Wayfinding in the backcountry when the GPS fails

General

When out in the backcountry, especially in the winter, you can’t really count on having any marked trails. We spent a good amount of time studying maps of the area, identifying the trailhead, waypoints and landmark features before we even left home. We also researched recent trip reports from others and talked to the rangers on the phone to better understand what to anticipate on the ground. Then we plotted our planned route with waypoints on the map using the Garmin software on my laptop. We loaded the map and route onto the GPS. And then also printed the map on paper and laminated it so it wouldn’t get damaged in the snow.

On the trail, it took us way longer than our most liberal estimate as we got lost quite a few times and had to backtrack and re-evaluate our plan a few times. Eventually, the GPS battery died. We had 4 more sets of backup batteries between the two of us so that wasn’t an actual problem. But a GPS can stop working for various other reasons.

So we decided to use this as an opportunity to sharpen our compass-based way-finding skills. Paper doesn’t run out of power 😋 Not so fast, however. We hadn’t checked our compasses closely. Both of them had developed bubbles after years of use. Maybe we left our packs out in too much heat without realizing it. But that meant it became very unreliable to sight using the compasses.

So we finally switched to the last fail-safe. Using landmarks (and elevation using the solar altimeter) to locate ourselves and chart our progress. That turned out to be quite easy as there were a lot of streams that served as natural guide-rails. We emerged exactly where we had parked our car within +/- 10ft error. That was a little surprising but quite awesome.

Always carry extra batteries for every electronic device you rely on. Always have an analog backup if possible. Spend some time thinking about things that are most likely to go wrong and have mitigations in place.

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