“IT WAS OBVIOUS NO HUMAN had been here before … ever. I was going to die somewhere in this thick, impenetrable jungle – far from my soon-to-be-distraught wife and family – and they would never find my body. I mean, sure, they’d send a search party, but they won’t find me. It’ll be another hunter, decades later, who will stumble across a pile of bones and wonder … who was this person?
It was me … poor me.”
– Extract from the book ‘How to be a Drama-Queen’ by Mike Cooney
It was more than 20 years ago when I joined a friend for a mid-winter hunt in unfamiliar bush, deep in the backblocks of Raetihi. We were pig-hunting and had set off on what was meant to be a quick morning’s foray, back at camp in time for lunch. Along with my rifle, I was armed with an apple and a muesli bar and not much else.
The dogs had just taken off – hot on the fresh trail of a pig – and we were sitting quietly, listening …
The angry squeal of a boar soon echoed up the valley, followed by excited barks from my mate’s ‘finders’. Charging off through the thick undergrowth, we headed towards the commotion. Finally catching up to the ruckus, we dispatched the pig, decided to call it a day, and headed back to camp. But unfortunately, camp wasn’t in the direction we were heading. A river we thought we’d crossed earlier was flowing the wrong way. It was a different river – and we were in a different valley.
We tried to get our bearings, clambering to the top of a ridge, even climbing a tree and searching the horizon. But all we saw was hill after hill of bush-clad ranges – no farmland, nothing familiar. It was the most horrible feeling.
And then it started to rain.
Several hours later, cold, wet, and exhausted from my increasingly frantic attempt to get out of this body-swallowing jungle, we stumbled across a most amazing thing … an old moss-covered teaspoon, nailed to a tree! In the near-dark conditions, we found evidence that humans had, in fact, been here before! And with that evidence, a way out … via an old possumer’s trapline.
It was nearly midnight before we stumbled out of the bush and onto farmland. And as we made our way towards the lights of a farmer’s cottage, I vowed that I would never get myself into that situation again.
I was going to master the skill of becoming locationally aware!
In the 2018/2019 year, 684 people needed the assistance of LandSAR (Search and Rescue) volunteers – many of those were adventurers who found themselves lost somewhere in our backcountry. And some of them didn’t make it home alive.
Sadly, when you hear the stories, most of the tragedies could’ve been prevented by following a few simple rules, one of which is know where you are at all times. Which, funnily enough, is the opposite of being lost. In the outdoors, we call this Location Awareness – and it’s probably one of the more critical skills you should attempt to master before heading off on an adventure. It requires knowledge of your surroundings, observation, and a good memory.
One of the ‘bibles of the backcountry’ is the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council’s book, Bushcraft – a wealth of important info for all who love exploring the great outdoors. In it, they say the following: “The key to knowing where you are at all times is consciously identifying your surroundings and being constantly observant. If you know where you’ve been, you should know where you are.”
The story I shared at the beginning is a perfect example of what not to do. Aside from my lack of gear – no jacket, warm clothes, survival kit, map & compass, etc. (more on this in another article) – I’d made no attempt to learn about the area. I hadn’t looked at a map, checked the natural features, figured out a ‘plan B’ if it all turned to custard … I simply hadn’t done any of the things I should’ve – so it was a lucky escape!
So with a good understanding of what not to do, let’s take a look at what we do need to learn to ensure we don’t become a LandSAR statistic:
How to know where you are at all times
MAKE A PLAN (AND A PLAN ‘B’!)
Before heading off on a hunting trip – especially to a new location – I make sure I’ve got a copy of the Topo50 map of the area (a 1:50,000 scale topographical map). You can buy paper versions or view them online and print them off at topomap.co.nz – for free!
Once I’ve got my map, I’ll spend hours poring over it … looking at the topography … which way the rivers and creeks flow … the tracks in the area … significant landmarks/mountains/cliffs etc. Basically, I’m aiming to get a good idea of what the area looks like.
I’ll also make a ‘plan B’ if it all turns to custard and ask: Where could things go wrong? What do I do if I lose or break my compass or GPS and become momentarily ‘geographically challenged’? Is there a river I can follow downstream to a hut? Or a ridgeline I can climb that intersects a track? Where do I end up if I head north/south/east/west? Are most valleys heading in the same direction?
It’s also important to look at distances: how long will it take to walk a certain track, or how far away is the campsite from the area I want to hunt in? If I do get momentarily ‘lost’, how long will it take me to get to a known location? Knowing that you walk approximately 4-5km/hr on an easy track, or 1-2km/hr over rough terrain, you can get a rough picture of how long it’d take to reach that destination.
Now it’s time to tune in to your surroundings and become locationally aware!
If possible, always start with your map in hand and identify where you’re starting from – maybe a road end or a hut. Look around and identify as many features as possible that you can use as reference points, and then compare these to what you see on the map. How does the terrain compare to what you see on the map? How big are the rivers? How open is the bush?
Now consider where you’re heading in relation to these reference points. Is the mountain peak on your left or right? Which way is the stream flowing? What direction does the valley lie? When you start moving from your starting point, you can use these reference points as markers to continually orientate yourself as you travel, while adding more as you go.
More observable features:
Slope of the ground: Is the terrain rising or falling ahead? Or is it sloping left or right?
Vegetation: Tree type, size and shape will change as you ascend, indicating your altitude – which can be especially helpful in poor visibility. Also, observe what side moss is growing on trunks. Usually, it only grows on the southern side of the tree – which is another good indicator of direction.
Waypoints: Take note of any signs, fallen trees, stream crossings, unusual rocks etc, that might help identify your location if you have to backtrack.
Weather: Observe where the sun is positioned when you’re travelling. You can use the sun’s position, plus your watch, to find north (see image). What’s the wind direction and cloud movement? Observe, observe, observe!
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, you can time how long it takes to walk a specific distance. Find an identifiable feature on your map (e.g. a stream junction) and time how long it takes to get there. This will help confirm your position on the map later and give you a more accurate idea of your location.
Ultimately, the more features you can observe and then commit to memory, the more detailed the ‘mental image’ of your location will be … and (according to my calculations) the less chance you’ll have of dying in a thick, impenetrable jungle, where they’ll never find your body.
Remember, if you know where you’ve been, you should know where you are!