How Tos

Navigating Without GPS

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The lights are out, your vehicle has stopped in the middle of the road and it won’t start. It’s not the gas, you just filled your tank about an hour ago. You check your smart phone and it’s dead too. Something, whatever it is has taken out all electronic devices. Whether it was a coronal mass ejection (CME), or electro magnetic pulse (EMP) at the moment is irrelevant because you are two blocks from nowhere and about one hour from Last Chance Gas. Clearly you have no GPS and you are in unfamiliar territory so how the heck are going to get to your destination? Of course you are going to have to walk but the question is what route will get you there from where you are?

Of course the best thing to have would be an appropriate map for the situation. A road map for whatever cities or towns that you may be going to or a topographic if you are going to be out in the wilderness. Having the right map for your situation is critical because a topographic map isn’t going to do you any good in L.A. and a street map isn’t going to help if you are lost in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In this world of hand-held GPS’s and cell phones that tell you when and where to turn, I doubt that most people today can read a map. Having a map is great but make sure you know how to use it. Though maps can be hard to find these days they are available online at The USGS Store.

The next thing you should have is a compass and again you need to know how to use it. Just having a compass doesn’t mean that when the time comes you will be able to pull it out and shoot an azimuth or even know what that is. Learn to use it and practice it. Simply going by that little red needle on the compass to find you way can put you off your destination by miles. Your compass will point to magnetic north which is not the same as true north. The angle of difference between magnetic north, which is in Canada and true north, which is the north pole is called declination. The angle of declination will be a certain number of degrees to the east or west depending on your location. To make things even more confusing magnetic north changes. Magnetic north moves in circles of up to 50 miles in a day and the average of those loops is what makes up magnetic north. To further complicate things that magnetic north average moves as well, to the tune of about 25 miles per year. As a matter of fact over the last 100 years magnetic north has moved around 450 miles. When you use a topographic map the angle of declination and direction can be found in the map legend. Since the declination changes over the years, you will need to update your maps on occasion.

Even if you have nothing on you, you can easily and reliably determine north, south, east and west and no I’m not talking about looking for moss on trees. To accomplish this all you need is some sort of stick, a couple of rocks and the sun. The sun is important because this will not work on a cloudy day. The process is really simple. We know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west so, that means that shadows cast by the sun will actually go in the opposite direction, in other words from west to east. Look around your area for some type of stick and place that stick into the ground standing straight up. If the sun is out it will cast a shadow on the ground. At the tip of that shadow place a small rock. That is going to be west. Wait for several minutes until the shadow has moved from it original location by at least 4 or 5 inches. Place your second rock at the tip of the shadow where it is located now. This will be east. Draw a straight line from your first rock (west) to the second rock (east). Now that you have your west, east line draw a straight line through the center of it at a 90 degree angle and this will be you north, south line. If you know which direction you need to travel this can at least point you in that general location. However unlike a map and compass it is easy to deviate from desired path. When using this method try to pinpoint some type of landmark or terrain feature on your direct path to keep you headed in the right direction.

Though it may not be as dramatic as this example, some day you may need to travel without a GPS and the best thing you can do is to prepare for just such an occasion. Make sure you have the maps you need, a compass and the knowledge to use it.

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