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Tutorial: Dead-reckoning navigation | Basic but oft-used skill

By Andrew Skurka / September 11, 2017 / 7 Comments

Dead-reckoning is the simplest navigation skill. It’s much easier to learn than reading a map, or operating a compass, GPS, or altimeter watch. Yet I find it to be one of the most useful and frequently used, especially when hiking on well-maintained trails where a consistent physical effort yields consistent results. Such trails include well-known long-distance footpaths…

The trail is just a tool: Navigation skills, resources & gear for early-season backpacking

By Andrew Skurka / April 3, 2017 / 1 Comment

Even if your itinerary is entirely on-trail, you should expect an occasional off-trail experience when backpacking in the Mountain West in early-season conditions. On trade routes like the John Muir Trail, a continuous boot-track across lingering snow will develop by July, especially where the terrain funnels the foot traffic (e.g. at a pass). In less popular…

Map & Compass: Find & transfer bearings in the field & on a map

By Andrew Skurka / August 11, 2016 / 6 Comments

This is the second of a 7-video instructional series from Sierra Designs. This one, as well as the first, are dedicated to map and compass, which is a subcategory of navigation. If you haven’t already, learn to adjust for declination and to orient a map. Got it? Good, let’s move on to a more advanced…

GPS sport watch settings & displays for backpacking

By Andrew Skurka / August 2, 2016 / 42 Comments

Most backpackers wear a simple watch, an altimeter watch like the Suunto Core, or no watch at all. My pick, however, is a GPS sport watch. In this post, I will explain how I customize the watch’s settings and displays for backpacking trips. The case for a GPS sport watch I used a simple watch…

Notes for next time: Gear, logistics, & snow travel || Glacier Divide Route

By Andrew Skurka / July 31, 2016 / 10 Comments

For my next trip on the Glacier Divide Route, what should I remember from this past one? Logistics The drive to Glacier National Park from Colorado is intimidating — about 15 hours, depending on the final destination. But it wasn’t terrible, and it’s eye-opening to know that I can reach Glacier in 1.5 days even if I’m…

Map & Compass: Adjust for declination & orient the map

By Andrew Skurka / July 16, 2016 / 14 Comments

Backcountry navigation is an art. The basics can be learned quickly, like dead reckoning, reading a map, and using an altimeter watch. But extensive practice is necessary to seamlessly and flawlessly apply these skills in the field, especially when under duress or in challenging situations, like off-trail in a heavily forested area with rolling hills.…

The future of CalTopo || Interview with founder Matt Jacobs

By Andrew Skurka / November 1, 2015 / 19 Comments

For several years my go-to platform for topographical maps and imagery has been CalTopo. It has fully replaced — and far surpassed — National Geographic’s TOPO! desktop software, which was discontinued in 2012 and is no longer supported by NG; and, overall, its trip-planning features are unmatched by other online platforms and apps. I use CalTopo most often…

Characteristics of an expert navigator: Part II — Proficiency in the understanding and uses of tools

By Andrew Skurka / November 26, 2013 / 17 Comments

This post is part of a series on the characteristics of expert navigators. I’d recommend first reading the Introduction and Part I, and then returning to this latest installment. Within a few days of starting my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2002, I began dead-reckoning using my watch and the Databook. With surprising accuracy, I now had…

Characteristics of an expert navigator: Part I — Equipped with proper tools

By Andrew Skurka / November 11, 2013 / 10 Comments

This is Part I of a series on the characteristics of an Expert Navigator. Read the Introduction. More installments are forthcoming. Every “Ten Essentials” list I’ve seen has included a map and compass, and modern versions sometimes also include a GPS. If only the first characteristic of an expert navigator — being equipped with proper…

Characteristics of an expert navigator: Introduction

By Andrew Skurka / November 5, 2013 / 8 Comments

Learning how to navigate was one of the most important and liberating skills that I have developed as a backpacker. On my earliest trips, when my navigation skills were at best rudimentary, I was unable to safely or confidently leave the security of obvious footpaths, foolproof blazes, and accurate signage. I also struggled to reliably…