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James Graham, a long-time forester and a member of Kettle Valley, Britich Columbia SAR, has spent many years working in the bush and spends a lot of time in trail-less wilderness. When asked about his favorite survival equipment, he responded, “Unquestionably navigation equipment and knowledge (a compass, topographic map, altimeter, watch and thorough knowledge on how to use them). This equipment and knowledge has saved me from becoming lost on countless occasions when I am many kilometres away from the nearest road or vehicle. Knowing, at all times, where you are in relation to your point of commencement is, in my opinion, the most crucial factor in avoiding an unpleasant or life threatening experience in the outdoors.”

His many years of experience and his own close calls substantiate his choices.

“I have spent unplanned nights out in the woods in wet and cold conditions. I have become temporarily lost on numerous occasions. I have been injured in the woods many kilometres from help. On every occasion, I have been able to rescue myself with the use of my compass, map and altimeter. I have also been involved in searching for lost persons.”

He also gives us some navigation tips:

  • The “handrail” concept is crucial. This concept is to keep a linear feature in the terrain that parallels the direction you are traveling in sight to help you navigate.
  • It is essential to maintain a true sense of where you have been and where you are going in relation to your starting point and the map you are carrying. This requires constant use of your map, compass and altimeter throughout the day as it can be very difficult to locate yourself on your map if you lose your sense of where you are, particularly if you are under full canopy closure in the woods.
  • An altimeter watch will enable you to know approximately where you are even if visibility drops to zero, at least on an elevation line to narrow down the possibilities from many to a few.
  • Never rely solely on GPS electronics due to the risk of equipment failure.

It is important to recognize that electronic devices do not replace being prepared for an emergency and filing a trip plan.

A SAR volunteer recalls a summer working at a park with a popular backcountry hut. A group had hiked in that day, planning on staying at the hut. They were slow, and as darkness fell, they saw a sign for an emergency campsite. Thinking they were still far from the hut, they slept there. They had sleeping bags, but no tent.

The next day, when they got to the hut after ten minutes of hiking, they were furious because there had been no sign telling them that they were so close to the hut. They were frustrated that they could have stayed in a warm hut instead of camping out. I asked them if they had a map with them. Yes, they did. "Well," I said, "if you would have looked at it you would have known just how close the hut was." That’s what I mean about knowing how to use the tools you have.

“Don’t depend on gadgets. A lot of gadgets have been found on bodies.”