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Survival Map Reading and Navigation: #1

Today we are so overwhelmed with technology that we tend to not practice some of the skills that all hunters should possess as hunters and outdoorsmen. Global Positioning System (GPS) both hand held and dash mounted have taken over the outdoor industry and I would never tell you to leave your GPS at home anymore than I would tell you to leave your toilet paper at home because you know if you do that it will be the day you really need it. Most people can read a map and look at a compass but can they really read a map, and can they really use a compass? Do they know a depression from a valley or a spur from a ridge? Can they name the five basic colors of a map and know what they actually mean? Do they know grid north from true north and magnetic north? Can they measure the distance of a winding road or trail on a map? How about this very important skill, can they pick up their compass and shoot two or three azimuths and then determine within about 20 feet where they are on your map? Most people are not able to do this. They may think they can but did they remember to convert their magnetic azimuth to grid azimuth using your GM Angle? What is your Panic Azimuth? (Possibly the most important thing to know while hunting alone) After you read my section on map reading and land navigation you will have a good start and will feel way more confident in the field and when you pick up that GPS you paid $500.00 for and the batteries are dead you won’t panic because you will have confidence in yourself and have the abilities to get back to your vehicle safely.

Survival Land Navigation and Map Reading

The best survival tactic is to never have to actually survive in the wild because you were prepared ahead of time. But the truth is no matter how prepared we are we could inadvertently find ourselves lost in the woods, broke down on the side of the road or even stranded in the middle of town with no cell phone coverage and civil unrest starting to stir and suddenly you realize you must suddenly leave with no preparations or survival gear.

Hundreds of people of all ages get lost every year in the outdoors. Most are found often they are lost for only a few hours but some are lost for days and some are never found. Conduct an internet search of your favorite national forest and you will be shocked at the results. I don’t want to quote any numbers but it will boggle the mind. Of course we tough old hunters and outdoorsman all say we have never been lost. We often call it by a different name like disoriented, temporarily confused or something similar that is not so emasculating, but the truth is if you have hunted as much as I have it’s a matter of time. And to not admit that it can happen to you is your first big mistake.

I do believe that over confidence in one’s self is just one primary cause of getting yourself lost. Lack of preparedness for being lost is also a major factor. Chasing off after a wounded animal or staying out just a little later than you should have are all contributing factors. Vehicle problems are another contributing factor that sneak up on us, a dead battery, over heated engine or simply getting stuck in the mud or snow can really ruin your day.

I want people who are reading this to understand that it really can happen to you. You often hear about the extreme cases where a person made a major mistake and gets lost and you say to yourself “I would never do that”. Allow me to tell you about an incident that happened to me and two other hunters. We were hunting pigs in the late winter, around February, up on a mountain that two of us had hunted many times but the third person had not. We had parked on one side of the mountain and hiked over to the top crossing one barbed wire fence and then down the other side into this valley. This is a steep rocky mountain on both sides with low junipers and chaparral type brush.The dogs ended up getting after some hogs and we went in circles chasing the dogs and by the end of the melee we had three hogs total all cut into pieces and inside our backpacks and a bunch of cut up tired dogs.

While we were in the low valley on one side of the hill a sudden thick fog bank moved in from over the other side of the hill from where the truck was parked. Within minutes the fog was so thick you could not see more than about fifteen feet and it was now getting dark and we were about 4 miles strait line distance from the truck but probably a 6 mile hike out, 3 miles up and 3 miles down. We began hiking hard in the direction of the truck. We hiked hard until it got dark. Two of us had hunted this area many times before and were very familiar with the route out. The third person was new to the hunting area but was a very seasoned hunter with years of elk and mule deer hunting in Montana and Idaho. He began to question our route out although we were going uphill he thought we needed to go downhill. At one point we hit a flat, it was now dark you absolutely could not see anything. This was the early years of GPS, back when a GPS used 6 AA batteries and only lasted about 4 to 6 hours so you only used it if you had to. The GPS fired up but never pinged a satellite and eventually it went dead. It was now very dark and we were headed downhill to the truck and the third guy was now in near panic mode we assured him we knew where we were going. Suddenly, we ran into a barbed wire fence. It was so hard to see we actually ran into it making a heck of a racket. Attached to the fence was a familiar sign with bullet holes in it we all recognized that was about a mile above where we had parked the truck. The third guys panic was over and in short we arrived at the truck. The point of this story is this. It only takes one person to panic and it can cause the entire group to panic. In the aforementioned story my hunting partner and I were very well versed on the way in and out of this place but we were tired. Our third hunter was very adamant that we were lost and was trying to go any direction but the way we told him and this person is a truly experienced hunter. If we would not have been so confident in our knowledge of the area it could have turned bad very easily.

