Stay The Course

Stay The Course

To save hunting time and energy, learn to save precious footsteps.

Clearly I remember the day: My training group was navigating from point to point across miles of timbered hills and ridges. We took great care in determining our location on the map, plotting our course, and checking our bearings.

Taking note of major landmarks from an elevated perspective will help you pick a route to your objective and give you more precise bearings.

Then one afternoon we unwittingly walked in a huge circle around a peak -- a maneuver that ate up one hour of daylight and a load of calories. Our instructor let us do it, aware that we'd have to double our efforts to get to the final point by nightfall. I will share with you -- in a slightly more civil way -- what he told us that day to help us stay on course, directly to our destination.

Walk a straight line. This might sound easy, but in hilly or steep terrain, it can be a challenge. If you are navigating the slope of a ridge or hillside, your tendency will be to "slide" a heading downhill, meaning you will move forward and laterally downhill at the same time.

To counter this, pick an obvious landmark -- rock, tree, peak -- as far ahead on your compass bearing as you can see, put your compass away, and hike straight to the landmark, rather than stopping often and re-shooting a bearing. This helps prevent the "slide" and helps you better pick your path around obstacles.

Compare terrain features to your map. Topographic maps are essential, and I recommend a scale of 1:24,000 for greatest detail. Scale is the ratio of units of measurement on the map to units of distance on the ground (e.g., one inch on the map equals one mile on the ground). I buy maps through National Geographic's mapmaker (, which prints any designated area on waterproof paper, with no seams. Another good map website is Or look for kiosk mapmakers in REI and Sportsman's Warehouse.

To stay on course in the field, pick out a few easy-to-distinguish landmarks and find them on the map to maintain an idea of what direction you are (or should be) from them. If in doubt, use your map and compass to evaluate your position by triangulation.

Trust your map and compass. If you rely solely on your compass or, conversely, on your map, you get only 50 percent of the information available, only half the story. To get the full story, use both.

Keeping your compass handy will help you stay on your line of travel, especially when trailing game. your objective and give you more precise bearings.

Don't try to convince yourself that the compass isn't really pointing north, or that it is "broken" because you thought you should walk left and the compass says to walk right.

To double check, you can carry a backup compass (I personally carry a small button compass on a lanyard around my neck and a base plate compass in my hip pocket). Same with the map. Don't add or take away from what you see just because you think it doesn't look right. Slow down and study.

Estimate distance. If you spend a lot of time walking in the woods, count the number of paces you take to cover a known distance. A pace is every time the same foot hits the ground (for example, count each time your left foot hits the ground). Learn your pace count for a quarter mile, kilometer, or other fixed distance you refer to often. The running track at a local high school is a great place to develop a pace count. Keep in mind that pace count goes up significantly in steep terrain.

Use knowledge of your pace to track your progress on any course of travel. It helps you to calculate the distance you've traveled and to maintain a good idea of where you are on your map.

Don't give up ground. Once you gain elevation, don't give it up until you are sure of where you are, where you are going, and how you are going to get there. Whenever possible, gain the perspective from a peak or ridge to see the big picture of the terrain you are in. Note the landmarks and look them over closely. They might appear a lot different from other angles, so pick out distinctive features.

Use the terrain to your advantage. Any time you're moving from one point to the next, visualize a route that takes advantage of natural features that help you navigate and conserve energy. For example, follow a ridge instead of bushwhacking through a thick ravine, or follow a creek that will lead you right to your destination instead of going straight up and over a steep peak. A good rule is, "Work smarter, not harder." That's what our training instructor told us, and he was right on course.

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