column By: Jack Ballard | September, 18
My first experience using a GPS while hunting might emphatically serve as an advertisement for the now-ubiquitous devices. During the fall of 2001, when my two sons were just nudging into grade school, I acquired a basic GPS. A weekend mule deer hunt with the lads in familiar territory provided an opportunity to tinker with the device, though I scarcely felt it a necessary navigation tool. After dropping a fine buck just at sunset, I marked the location with a waypoint to see how accurately the device would track back to the kill site the next morning when we would return to bone and backpack the deer’s meat, cape and antlers.
At the pickup I discovered my keys were missing. The only logical place they could be was back where I had shot the deer. Leaving the boys in the vehicle to stay put no matter when I returned, I set out in the dark. The inerrant GPS guided me to the buck, and I eventually found my keys in the feeble illumination of a small flashlight.
About the same time I had purchased a “pay-by-the-minute” cell phone. High in the Pryor Mountains of south-central Montana, the ringer jingled in my duffle on the first evening of a five-day hunt – an uncle had passed away. The funeral was scheduled shortly. Could I cut short the hunt to attend? Gladly.
For today’s hunter, the benefits of GPS and cellular technology are patently taken for granted and are essential to communication and navigation. But astute outdoorsmen understand that any device with a battery can fail, not to mention technological or topographical contingencies that might render it impotent. A couple of years ago I wrote an article exploring the navigation practices of search and rescue professionals. Although they are avid consumers of communication and navigation technology, two conclusions from interviews with the pros stood out.
First, a number of them felt GPS and cell phone dependency increased, rather than decreased, the likelihood of a person needing rescue assistance. Secondly, they never ventured out on a rescue operation without the traditional navigation tools of a paper map and compass, a compelling model for hunters.
Paper maps are available from a variety of public and private sources. Maps from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the forest service are among the most popular public resources. Customizable paper maps can be purchased from a number of sources, my favorite of which is MyTopo (mytopo.com) that is based in Billings, Montana. The best paper maps include contour lines to indicate elevation and slope along with public/private land ownership and the location of roads, trails and prominent landmarks. Custom maps can be ordered that also locate game management units and other features. Maps printed on waterproof paper are definitely a plus.
I frequently pull out a map while hiking or hunting to follow the example of the bear that went over the mountain “to see what he could see.” Curiosity of my location in relation to the larger territory is one perennial question. Another involves the name and location of prominent geographical features (peaks, ridges, streams, etc.) in my hunting area. Learning names and places by studying a paper map helps to build and refine the cognitive map of a landscape stored in a hunter’s head.
Transition from high school to college altered my relationship with books. One of the final rituals of the academic year in high school was to turn in textbooks loaned to students by the school. Books were inspected for excessive wear, damage and any marks or writing a delinquent student might have penned therein. By contrast, college texts were purchased with funds from my checking account. A “college success” course taken during freshman orientation actually encouraged students to highlight, underline and make notes in their textbooks.
Savvy hunters do the same with maps. I commonly mark hunting district boundaries with a highlighter and locate other personally relevant features. These include campsites and landmarks given nicknames by my hunting companions in the absence of “official” designations on a map. One favorite elk hunting area holds the “Stealth Knob” (named for a patch of timber on its top that looks for the world like the shadow of a stealth bomber) and “No Elk Ridge” (a faraway spine between drainages I reached after a two-hour hike in the dark to find absolutely nothing but a very pleasant view at sunrise on its grassy summit).
These intimate features are marked on my map with a permanent marker. One of the critical aspects of using a map in an emergency situation is to orient it properly in relation to the physical environment. The more known landmarks cataloged in the user’s brain and identified on the map, the better the odds of correctly orienting the map, and oneself, when totally lost or temporarily confused.
In addition to a paper map, another low-tech orienteering device nearly impervious to failure is a compass. Used in tandem in competent hands, a map and compass are precise, reliable tools that have guided travelers for centuries. For those unfamiliar with a compass, the advice of a hunter safety instructor from my boyhood holds as true today as it did in 1974. “The best time to master a compass is when you don’t need it.” This refers to such basics as understanding the difference between “true north” (the North Pole) and “magnetic north,” the location indicated by the north needle of a compass in response to the earth’s magnetic field in the northern hemisphere. The North Magnetic Pole is actually located on Ellesmere Island in northern Canada. Topographical maps show the deviation between magnetic north and true north in degrees. As an aside, it is worth noting that magnetic north shifts over time. In the last 150 years, magnetic north has drifted about 620 miles northward.
The most essential use of a map and compass (or either alone) is to return a disoriented person to safety, usually a camp or vehicle. It is comforting that in most cases this does not require a high level of precision. Vehicles park along roads. Find the road and you are well on your way to the pickup. Camps are generally situated near roads or trails as well. Get back to a known travel route and it becomes easy to reach the specific destination.
Cell phone communication is now possible in much of the country traversed by America’s hunters, but that should not negate relaying a religiously followed communication plan: “If I’m not at such-and-such location by X time, send out the search party.” Having a specific plan in place not only triggers an emergency alert if you do not show up, it also relieves spouses, parents and others of much worry in the event a hunter cannot communicate by cell phone or other means during the hunt.
Technology offers modern-day hunters a plethora of tools for scouting, navigation and communication unimagined by folks of my father’s generation when they took to the mountains in the 1950s. But when batteries die, devices are dropped or technology goes haywire, the low-tech essentials of a previous generation may still be our top tools for survival.