In today’s modern world of technology there is almost no reason why a hunter would not have either a cell phone or a GPS with them but it happens. You decide to lighten the load and leave your cell phone, GPS and map in the truck. Then there are people who just do not own a GPS or cell phone and I understand that as well. But I think, well actually I know that some hunters leave their cell phones and GPS units in their vehicles or at home because they don’t want to get tracked because they may be trespassing or pushing the limits of the law and know that both the cell phone and the GPS will leave a bread crumb trail of where they have been. Then there is the ever common failure of both cell phone and GPS because of the batteries going dead or they get wet. A sweaty hunter can often ruin a good cell phone or at a minimum temporarily disable a cell phone with his body sweat, or the body heat and moisture coming off of a dead animal stuffed in his backpack with his cell phone or GPS. Often cell phones and GPS units are lost when a hunter relieves himself in the woods. Dropping his pants and not knowing that his cell phone fell on the ground. Or you spot a buck and throw your pack down as a gun rest take the shot and walk over to the buck, you find a blood trail and follow it and you find the buck just as its getting too dark to see. You go to sling your back pack off and your heart sinks and you get that awful feeling in your gut because you just realized you left your back pack where you took the shot about a half mile away, or was it a mile. This happened to a close friend of mine. He called me that evening frustrated and truly feeling miserable because he had his sidearm in his back pack. We called up a couple more guys and we went out looking for his back pack the next day and recovered the deer but didn’t find the back pack for three days and it was only about 200 yards from the dead buck and in wide open country covered by lava rocks and the occasional oak tree.

It can happen to you, I know because this happened to me. I was hunting with a friend who is a very seasoned hunter. We were in Oregon archery elk hunting. I have hunted the area many times and it’s about as rugged as it gets. Steep terrain with drop offs, cliffs, deep dark pockets of timber and of course it’s like most of eastern Oregon its covered in volcanic rocks that make even the short hikes miserable but this place has a lot of big bulls during archery season so it’s worth the effort.

We had a strong west wind that day and had decided to depart from a dirt road and walk to the top of the ridge and hunt the back side of the mountain and eventually work our way back to a spring we had hunted the day before that was only about a mile above the truck. The road is well marked and generally has a fair amount of traffic on it during season. We knew we were going in about 4 miles or more almost all uphill and so we decided to hunt together and lightened our loads down to the bare necessities water, head lamps, light food, fire starter kits, one GPS and 2 two way radios and cell phones along with other light weight mission essential gear.

We left the truck about 11:00 am or so and began the hike up the mountain in the light rain snow mix and wind. Now when I say mountain I really do mean a mountain. When we began hiking we were no more than 100 yards from the truck when we took our first break and it seemed to only get worse the farther we went up the hill. After hopping one barbwire fence scrambling through a lot of rocks and eventually working our way up to the top about 3 hours later we took our first big break. I noticed the guy I was hunting with, who is about 15 years older than me was having some difficulty keeping up. So I told him to take the lead and set the pace so that I wouldn't tire him out.

We began to walk and as we reached the very top of the hill about 3 1/2 to 4 miles from the truck he was walking in front of me about 20 paces when I looked off to my left and spotted a nice 3 by 3 bull elk about 75 yards away at about a 40 degree angle downhill. I was able to signal to him and was finally able to get him to stop so that we could make a stalk on the elk. The elk looked our way looked about and then walked towards us up the hill and eventually went into some small saplings about 40 yards away but out of view. We could see the small saplings shaking where he was raking his horns and just generally tearing the place up we knew we couldn't put a stalk on him in that location, so we sat quietly hoping he would walk out.

After about 30 minutes of silence from the bull and no movement in the brush my friend agreed to sit on the trail and watch the exit route and I walked around to the right and dropped down the hill about 40 yards to the area where the bull had given us the slip. I still continued to look for him and at one point about 30 minutes into the stalk I looked up the hill and saw my hunting buddy sitting on a log looking right at me and I gave him a wave, he didn’t wave back but this was not concerning to me because often times he will take a nap and he also seemed a little upset and frustrated that he had not spotted the elk and so I just figured he had taken a nap or maybe was just bummed out. I walked a little bit farther to the point where I had first seen the elk to see if he had slipped out behind us. I didn't see anything but his tracks and so I turned around and looked up the hill to see that my friend was no longer there.

