Navigation and Communications
This page covers some of the basic navigation and communications techniques used while exploring canyon country.
In the backcountry you are on your own. Be sure that you always have a map and a compass and know how to use them.
For anyone spending time in the wild country (or just traveling through new territory) this is a must have device, especially in conjunction with the Topo! map package.
When we first purchased our GPS unit we were fascinated by the fact that we could click on a town and the GPS would tell us what services were available in that town, how to get to them, and how far away they were, and, at our current speed, how long it would take, and our estimated time of arrival. It also told us how fast we were driving. Pretty amazing.
Since then we have continued to use and learn the features incorporated within our GPS. This is truly and amazing device. We use the GPS to track our hike routes and record way points and then transfer the data directly to our computer, where we use National Geographic's Topo! software to plot the routes on electronic versions of USGS topographic maps. We're constantly amazed by the accuracy.
It's always a good idea to take along a current, detailed map of the area through which you're hiking.
- Even the best map won't do you any good unless you know how to read it. Take the time to study the map prior to your hike and watch for features that you will be able to spot from ground level. These may be your guides out of a confusing situation.
- Look for alternate routes to your destination or back to the trailhead.
- Avoid getting lost by using your map to plot your progress as you travel. Know where you are at all times.
We haven't tried this ourselves, but it may work. I would try it with a piece of scrap paper first, just in case, so you don't ruin a good map.
Apply Thompson's Water Seal. Place the map on a sheet of plastic and lay both on a table or other flat surface. Apply the sealant with a sponge brush; it should soak right through to cover both sides at once. Let dry for 15 minutes, and your map is ready for the elements.
A compass is always a good thing to take along on any hike, but is only useful if you know how to use it. Take the time to read a good book on using a compass and map reading. It just may come in handy one day, even if you never stray from the marked trail.
Our planet's magnetic north pole moves about 25 miles a year. That minor variation doesn't dramatically affect navigation, but the 500-mile gap that currently separates the magnetic pole from the geographic (true) north pole does. Depending upon your location in the lower 48 states, your compass may point up to 19 degrees east or west of true north, a deviation known as declination. Correcting this magnetic deception is challenging. Follow these shortcuts to get oriented:
Ignore declination when you are following a compass bearing taken from an object in the field, such as the tip of a lake. Declination only matters when you're using a compass and map together.
Most trail maps indicate magnetic north in their legends. Look for a second angled arrow marked "MN" to one side of the true-north arrow. The local declination is marked in degrees east or west.
To determine the correct magnetic bearing between two places on a regular map, you will need to subtract or add local declination from true north. First, find that map bearing using your compass. Next, follow these rules: If your map indicates an east declination (generally, for locations west of the Mississippi River), subtract the declination angle from the map bearing to find your actual travel bearing. Likewise, for west declinations (most points east of the river), add the declination angle to your map bearing to know which way to head.
If you are lost without a compass, point the hour hand of your watch at the Sun. Halfway between the hour hand and 12 on the watch will be south. This even works with Daylight Saving Time.
Cairns (stacks of flat rocks) are often used in canyon country to mark the location of trails and hiking routes. Over slickrock areas they are normally placed at intervals along the trail, or at places where a route makes a turn.
- In some areas the trails blend very well with the surrounding landscape and the cairns can be few and far between to nonexistent. A good sense of direction is hard to teach, but keep your eyes open along your path and with the help of a compass and map you can usually find your way back to camp or the trailhead.
- If by chance you do get lost, stay put and make your location obvious to searchers.
Many hikers, unconcerned about weight issues, take along their cell phone just in case they have an emergency. This is not a bad idea, but please, leave your phone turned off unless you really need it. A beeping phone is an incongruous sound in the middle of the desert.
There are a variety of small flashlights available for the hiker and backpacker. Find one that suits your needs, and always take along extra batteries. You never know when something will happen along the trail and cause you to extend your hike into the evening hours. Or, there are those times when you will want to hit the trail before dawn or cook your evening meal after dark.
A watch, of one sort or another, is a good thing to take along, especially if you need to reach a destination or return to camp or the trailhead to meet shuttles or others in your party. We set our sports watch to beep every thirty minutes to remind us to drink. It also helps wake us on those mornings when we need to break camp and hit the trail before dawn.
- Camping and Wilderness Survival
- Essential Guide to Wilderness Camping & Backpacking in the United States
- New Complete Walker
- Topographic Maps
- Using GPS
- Automated Geographic Reference Center (AGRC)
State of Utah GIS.
- Backcountry Navigation for the Hunter
- Canyon Country Maps
A listing of the maps covering the sites presented in the Canyon Country Hiking and Camping Notebook.
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One of our internal pages, with links to commercial sites that offer a variety of camping equipment.
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This site contains 3.3 terabytes of high resolution USGS aerial imagery and USGS topographic maps. Just type in an address, city, or longitude and latitude and you can zoom in on your destination.
- T.I. Maps
Located in Moab, Utah, this is one of the West's largest map stores, with maps and guides for Southeastern Utah hiking, biking, 4-wheel drive and off-road, river, and water sports.
Digitized topographic maps, GPS maps, and related information.
Online USGS topo maps, by state.
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