For thousands of years people did not have a GPS (global positioning system) to guide them to their destination. How did humans remember how to get from one place to another? Humans created physical or story maps using the landscape around them. Creating a story to use as a map is a technique used to remember how to get to and from a destination. By cultivating awareness, aidless navigation can be a reliable way to travel across landscapes without getting lost.
Try this exercise, it is effective to learn personal tendencies when traveling alone in the woods. Go on a trail and find a place where the brush is thick. Your course will be through thick brush. Put an X with sticks or a pile of rocks to indicate your starting point. Now walk 150 paces in a straight line. Start perpendicular to the trail. Once 150 paces have been reached turn around 180 degrees and walk 150 paces back to the starting point where you put your landmark. Did you veare off to the left? The right? How far off from you starting point are you? Students often do not land right back on their starting point. People think they can walk in a straight line. In reality, people have a tendency to walk to the right or left by five to ten degrees. This might not make a huge difference over 150 paces but can make a huge difference over the course of five miles.
Another aidless navigation technique called sighting. From your starting point, find three objects that are in a straight line. Trees or boulders are great for sight lining. In this example we are using three large Douglas Fir trees. Once the first tree is reached, line yourself up so that you can see all three in a straight line before moving on to the next tree. Once the destination is reached, use the same technique to get back. When all three Doug Fir trees and yourself are in a straight line you are on course. When one of the trees is to the left of the destination you are off course to the right. If the tree is on your right you are traveling off course to the left. This technique is reliable and effective to use.
Often times the most amazing things in nature are not on human trails. Wandering the landscape creates new experiences and questions. If you have decided to travel off trail and want to be able to get back trailblazing can be helpful. Placing piles of rocks as trail markers can be helpful. Breaking branches every so often can be a good way to find your way back. Even taking sticks and jamming them into the ground so they are straight up can mark your trail. Take some biodegradable string and tie it to bushes along your path. Depending on the environment you may need to adapt your technique. Basically, leave reminders for yourself to get back to where you came from.
Creating a story when walking off trail is a great way to remember where you are and how to get back. Do you see a large outcropping of rocks that looks like an elephant? Remember to pass it on your way back. Is there a massive Western Red Cedar on the deer trail you are following? Remember it. Had to cross a creek? Create the story map. Tell yourself the story before walking back. There was an elephant rock, a large cedar on the deer trail, and a creek I crossed. Now turn the story around. To get back I need to cross the creek, then run into the large cedar, and find the elephant rock. Sometimes bringing a notebook with you to jot down major landmarks can be a useful tool. Native peoples would change their environment to help create a story and landmark. Trees can be bent and continue to grow. These trees can be useful as story markers for traveling.
How can you avoid getting lost in the woods? These techniques described are all useful. Expanding awareness and noticing things helps you stay found and comfortable. Backtracking, following your own tracks can be useful but isn’t the most reliable way. Sometimes wind, snow, or substrate can make it hard to see tracks. Notice your shadow. It can be reliable during daylight. If your shadow is on your right the whole time, it will need to be on your left upon your return. Noticing distant objects like mountains, rock outcroppings or other landmarks can be helpful. Getting good at aidless navigation does not mean going out to get lost intentionally. Take a GPS with you, turn it on and ignore it. Use it only if you feel like you need to.