With no elk in sight I walked back up the hill to where my friend had been sitting which took only about 3 minutes it was at that time I realized my friend had just disappeared and I mean disappeared. Where he had been sitting was on a little hilltop and you could literally see 360゚ around you for about 100 yards with the exception of the direction of where the elk and I came from and the man was not in sight. I thought maybe he had seen the bull take off and he went after it. I lingered in the area for another hour looking for tracks and hoping he would return. The wind was blowing the leaves around and there was about 6 inches of fresh fall leaves and so I just couldn’t locate any tracks. I began to get nervous and after about 2 hours I began searching the surrounding areas even looking to see if he had just laid down somewhere and died.

After some time of searching I thought that maybe there had been some miscommunications and he had gone over to a spring which was our original destination. So I hot footed over to the spring but it did not appear that he went that far. It was now getting dark and I walked back to the last place I had seen him. Still he was not there. Our original plan when we left the vehicle was to stay together no matter what. But if we did get separated to turn on the radios and every hour attempt to contact the other until we linked up. But I remember trying to get this point across to the guy I was hunting with before we ever left the truck and he said “we just won’t separate”. He also packed the GPS but I wasn’t worried because I had my cell phone with a very popular GPS hunting program on it that all the outdoor TV hosts rave about. I had already turned on my radio and attempted to call out every hour, matter of fact it was every half hour now. I decided to check the map program on my phone and to my surprise the direction I was taking back to my vehicle was absolutely 180 degrees off. I was going down the wrong canyon just right at dark so I immediately began back tracking the corrected direction but something was wrong and I knew it. When we left the truck earlier that day the wind was coming hard out of the west, now it was coming out of the east and when I looked at my cell phone map it showed me going back to the truck but I knew better because the program had me going down the front side of the hill to the truck but in reality I was going down the back side of the hill. I realized the cell phone program was tracking late. I would walk about a quarter mile before the tracks would show on my map. Although it was cloudy and snowing in the distance the red glow of the setting sun lit up the western sky for just a few minutes. Just long enough for me to confirm that the map program was not right. I had about 12 percent left on my phone battery and it was now dark and snowing.

There is absolutely no cell phone reception in this area, I mean none so calling my hunting partner was out of the question not only for this reason but because I knew he never turned his phone on. As I was looking at my phone out of the blue I got One Bar! Awesome, I did what every responsible hunter should do the instant you think you may be lost I called someone. In this case I called my wife. Of course she didn’t answer and it went to voice mail. I left her a message stating exactly what road I was on and how far I was from three different land marks in a triangle around me, I no more than finished the call and my phone went dead which ended up being the best thing that could have happened. I took a dead reckoning on where the truck was parked and began walking that direction. this was my "Panic Azmuth" which was due south. I walked down to within a quarter mile of the truck not once but three times. I did it three times because I was second guessing myself. Because in the back of my mind that map on my cell phone had told me to go the opposite direction and as I said earlier it was a steep drop down to the truck and I knew if I was wrong and the cell phone was right I was going to be spending the night in a dark canyon in the rain and snow so I kept questioning myself so I would go down and then back up the hill. Eventually, about an hour after dark I hiked back up the hill and sat down and waited, knowing that I didn't want to commit to dropping down into that canyon because if I was wrong, I would have no cell phone coverage, my radio would not reach out and of course I would have to come back up the hill. Finally, my friend I was hunting with called me on his radio. He was back at the truck already, we decided he would honk his horn and so he did. In the faint distance through the wind and the snow I heard the slightest of a horn honk. It had come from the exact direction that I had hiked down to three times when I had decided to take a straight line directly to where the truck was parked in my mind. I began walking and about 2 hours later I made it back to the truck.

I was not angry at my hunting partner I was just relieved to be in a warm truck and not a wet snow pack. I learned that he, for an unknown reason, had never seen me wave at him and had thought that I was gone longer than I had been. He had never seen me since I left and at some point decided to leave and continue his hunt without me with the plan of a rendezvous back at the truck around dark. Upon trying to return to the truck he too had become disoriented in the terrain and according to his GPS he had actually walked about a mile north of where we had split up which is another mile north of where the truck was parked and down into that steep canyon I had avoided. At dark he thought he was near the truck but ended up in a creek bed. He got his GPS out and learned he had gone in a big circle covering about 5 miles eventually finding himself in a steep drainage that he had to walk out of. The drainage eventually met with the road and he had to walk another mile to the truck. Both of us were exhausted and went to bed as soon as we got back to camp.

