The Physical Interface of Abstraction
Backpacking navigation with a map and compass involves finding a set of abstract conceptions representing our physical coordinates in real terrain and translating them onto a map.
A simpler goal is to be able to find our location on our map with ease. In either case we are still dealing with the same abstractions. These would be your map and you, in a weird sort of way.
The only consistent parts of this system are the rotating sphere of our physical Earth and the precision of its moving relationship with the Sun and Stars. (Also See: Zodiac.) What gives all these relationships perspective and meaning is us. We are the moving piece exactly aligning our map to our compass to the location of the Sun precisely specifying our position in time and space on Earth.
We are the real pointer of Nature's compass and the hands of its clock.
Our goal here is to become aware of the theoretical basis and physical expressions of our position within these relationships.
These abstractions are much more than "conceptions." These principals give us context within the very serious Natural Reality surrounding us in the High Sierra. Our safety and health, if not our comfort, may depend on our precision with maps and compass.
The coordinate-contour system our maps are based on is precise. It is an almost perfect mathematical and visual representation describing the real physical world around us.
I say "almost" perfectly because we still have not figured out how to display a 3-D spherical world accurately on a 2-D flat paper map. Inter-dimensional distortions occur. But it's pretty darn good!
Despite the precision of our tools they all have the same limitation: our ability to utilize them. We need basic navigation and route-finding skills to use our tools properly and to their potential.
Here & Now
Our position on our planet determines not just our personal coordinates on a map, the exact time, and the relative positions of the stars and Sun, but this point is effectively the center of all of time and space.
Each of us is the center of the universe.
The Ancients were correct, but not for the reasons they cited.
Perception centers all reference points,
Everything is measured from the perspective of the viewer.
Reality is democracy at its finest. The nature of reality itself validates that the perception and perspective of each viewer centers all reality.
The first "real terrain" we are going to initially navigate our way across are the main trails from Tahoe to Whitney. The highly maintained nature of most of these trails over the three, up to five hundred miles we can stretch this hike into, only demands we use maps simply. We want a clear context of our moving position along maintained trails through the surrounding terrain.
Exercising basic map skills allow us to easily estimate distances, and of special importance is keeping ourselves from getting confused by the many unmarked trail junctions we're going to encounter hiking down the trail. Many of these side trails are well-trod. Having context is important for correct decision-making to keep us on-route.
It's important to be able to line up our map with our compass and the surrounding terrain profiles to figure-out our orientation and position in the terrain. This is necessary when we want to figure-out the distance to our next water at a creek or beautiful lake, to figure out the length of our next upcoming climb, to tonight's campsite, or to calculate the distance to our next rest and resupply spot.
The Big Picture
Besides specific bits of distance and location information the most important thing our map and compass skills give us is an overview pointing us towards understanding the logic of our surrounding terrain. Our map and compass do not align themselves. It is the very act of us observing that integrates our personal navigation skills with the information from all our tools.
Observations are the personal acts that merge our maps, compass, and terrain into personal understanding. We are going to hike into many unique configurations of terrain and classic high points between Tahoe and Whitney. We want to get the best possible understanding of the lay of the land from each of our overviews.
We'll use each vista to line-up our map with our compass, locate the line of our upcoming trail route in the terrain, identify the local mountains, and ascertain the locations of hidden valleys, lakes, and tributaries obscured by the range itself. Our personal observations will be the moments where compass and map information are brought together, ideally, in our head, as understanding of the logic and location of our upcoming trail through the very complex terrain surrounding it.
That's why we're here, right?
Our observations hiking along maintained long-distance trails are going to reveal
many mysteries requiring further exploration. Planning potential future hikes into unknown terrain requires we locate their start points using our map and compass skills. Then we use map study to guide our further research and plan our cross-country or exploratory trips.
Now we will begin to probe the unmaintained routes, and explore exciting terrain on scrambles from campsites along the maintained routes. Then we can move on to cross-country routes.
Navigation skills become especially important once we begin cross-country backpacking.
This is the point our reliance on trails is replaced by reliance on our own navigation and route-finding skills.
Our navigation skills are vital to first find our way to, and then into the unknown terrain we seek, to locate our explorations precisely on our map, to confirm we have indeed reached our goals, and finally, to be capable of navigating our way out of what we navigated ourselves into.
It's nice to be able to navigate our way into, explore, and get back out of the unknown in one piece.
Once we start scrambling and backpacking unmaintained and self-created routes we will be relying heavily on our careful observations from high points, our map study, on bearing lines between high points, and finally our ability to focus everything, all our tools and observations onto our compass. We need to have the ability to orient, establish, and maintain our relationship with our selected bearing line even while detoured off-line plunging through dense lower elevation thickets, being pushed-around by continuous offsets, and spinning through convoluted terrain.
Getting off maintained trails we'll find the line of our route blocked by great sections of fallen snags, runoff gullies, dense thickets, box canyons, dead-end ridgelines ending in sheer cliffs, and a wide range of natural obstacles all constantly conspiring to deflect us off our "best line" through the terrain. We will be constantly forced to break our bearing line.
