.

To show you what I mean, check out this page on Dead Reckoning, and its accompanying video.

Compass work

The end of the second day's work sent the students away with a new (or renewed) skill set and confidence in their ability to navigate across unfamiliar terrain.

We did it.

Congratulations to all on your accomplishments.