The next day we were both still exhausted and decided to take it easy and do some road hunting, we were on this same road where the truck had been parked the day before and using a different vehicle mounted GPS not the same hand held unit he was using the day before. We were about 2 miles from where we had walked in the day before. As I was driving I looked at the GPS and it was 180 degrees opposite of what it should have been. I slammed on the brakes and came to a stop. My friend was in the passenger seat. He argued it and said the GPS is always right. We both fired up our hand held GPS units and we were able to confirm that the vehicle GPS unit was 180 degrees off! I say again, this I could confirm by the map in my hand and by two additional GPS units, it wasn’t my imagination. After much disbelief we began to drive down the road, both of us staring at the dash mounted unit and holding our handheld units. After about 1/3 of a mile the dash mounted unit’s screen flipped and was now exactly the same as the two hand held units, and yes all the units were set to track the same “Track Up”. Later in the week we were talking with a local guy in town and were telling him our story. He told us that he is a volunteer for the county search and rescue team. He said that they recently had several rescues involving hikers who had relied on their GPS units only to find that they had the same issues and had become lost. He said they actually encourage folks to use maps and compasses in this area and to not rely on GPS units.

The moral of the story is simple. Don’t rely on any one item in a true emergency. Have Plan A, Plan B and a Plan C and even a Plan D so if the stuff hits the fan you have a plan.

If you have a GPS (Plan A) and a Cell Phone (Plan B) a Map and a Compass, (Plan C) and a Panic Azimuth (Plan D) then you should be fine. But if not you will have some Survival Skills as your (Plan E). And I may be offending some people when I say this, but if taking a GPS, Cell Phone, Map and Compass with you while big game hunting in unfamiliar territory is too much weight to carry then you shouldn’t be hunting there. And if carrying a map and compass with you while hunting is too much weight maybe its time to find a different hobby.

As far as using a GPS and navigating with a GPS there are too many manufactures out there for me to pick one and tell you to use this one but I will tell you what one I use, I use a Garmin 680T with and I also have the OnxMaps program. You can purchase these from Sportsman's Warehouse or Cabela's. No matter what unit you buy please buy the best that you can afford. Then learn how to use it and navigate. I am going to tell you to buy a quality GPS, not a minimal unit, but a good solid name brand unit that you can personally understand how it works, and then take a course online or in person on how to use it. Then use it in town, on foot, to navigate. I don’t mean using a street map. Use it to navigate by foot from across a large parking lot to your car or a waypoint. This mimics using is in the forest. Then go to a flat forest and do the same. Then graduate to a more mountainous area. It can be fun, take the wife and make a game of it. Hide things from each other at different locations and see if you can find them. For some reason women seem to really excel when it comes to using a GPS I think it’s because men try to out think the GPS and women have more confidence in themselves, but who knows. Then after a few times in the field you will build up your confidence level but always remember if it is electrical it can fail so learn to read a map.

Another side note on GPS units. Be careful not to buy a knock off or a refurbished GPS from anywhere. Only buy new, no matter what. If a GPS has been refurbished its for a reason. I have a friend who buys refurbished stuff all the time because its cheaper but its comical how often his equipment fails. Also the Chinese have some very similar knock offs of all the major GPS and hunting Optics. So I would buy from a reputable seller Cabela's Sportsman's Warehouse, Scheels, Midway USA all the major trustworthy companies.

Survival is a hot topic right now. There are at least 4 or 5 shows on every week that have some focus on survival whether it be surviving a plane crash in the Rockies or surviving the Zombie Apocalypse (one of my favorite topics) so there is all kinds of tried and true information out there but unfortunately there is allot of just plain nonsense on these TV shows and on the internet as well. One show that is very popular has a person who seems to always be running and repelling and eating extremely nauseous substances. The show is very entertaining and he does show some solid survival tactics but the truth is if you are lost in the woods or in a true survival situation running is not the answer and is extremely dangerous. You should actually slow down or even stop. But unless someone or a herd of zombies are chasing you, you should avoid running or even walking fast. Repelling is not something you should learn from watching a TV show. While in the military I repelled off towers, buildings, bridges and even helicopters and it was all fun and exciting. But we had experts checking experts and the knots you have to learn for this are not that simple. I also don’t think that the average person carries 200 feet of repelling rope with them while hunting or fly fishing so for all intents and purposes let’s just forget about repelling and find another way around. Eating bugs and drinking urine has its place somewhere but in the real world you can survive for several days without food and most bugs you find will make you very sick, plus the mental factor alone of eating a bug will make most people sick to their stomach. So you must learn what bugs you can eat before you just pop one in your mouth.

As we cover more survival we will address bugs, urine, water, fire and shelter.

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