We will find some of these conditions on the unmaintained trails we are following, and all these challenging conditions, eventually, along routes we are finding. We'll be constantly deflected off-course to make our way around significant obstacles, which will put us through maze-like sets of turns forcing us to strive to keep ourselves just pointed down-route, and finally working us hard to find our way back on-route, and finally back onto our bearing line.
I define "Navigation" as the ability to find and set a theoretical line between two points on map and terrain.
"Route-Finding" is the practical act of finding the actual line of travel necessary to connect the theoretical bearing line between those points we identified using our "Navigation" skills.
The best "Navigation" tools and skills still leave us dependent upon our "Route-Finding" skills when the trail disappears. Only our sharp observations and good decision-making allow us to find a line through the terrain. Navigation skills can be replicated by an electronic device. Route-Finding skills cannot.
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Terrain and Trail
Once we get some experience hiking degraded trails and route-finding without a trail we will begin to anticipate where our best route options move through terrain based on our close observation of the logic behind the terrain's layout.
Both trails and terrain have frameworks of logic behind them. Local terrain logic is a product of many forces at play, generally starting with the ancient shape of the terrain. Next is how the weather treats it during Winter, how it drains during Spring, and how the trees and animals are running through it.
Expanding Scope and Scale
Once we've put in the time and effort to reach sophisticated levels of mobile observation and analysis we can begin stretching ourselves out across all terrains and seasons. This means we will be thinking about gear. To continue exercising our increasing skills we are going to start venturing off maintained trails and deeper into early Spring's snows and eventually into snow-covered terrain of Winter. We will push deeper and deeper into physical and seasonal spaces where only our own observations reveal and identify the landmarks guiding us.
You are opening
A Big Can of Whoop Ass
Our growing observation, navigation, and route-finding skills are the foundations for planning and executing very exciting cross-country scrambles, cross-country backpacking trips, and ultimately pushing into Spring snow and eventually Wintertime backpacking trips.
(By, "very exciting," I mean Dangerous. Know that Backpacking is Dangerous.)
Once we get familiar with dealing with maps, compass, terrain logic, and unknown situations with grace and style we will kick it up a notch. My goal is for you to evolve your observation and navigation skills sufficiently to break through the seasonal barrier into Winter travel.
Each well-thought step we take into the wilderness reveals the next logical step
deepening our engagement.
Our map reading, observation, and route-finding skills will co-develop with and enhance our long distance Tahoe to Whitney Backpacking Trips as we evolve. We will get smarter, more skilled, and fitter as we continue hiking.
Our goal here is to create a, "super-you," using our increasing experience on and off the trail as a bridge, a safe and logical bridge, to greater fitness, skills, and experiences.
Hiking a trail segment once with "map in hand" can reveal a series of potential scrambles that only a well though out series of follow-up scrambles and cross-country backpacking trips will finally fully reveal.
Taking the time to step off the main trails and study, physically and navigationally study a remote piece of Sierra Terrain, say a remote hanging canyon full of lakes, or a junction of mighty canyons only accessible after a grueling cross-country backpacking trip, will bring rewards unknown to hikers on maintained trails. Ironically, it takes lots of hikes down the maintained trails to even find these super-places.
Thus the need for a "super-you."
The next time we hike that route we will execute an informative and exciting local scramble from our campsite to suss out what we saw on our last trip through. That's why I'm carrying an extra day's food along each section of trail; to probe unknown terrain and find delights otherwise outta-sight!
Observations reveal, maps quantify, feet confirm.
Practically speaking, enhancing our explorations along the long trail with scrambles and some peak-bagging requires that we pack at least an extra day's food for each section of trail we're hiking between resupply points. Our extra food supports our scrambling & exploration, if not a couple of half-days off for your fisher-folk...
I call scouting-out off-trail resources and potential routes "scrambling" when done from an established campsite carrying no more than a daypack. I call it, "cross country backpacking," or "exploring unknown terrain," when we're carrying our full backpack across an unmaintained trail or a self-created route, respectively.
We could easily define scrambling or cross-country backpacking as forms, or degrees of getting lost. The difference between those two states, of being "lost" or "exploring" is intention, preparation, and information. Ironically, I learned this while deep in the backcountry.
Pushing into the unknown requires we have prepared ourselves physically and developed experience, that we have informed ourselves about the nature and context of the terrain we are entering with scouting and map study, and we have talked to any informed wilderness rangers and locals we can find. That's the sometimes subtle but important difference between, "exploring unknown terrain," and being or getting, "lost."
I keep telling myself that.
My experiences indicate status is a state of mind. Are we in a state of understanding? Do we have an understanding of the relationship between our position, the map and compass, or not? Does this bother us? Do we have a plan to "re-align" our tools and our understanding when they get mis-aligned?
Pressing a button on an electronic device is not a plan...
