Each year thousands of people travel into the wilderness here in the U.S., and most manage to make it back under their own steam. There are many reasons for hitting the backwoods dirt, ranging from hunting to hiking to camping to mountain biking to prospecting to trapping and general exploring, but one thing you have in common with everybody else that’s “out there” is the need to get yourself “back here” when it’s all over. It’s always nice to know where you’re going, important to know where you are, but critical to find the way home again.

There’s no such thing as getting lost if you’re properly prepared. You may find yourself temporarily misplaced on occasion, but if you’ve paid attention, taken along some basic equipment, learned to use it and have a general understanding of how the universe operates, you should be able to get yourself back on track again.

What you take along depends on where and how you go, and can be as simple as a $6 map or as complex as a $600 GPS unit. Tailor the equipment to the territory, expand as the trip indicates, keep it in good shape and know how to operate it. No electronic device is any good at all if the batteries are dead when you need it, the best topo map ever printed will be useless if you don’t know how to read it, and a 0.29-cent button compass in your backpack may actually do you more harm than anything if it’s ever needed. If your wanderings take you far from the asphalt, spend the money to do it right and make very sure you don’t leave that gear sitting in a closet at home.

Make The Most Of Maps

An up-to-date road map can be bought at most gas stations and many convenience stores. Many will show smaller dirt roads through less-travelled areas. For much more detail, especially in the real outback, usgs.gov carries a variety of topographical maps covering the entire country that include different sizes, different grid and navigation markings, and different levels of area coverage. Some can be picked up at outdoor recreational stores, and many can be downloaded directly and printed right at home. Specialized custom maps made to your own specs on waterproof paper, including aerial photos and satellite prints, can be ordered from mytopo.com for even more specific and narrowly defined needs.

Read ’Em, Or Weep

Understanding how to navigate by compass, GPS and map becomes more critical the farther off-track you go, and Wilderness Navigation by Bob Burns and Mike Burns is highly recommended for an introduction to staying un-lost far from civilization in all sorts of terrain. This handbook is small enough to fit into a pack as a take-along, but don’t wait till you’re totally disoriented, cold, wet and hungry to crack it open. Study it before you leave home.

Another good handbook is The Essential Wilderness Navigator: How To Find Your Way In The Great Outdoors by David Seidman and Paul Cleveland. Starting out with nothing and running step-by-step through maps, compass types and their uses, and into celestial navigation and finding your way in the wilderness by observing what the wilderness has to show you, this book offers low-tech skills with high value. A GPS has its place, but electronics malfunction, batteries die and oldschool methods rule when the fancy gizmos go down. Don’t let the 2000 publication date throw you—the sun still comes up every day, the North Star still lives in the north, and neither require electricity to navigate by.

ESEE Nav Card Set

The ESEE knives from Randall’s Adventure & Training get the lion’s share of attention from the company’s clientele, but it also offers a small line of survival-rated gear, among which is the Nav Card set consisting of three transparent and two white plastic cards. On these five wallet- or pocket-sized cards is a concise wealth of information relating to map and GPS use, including azimuths, declination, understanding map contour lines, determining distance traveled by paces, determining point-to-point distances on maps in five different scales, integrating GPS coordinates with printed map displays and UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) grids, interpreting topo map symbols, and six internationally recognized ground-to-air distress signals that can be set up on the surface for aerial searchers. (eseeknives.com; 256-613-0372)

Finnish-Made Compass

Not all compasses are created equal, and for general direction-finding and map-reading uses a basic base-plate type is an excellent choice that doesn’t have to be a budget buster. The Finnish-made Suunto A-10 is both highly regarded and very affordable, and it carries light in pocket, pouch or on its cord around your neck. Used in conjunction with a good topo map, the A-10 can help determine current location, plot a route, measure distances with dual scales (centimeters and inches) and adjust for zonal declination. (suunto.com; 855-298-0900)

Have Watch, Will Travel

When space is tight, combining functions into a single unit makes sense, and anytime you can double up by incorporating a reliable compass into a piece of quality gear you’re likely to always have on-body anyway, you’re ahead of the game. Wenger’s Nomad LED Compass Watch does just that, with both a standard watch dial and an on-demand LED day/date/compass display for 24-hour access to both time and direction, regardless of lighting conditions. With black silicon strap and water resistance to 100 meters, the Nomad functions as either a simple primary direction indicator or a backup to a more fully-featured compass. (wengerna.com)

Pocket Nav Workhorse

When your navigational must-haves include terms like “top of the heap” and “best in class” you’re into some serious land crawling. Brunton is a well-respected name in the domestic compass game, and for pro-grade applications its GEO Pocket Transit is hard to beat. This one offers capabilities far beyond what most day hikers could ever ask for, but if an induction-dampened needle on a sapphire jeweled bearing, a hinge clinometer with 1-degree increments for 0.5-degree readable dip measurements, two long-level bubbles for accurate compass leveling, vertical angle measurements to +/- 90 degrees or 100-per- cent grade, magnetic declination adjustment settings to +/- 180 degrees, azimuth accuracy at +/- 0.5 degrees with 1-degree graduations, O-ring waterproofing in a 6061-T6 hard-anodized aluminum body, buck horn sights for bearing readings, and a precision-aligned mirror are what you need, Brunton is the place to pick it up. (brunton.com; 800-443-4871)

