Desert Safety: Natural Route-Finding Skills Every Boondocker Should Have
Last month a friend of mine was leaving for Yuma and left early in the morning before sunup when the desert is very dark and got lost. The desert is riddled with a spider web of little roads and in the dark it’s amazingly easy to confuse them with each other. After you make the initial mistake of turning left instead of right, or turning onto the wrong road, every turn you make after that just takes you deeper back and makes you more lost and confused. When I heard about it I thought, “This could happen to anybody and it could end up very badly.”
Because of his experience and with so many people are coming to the desert Southwest for the RTR, I’m doing a series on staying safe in the desert. This is the second in the series, in the first I wrote about the dangers of Flash Floods, in this one we’re talking about getting lost and stuck. Let’s look at my friends example.
He made the classic mistake of once he wasn’t sure where he was, he just kept moving forward in hopes of finding something familiar. The idea occurs to you that, “Maybe I’m here, and if I go there I’ll find the road.” Almost always that results in you getting more lost in an even more remote area and makes finding your way out by yourself, or being found by others much more difficult.
Once he was lost and confused about where he was he made another classic mistake, he was starting to feel a little desperate so he tried to drive through a wash that was too deep and too sandy for his van. Of course he was quickly stuck and not getting out by himself. He dug under the tires for a few hours, but every attempt at escape failed and frustrated him even more.
Having no choice but go for help, he headed off into the desert without knowing where he was, where he was going, and worst of all carrying no water. He wandered around in the desert for several hours until he finally found something familiar and walked over to our group’s campsite and asked if we could come pull him out. One of us had a 4×4 truck so they drove over and got him out.
Overall, it was a terrible experience for him and gave him a lot of new respect for the desert. Using his experience as an example I want to give you some tips about how not to get lost or stuck in the desert and what to do if it does happen. Today we’ll look at natural route-finding skills, in future posts we’ll cover everything else he did wrong, what he should have done instead, and spend time on not getting stuck and getting unstuck if you do.
Natural Route-Finding Skills Every Boondocker Should Have:
As you start to read this your eyes may glaze over and you think, “I don’t care about any of this, forget it!” and close the page. I understand your feelings, but please give it a fair chance. If you do, I think you may find yourself enjoying it and one day it may even save your life. If nothing else, go to the links I provide because they generally do a better job of explaining things.
People lived and traveled in nature for millions of years before the invention of the compass or GPS and you can too. It’s not hard and there is virtually no math. All you need is an interest in nature and curiosity about the world around you. Most important is a sense of child-like curiosity and playfulness. Turn finding your way by the sun and stars into a game and you’ll not only be safer you will be happier. Humans are born with a need and desire to connect with nature, by making this connection with it you’ll be more fully human and alive.
Anymore, I never go outside without looking up at the sun and stars and tuning into them. I notice where they are and how it feels outside. Every night when I walk outside I locate Polaris and I find comfort that I always know exactly where true north is. When the first human began to think, I like to believe her first thoughts were of the sun, sky and stars and the wonder and joy they bring us. Humans have always loved and revered nature and wanted to learn all they could about it. The fact that we have lost that today, bodes very ill for our future. On the other hand, it speaks very highly of you that you have chosen to take a step closer to it.
If you spend time in the backcountry, especially if you do much walking in it, you need to have a basic understanding of route-finding. All you need to have is a very basic understanding for the 4 directions and how the sun and compass work together. I’m not suggesting you take a class or study books, what I am suggesting is you turn your curiosity lose about wild nature which now surrounds you. Buy a compass and make a game of learning the basics. Every morning when you go for a walk, look around you and tune into your surroundings. Start watching the sun to see where and when it rises and sets. Buy an analog watch and start trying to tell time by the suns location in the sky. Where is the sun above the horizon at any given time? Let it become a hobby and start searching the internet for more information.
Know how to use the sun to locate the four basic directions. If you learn this simple skill you’ll always know the compass directions around you if the sun is casting a shadow. You aren’t going to know precisely, but you’ll have a good basic idea. Most of the time if you can see the sun you can tell where south is fairly easily because the sun is basically due south at noon. At sunrise it’s basically in the east (although you should be aware that in the summer it will be slightly north of east and in the winter it will be slightly south of east). At sunset it will be basically due west (but in the summer it will be slightly north of west and in the winter it will be slightly south of west). The further north your latitude, the further north and south the sun will be at summer and winter solstice.
