Written by 5:58 pm Wilderness Navigation Masters

31) Special orientation challenges in different conditions

Hello and welcome to this lesson of the online course Wilderness Navigation Masters, where you will discover the special orientation challenges in different conditions and how to navigate in each one of them.

Let’s start with the first situation that you are likely to hike in it.

Forest :

A lot of people think of hiking in a forest is safer than in other situations, like mountains for example.

It’s not the case, because, in a forest, it’s hard to locate land-features that will help you orient your map or locate yourself, especially if it’s doesn’t have too much topographic relief.

For that, what you should do, is to pay more attention and make plan B for cases when the trail on your map are covered with brown grass, or disappeared after time.

If you want to arrive at a destination, choose to follow linear landmarks, even if it will take you more time to arrive. And don’t forget to apply the intentional walking deviation technique to increase your chances of arriving successfully.

In order to locate yourself in a trail, use the pace counting or walking speed to locate yourself approximately.

If it’s an off-trail hike, add bearings to that in order to locate yourself, and apply the TEAMWORK WALK TECHNIQUE, to follow a bearing when you don’t have landmarks to use.

Mountains :

– What makes navigation in mountains easier, is the help that the topography gives you in order to locate yourself. When it’s clear and not foggy of course.

  • Another piece of advice that I want you to pay attention to in mountains is that the real world distance is longer than the distance you get from your map. Because the measured distance you get from a map is as if the mountains are flat, which is not the case.

So take that into consideration when you measure the distance from your map.

  • The other things that I want you to pay close attention to, is that mountains are more high and steep than what it looks like in maps. 

And whenever you see a trail that zig-zag like that … that means it’s a steep side.

  • Another mountain advice is when you try to take a bearing of a mountain, aim for the base of it and not the top because when you aim at the top, your compass becomes not on a level.
  • The final thing that you should do when you reach the mountain top, is to take advantage of the view in order to match your map to the landscape and to plan your return itinerary because it’s easier from the top.

Snow :

Snow is one of the difficult conditions to hike on because all the land features like trails and trail markers that you can use to navigate are covered with snow.

And what should appear as a gully or a river are also covered with snow?

With that, knowing your location or orienting yourself becomes more difficult.

Other than the small land features that are covered with snow, wind change also the landscape in a dangerous way.

– Majority of people think that the landscape around them is all covered with the same snow cover thickness, which is not true.

Wind, take snow from one place to another one, so the snow cover is thicker in one place and not in other ones.

So the real image of what underneath the snow cover may differ from what you think of it.

  • Another piece of advice that I want to give you about the snow is that you should study the map and take notes of where rivers and lakes are located in order to avoid plunging in them because they are covered in snow.

– 45 degrees slopes are another land terrain to avoid because doing it put your life too much at the risk of an avalanche.

– Similar to this, stay away from cornices because they can break and take you with them. If you don’t know, cornices are the overhanging snow that builds up on ridges.

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You should also stay away from traveling beneath them because they can break at you.

  • If you are hiking in mountains by the snow, in order to save your outdoor precious calories from burning, plan to walk on the ridge side that has less snow, to avoid too much resistance when walking.
  • IF you want to cross a frozen lake, if you are a group of people, keep distance between each of you. And use your pole to test the thickness of the ice.
  • If you don’t have the appropriate walking gear or you want to gain time, start walking earlier when the snow is still hard and firm, unless your route is steep and you don’t have microspikes, wait till the snow gets a little bit warmer.
  • During whiteouts or storms, the best choice is to stay in camp and wait for the weather to pass, because walking in these conditions is extremely slow and difficult. So, do it only if necessary.


– Why deserts and not desert, because there is more than one type, there are ones with canyons, ones with landforms like buttes, ones flat that generally does not change much in elevation.

In general, pace counting and walking speed are important to locate yourself in the desert. And do not walk in a direction unless you guarantee that there are no canyons in your way that will force you to make turns.

– Another thing that you should pay attention to, is that, are you on the trail that you think you are on?