Perfect Pair of Beacons

Personal locator beacons are highly specialized and easily packable distress transmitters that sit dormant until needed in an emergency situation. Once activated, the personal locator beacon determines its location via an internal GPS unit and then broadcasts its exact location via both or biting and stationary satellite networks to the appropriate rescue organization in your area, which then homes in on the device’s continuing signal.


Once registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at no additional cost, the 4.6-ounce ACR ResQ Link (acrartex.com) is a simple distress beacon with a five-year inactive battery life.


The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger weighs 4.0 ounces (with batteries) and offers basic distress beacon and locator functions along with additional user-customizable features including pre-set messages to specific contacts at additional subscriber costs through findmespot.com. Both devices are one-way signalers that do not allow for live voice transmissions. (findmespot.com)

Double-Duty Device

Combining several functions again, Garmin’s Rino 610 incorporates a 1-watt transceiver with FRS (Family Radio Service) and GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) frequencies, a GPS unit with onboard downloadable/importable mapping via a color touchscreen, and the ability to instantly send your exact location to appear on other units’ map displays within range, all without having to type any coordinates in manually. Providing either voice or text message transmissions unit-to-unit, the 610 allows location and route plotting, waypoint storage and communication with others in a setting where one or more might end up separating from the pack. At 12.2 ounces and with an 18-hour battery life, this device could be very useful for group hunting or backpacking. (garmin.com; 800-800-1020)

Affordable Two-Way Radios

For more range in coordinating with hunting partners, excursion members or search-and-rescue operations the very light and compact handheld Baofeng ham radio walkie-talkies travel well in a pack or clipped to a belt, and at roughly 8 ounces in weight offer 4 to 5 watts of power (depending on model), re-chargeable batteries with a 24-hour run time, LCD screens, dual-band displays, dual-frequency displays, expandable antenna options, multiple programmable frequencies, LED flashlights, belt clips, earplugs and AC chargers. Prices are extremely reasonable, with performance well beyond what you’d expect from such a small and inexpensive package. An FCC license is required to operate for routine use but not during a 911 situation. (baofengradio.com)

Hand-Crank Weather Radio

Way out on the trail but still connected to what’s on the weather front and more, Midland’s ER200 Compact Emergency Crank Wx Radio with NOAA weather alert is perfect for both emergency preparedness and everyday use. The handy unit runs off solar, hand crank or rechargeable battery power and sports an SOS flashlight beacon (130 lumens). Its 2000 mAh rechargeable li-ion battery gives up to 25 hours of normal use. Additionally, the ER200 comes with a micro USB charging cable so that the unit can charge most smartphones and tablets. MSRP is $60. (midlandusa.com)

Max Out Your Mobile Devices

Trimble Outdoors has launched several new features to help outdoor enthusiasts plan trips and navigate in the field with mobile devices. Customers can now get more maps and value than ever before with new products and a new pricing structure. Centered on Off-The-Grid Maps for smartphones and tablets, Trimble Outdoors provides an abundance of map options for a low price.

The highlights include:

  • Download Off-The-Grid Maps by county, national park, wilderness area, or hunt unit into your iPhone or Android device. With one click, customers can now download topo map areas right from the Trimble Outdoors apps. Once installed, these maps can be viewed without a cell connection.
  • Get instant access to Private Land Maps in the Trimble Outdoors apps as well. See property lines, landowner names and acreage details.
  • Print navigation-ready maps at home. Print maps in two sizes and pick from five different map types. All maps include navigation grids, compass rose, and can be used with a compass or GPS-enabled device.
  • View private land details in the Trip Planner tool on trimbleoutdoors.com. From your computer, see property lines, landowner names and acreage details.

Learn more about the new products and membership pricing structures at trimbleoutdoors.com.

Lifesaving Phone App

Locator911, a rescue-assistance app by Youla Mobile Solutions, LLC, facilitates a more rapid response for fast, accurate help in times of emergency. The handy app compiles users’ current location data, including an address and latitude and longitude coordinates for police, fire or EMS, thus improving response times in emergency situations.

Utilizing a GPS-enabled smartphone, coupled with third party mapping and location software, this simple and elegant application provides users with quick and continuous access to their location data, including GPS coordinates and address when available. Locator911 provides a single-button dial for 911, allowing users to rapidly identify their location and provide this data to a 911 operator in the event of an emergency.

Locator911 is available now for $1 in the iTunes and Google Play stores. For more information, visit 911locator.org/blog.

This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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