In between sunrise/sunset and noon, you are just going to have to guess as the sun travels across the sky. If the sun rises or sets at 6:00 am or 6:00 pm, you know that’s 6 hours between them and noon. So 9:00 am or 3:00 pm is half way between noon and sunrise/sunset and the sun is either in the southeast or in the southwest, depending on the time of the year. The sun travels at 15 degrees an hour. To try to visualize that stand with one arm straight ahead of you pointing toward the sun and the other arm pointing out to your side. That distance is 90 degrees on the horizon. Now move your head to what looks like half that distance. You can do that surprisingly accurately. You are now looking at 45 degrees away from the horizon point below the sun. Now cut that distance in half again and that’s 22 ½ degrees off the original point. You can use this system to split the differences at any time.
To get very good at this, buy a compass and make a game of it. Use the sun to make your best guess at the directions and then compare it to the compass. Do it throughout the year so you get a feel for how it works as the seasons and your location changes. When you get to any new area be sure to practice with your compass so you can always find the 4 directions as long as there is a shadow.
Study your area and know where to go for safety if you get lost. I need to be connected to the internet so I am never far from the Interstate or a major road with the internet. I’ve found that if I’m within 3-5 miles of the Interstate, I can always get a good Verizon signal. By knowing where the freeway is, I know if I get lost I can walk just a few miles and know exactly where I am and can get help or get home. So when I get to any new location I watch carefully on my first trip into the new camp so I know exactly where the Interstate is. I also study the area to know where other landmarks are. For example, here in Ehrenberg if I head north I’ll run into the Interstate and if I head west I’ll run into the Colorado River. Once I hit it all I have to do is walk north and I’ll run into the Flying J on Interstate 10. At the Quartzsite camp if I head north I’ll run into the freeway, if I head west I’ll run into Highway 95. By knowing my area I know I’m never truly lost, just temporarily confused.
Know your horizon. One thing I love about the desert is its wide open space; you can nearly always see the distant horizon. The best thing about that is it gives every day the chance to have a mind-blowing sunrise or sunset. But the next best thing is it makes it very easy to walk in a straight line. For many years I was in a part of the desert with few roads, so every morning for a walk I would pick a point on a distant mountain and walk toward to it. I made a game out of it and tried to return to the exact same spot that was almost 3 miles away and I got so I could walk right to it fairly often. Over the course of the winter I did that in a semi-circle around my camp and knew my surroundings very well. Since then I’ve made it a point that whenever I get to a new camp I study the horizon around me and know where everything is. At any time I can use those points to triangulate my current location and where I need to go to get home or to safety.
Wear an Analog wristwatch, and you’ll always have a compass with you. It’s actually pretty simple to turn your watch into a compass. Find instructions here: http://www.wikihow.com/Use-an-Analog-Watch-as-a-Compass
Know how to walk by the sun. It’s a well-established fact that humans aren’t reliably able to walk in a straight line; unless we’re careful, we almost always end up walking in circles. That’s easily solved by picking a point on the horizon and walking toward it. But, what if I can’t see the horizon? I can walk mostly straight by using the sun as my guide. First you determine the direction of the sun and stand looking directly away from the sun and in line with your shadow. If it’s noon you are looking due north because the shadow falls due north. Hold your arms out straight to your sides and you know east and west are at your fingertips. Turn to the direction you want to travel. Look down at your shadow, whatever angle it’s at to your body, you want to keep an eye on it and keep it there as you walk. You must be aware that as the sun tracks across the sky, the angle will change by 15 degrees an hour so you’re going to have to make slight adjustments as you walk. At least once an hour stop and re-determine the direction you want to walk and place the shadow where you want it. This is where you’ll be really glad you have an analog watch.
Learn how to locate Polaris, the North Star. In the Northern Hemisphere Polaris is always due north. If you can find it you can find all the directions. It’s easier shown than told so use the picture above and go out on a clear night and locate Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper and you’ll find Polaris between them. They rotate in a circle around it so you’ll have to study them over a period of time to get the whole picture. At the bottom of the post is another picture that should help.
Putting it all together. I get lost lost anywhere near my camp and can’t figure out how to get back to it I don’t have to be concerned because I know my safe spot and which direction I need to walk to get there. To find directions I take a look at my compass if I have one, my wristwatch if I have one, or use the sun if I don’t have either of those. Once I know which direction I need to walk I want to find a point on the horizon and walk toward it. If I’m in a gully or a flat spot and can’t see the horizon, I find a hill and climb it to be able to see it. Then I pick a spot and walk toward it. As I walk I use the sun to keep me walking in the right general direction. As I’m walking I’m very likely to find my way back to camp, but if not I can always get to the freeway, river or some other road and follow it back to camp.