Because, in the desert, trails are similar and it’s easy to take the wrong one.

To check that, measure the bearing of your trail before taking it.

  • And for your destination, pick something that is big and easy to see from far away. Because in the desert, you are likely to follow a bearing for long distances, and like we’ve seen before, this technique is not accurate with long distances.

In the situation of a desert with canyons, what you should know is to don’t plan on seeing canyons from far away, because they are not above the ground like mountains.

The same thing with rivers.

  • In the desert, the other thing that you should be aware of is flash floods. Yes, flash floods in the desert. They are common in low areas like rivers and dry lakes. So, if there is a severe thunderstorm, hurricane, or a tropical storm and heavy rain at the same time, be aware of that, and do not place yourself in low areas.

[Skip the video to 7:36]

When you are planning, it’s best for you to search for what drainage is feeding to your traveling area, and call the rangers station of this area in order to get a flash flood forecast.

  • A little tip about flash floods in deserts with canyons is to look for signs like debris lines on canyon walls to know if there is a risk of flash floods because rocks don’t absorb water.

– In rivers, coming flash floods give you signs like start seeing twigs or leaves. If it’s too late to get to a higher place, search for a rock that can hide you from the force of the water.

Areas with no enough landmarks or limited visibility:

Now that you’ve seen the special challenges of all these situations, let’s see what difficulty they have in common and what to do about it.

If you notice, in a forest, snow, or desert, all these situations share the same difficulty of limited landmarks to use.

And this is what makes knowing your location and navigation more difficult.

For that, the more it’s hard to found landmarks to locate yourself the more preparation you should do.

Because, when you hike up a mountain with no many landmarks, all you still have is knowing where the ups are and where the downs are. So, the better your prepare for your hike, the better you anticipate what you will arrive at, and this is your way to locate yourself.

Another situation that I want you to be prepared for, is if everything was ok, and suddenly you started noticing a fog coming in your way that will limit your visibility. The first thing you should do is to locate yourself and create a route plan. Where you write things like, I will hike in this direction for 1 mile, then I will found a vegetation area, I will shoot and follow a bearing of degrees, and walk for 500 feet, for example, to reach a river, then all I have to do is to follow it to my destination.

You should describe what will surround you as much as possible because when the visibility becomes limited this route plan will start to be all that you can count on.

In this situation, describe a lot of what will be close to you, because if you describe a mountain, and with fog, you can’t see it, this information becomes useless.

And when you are creating this route plan, take into consideration the size of landmarks. Small ones that you can miss easily or hard to see, are not a good choice to risk your life on.

– In order to locate yourself when it’s foggy, the isosceles triangle or the 2 Back bearings techniques becomes handy if you can apply them because they require seeing one landmark only to know where you are on your map.

– If what you have is only a trail that you are following, you still have the ability to locate yourself on it by taking bearings along this linear landmark, as we’ve seen before.

That’s all for how to locate yourself on your map when your visibility is limited or there are no landmarks to use.

To navigate:

To navigate, apply what you’ve learned before, like the TEAMWORK WALK TECHNIQUE when you have another person with you or follow a bearing with the technique of intentional deviation.

But what I recommend you to do when your visibility is limited is following linear landmarks, like rivers, ridges, power lines, etc as much as you can. Because they are more sure and don’t require a lot from you.

Another thing that I want you to do when you are planning to hike in an area where you predict limited visibility is to take notes or mark where it can happen. Because expecting that in some areas, will gives you a lot of time to do all that you have to do when a fog limit your visibility.

  • In off-trail navigation with limited visibility, plan your itinerary only with linear landmarks that have an easy-to-see distinguishable arrival point.

If you think that this is enough for this situation, you are wrong, your starting point should also be an easy-to-see distinguishable landmark because it becomes your arrival point if you want to retrace your steps.

Moreover, use the intentional deviation technique and stop landmarks behind your arrival point that can stop you in case you miss it, to be safe in these conditions.

As you see, the more the conditions become difficult, the more techniques are needed in order to stay safe outdoor.

Updated on December 6, 2021 by Ben

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