Routefinding in the backcountry is a time-mastered craft, requiring a combination of good judgment,experience, and instinct, not to mention a great foundation in navigation and orientation. When gearing up forany backcountry adventure, there are several steps you must take to prepare yourself-too many to discusshere. We’ll focus on getting acquainted with topographical maps, which play a key part not only during thepreparation process, but throughout your entire trip. Get the group together prior to the outing to discussspecifics about the conditions, proposed route, and all other pertinent information. This is a great time to layout a map of the area you’re going to visit and start getting intimate with it as a team. Most likely, severalmaps cover the region you’ve chosen to explore, but I’ve found that up-to-date 7.5-minute topographicalmaps work well, unless you’re routefinding in Alaska, where the 15-minute series is probably a betterchoice.
Reading topo maps (as they’re commonly referred to) is a language lesson in itself. Translatingexactly what all the different colors, contour lines, and other key features mean is essential if these maps aregoing to be of any real help to you. Two techniques in particular are extremely useful. One is called the”visual handrail”-essentially a linear terrain feature that runs in the same direction you’ll be traveling. Once inthe backcountry, you should stay within audible or visual proximity to your handrail, which could be ameadow, valley, stream, river, or ridge, just to name a few. The other is a “base line,” or “catch line,” afeature that intersects your route from roughly the same direction no matter where you travel during theouting.
An established base line will assist you to get back on track if you ever get lost. It doesn’t alwaysneed to be in sight, as long as you know it’s there. As you head out, everyone should have a solid impressionof the route and traveling pace. Contingency plans should also be made in case of party separation, injuries,or foul weather. Use your compass to pinpoint north, then lay out the map and make an initial connectionbetween it and the actual lay of the land. Routinely update your lay of the land/map connection as the terrainchanges along your route (clearings, passes, ridges)-this will keep you well on track during the trip, and willalso speed along your map-interpretation skills. Even as you note features on the way toward the goal, yourparty should also be preparing for the return. The look of the landscape can actually throw you off as youhead back if you don’t train yourself to use the “over-the-shoulder” hiking style. Once you reach the summit,relax and soak in your surroundings. Then pull out the map again and study it from this elevated vantage.
Spend some time with it, comparing the map’s contours and details with the actual view of the area. Themore often you compare the two, the faster you’ll pick up on the subtleties of topo maps and the more usefulthey’ll become. Routefinding on the descent is important as well-remember, you’re only halfway home! Payattention on your way down; stay together and maintain a good sense of the land/map connection. After theouting, it’s always fun and interesting to discuss the climb with your companions. Once again, pull out thetopo map. Trace the group’s route as you discuss the highlights of the trip as well as ways to improve futurebackcountry excursions. Make notes of the adventure; you never know when a friend may be looking forinformation about a route you’ve climbed. Finally, remember that it’s all about being safe, exploring, andhaving a great time. Now, go get lost!-Scott Carr-Morrill
Scott is a Utah-based mountain guide andavalanche-training instructor.