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Backcountry Awareness: Basic Navigation. By Doug Chatten

August 14, 2020 1 Comment

Mont staff members navigating in poor weather on the New South Wales Main Range.

Right up there with the most important skills of a backcountry enthusiast is being able to navigate!

“I’ll be okay...I don’t need a map...I know where I’m going!” Yeah right… good luck with that one. If there is one discipline you should develop above all the rest, it is navigation.

I’ve found a lot of lost sheep wandering around in the top paddock on the main range over the years. I have encountered many disorienting experiences at times being overcome almost instantaneously by whiteout conditions.

Doug Chatten backcountry skiing in NSW.

The ongoing consequences attached to becoming lost or temporarily disoriented due to lack of navigation skills such as being benighted or hypothermic are very high up on the risk matrix scale for backcountry travellers. Whilst not as sexy as some of the other skills, learning how to navigate will serve you well as a backcountry enthusiast. It is a skill you will use more than most particularly in the featureless alpine zone of the Australian Alps.

Map only skills:

  • What is the scale of your map; 1:25,000, 1:50:000, 1:100,000
  • Know the linear distance scale of your map & how to use it to calculate distances.
  • Break your route down into sections, identify starting & finishing points of each section on the map.
  • Learn to read contour lines & recognise physical features on your map; is it a ridge or a drainage? What features are along your intended route, you may have to aim off!
  • Know what the contour interval is, i.e. the vertical difference between two contour lines.
  • Know how to calculate elevations by adding contour intervals.
  • Practice your striding/pacing so that you can estimate distances in whiteouts. Consider that your pacing will vary from level to sloping ground, as well as different surface conditions!
  • Go to a flat area & count your paces several times over 100m & take the average, try the local footy field.
  • Know how to orient the map & match it to the shape of the land.
  • If the visibility is getting worse, orient yourself before you lose visibility.
  • Altimeters are fantastic navigation tools; you can orient yourself by comparing the map detail to your surroundings & matching the elevation. Be sure to reset your altimeter whenever you are at a known location. This is a convenient method of whiteout navigation.

Introducing the Compass:

  • There are no dark arts to be learnt here, learn how to read a compass & trust it.
  • Electronic navigation is awesome & available in a wide range of platforms, but the ability to read & use a compass is a fail-safe core outdoor skill...no batteries required.
Map and compass.

Some of the basic skills you should work toward:

  • Taking a bearing from the map & transferring it to the field.
  • Plotting a bearing from the field to map.
  • Learn about magnetic declination, what it is for your map & whether to add it or subtract it.
  • Taking a grid reference of a point on a map.
  • Plotting a grid reference onto a map.

Using your map is an important part of pre-trip planning. It is wise to develop a route plan prior to any trip, particularly in unfamiliar territory which could be familiar areas in poor visibility.

Many backcountry riders rely on local knowledge only, for route finding but when the white curtain comes down the stakes can change very quickly. Knowing how to take a grid reference & plot that on a map & navigate your way out of a whiteout situation is an essential skill you should develop.

Until you are comfortable with a map & compass, take every opportunity to practice & keep practising. After some time the contours will pop out at you & appear 3D. You should take emergency equipment with you on every outing, having a map & compass & the skills to use them will increase the chances of you leaving that gear in your pack, never leave it at home! It would be a shame to call on the services of others to assist you, potentially putting them at risk if you are found wanting of fundamental skills.

By Mont Ambassador and backcountry guide Doug Chatten of Snowy Mountains Backcountry

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1 Response

Lindsay Roberts
Lindsay Roberts

August 20, 2020

Fifty years ago I was caught in a white out in what was to be a five day cross country ski trip to Albina Hut (no longer exists). Until such time as you have needed a map and compass to find your way at times from snow pole to snow pole to save your life that you understand the importance of this information.

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