Into the Unknown
Maps are great. Maps and our accompanying compass are vital for locating many features invisible from our trail route, and identifying the visible features. But maps will only help us so much. Maps are abstract representations that lead us up to those times when we have to go "off the reservation," meaning that our map has become useless without more information. These are the moments we are actually engaged and drawing on the arts of exploration resident within each of us. This is crossing the line into the unknown.
I always take mental notes, and often written notes making the transition. Well, I take notes now. I never took notes or pictures when I first started getting lost. Pictures and notes only came after I figured out I was "exploring unknown terrain."
This line can be crossed and these skills can still be exercised in the High Sierra Nevada Mountains, if you can keep your finger off the freeking button. And, employing these ancient skills is a real pleasure if you are properly prepared. Only you will know if you are prepared, if you are lost or exploring unknown terrain.
First Tool of Navigation
This all boils down to the fact that you, consisting of your live observational and analytical skills, are your best navigation and route finding tools in unknown situations.
It's not the map, not the compass, nor the GPS that are the keys to navigation. Though our tools are vital for success, the nature of our experience boils down to the fact that it's the observation and analytical skills of the navigator that gives life, meaning, and direction to all their tools.
That would be you, you tool you.
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The Ultimate Tool
Internalized basic navigation and route finding skills will keep us much safer and situated on maintained trails, open up great unmaintained areas for our exploration, and give us a personal sense of where we are in the Sierra, where that is on our planet, where our planet is in our solar system, where our solar system is in this Galaxy, and this Galaxy's position relative to our local super-cluster of Galaxies. Plus, we won't have batteries to replace...
That, my friends, is the scope of simple backpacking navigation. We line it all up.
The navigation skills we seek start on the ground under our feet but only end with us looking into eternity. We start by orienting our map and locating and making sense of our position on the map within the overall context of the terrain we're hiking, and finish by orienting our position and context with the timing and movement of the Sun.
We look beyond our context in the local terrain to see our fundamental moving orientation to the also-moving arc of the Sun's path across its rise and set points in relation to our polar axis. The Natural World rotating around us, the Sun, Moon, and Stars will naturally become our ultimate backpacking clock and compass. The set of links below pursue these goals.
We will build the perspective of competent navigators of Time and Space.
Time and space make a lot more sense when we see that we are actually hiking through the workings of the clock moving around us, that we ourselves are the mother of all its reference points. We are literally the moving pointer of Nature's Compass and the shifting hands of Nature's Clock.
My advice is clear: Center Thyself, Tool.
I want you to be able to find the North Star and know that the angle of the North Star above the horizon is our latitude, that our compass is significantly offset from True North, and that the rise and setting positions of the ancient patterns of stars and our Sun upon their shifting tracks define our seasons.
We seek to understand the use of all of these observable natural reference points in the most sophisticated manner possible using the simplest tools. We will stand on the shoulders of the great observers of humanity's past to get a glimpse into the eternity of time and space surrounding us.
The set of links below pursue these goals.
A terrestrial map, a celestial map, and a compass along with some written facts in our journal salted with some key references are all we need to determine our exact position in time and space across the length of our long backpacking trips.
What this "Navigation Thing" is really about is being capable of accurate observation, crisp analysis, and great decision-making when we look up at the Sky, down at the Ground, and looking at our planet spinning all around.
We gonna do the Hokey-Pokey!
Our Hokey-Pokey ties Earth, Time, and Space together along the line of our perception through It.
Maybe it's really the Time Warp:
And the void would be calling...
It's just a jump to the left...
And then a step to the right...
With a bit of a mind flip... You're into a time slip... And nothing can ever be the same again.
Time is fleeting...
Let's do the Time Warp again...
Let's do the Time Warp again...
I don't know. I just keep freeking dancing.
Our final goal of finding, understanding, developing, and mastering these navigation and route finding skills is mastering backcountry skills to be the master of our own destiny.
On the trail this translates into the very practical ability to, "get ourselves out of what we got ourselves into." Evolving towards this degree of competency is necessary to plan and execute increasingly difficult sections of the Sierra Crest on our own routes.
Approaching this level of competence puts the classic cross-country routes of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail and Roper's High Sierra Route within range of our hiking skills.
At that point of navigational development we will have demonstrated the basic skills required to move to the next step and begin building a Winter gear kit. Or not.
("Hey, You alive? Still breathing? Congratulations! You Passed the Test!)
If so, we will carefully begin to enter and navigate snow obscured terrain.
Once we master basic Summertime orientation and route finding and we can begin to carefully translate our capacities and skills into snow-season High Sierra backpacking.
Careful assessment required:
"...big can of whoop-ass."
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To make good decisions we need to observe reality accurately. We were designed by Nature to observe It very accurately. Our primary observations are of Nature's most fundamental reference points. These are Sun rise, Noon, and set. These observations establish our thrice-daily exact time and direction references.
Our fundamental navigation tool on the trail is observation. I prefer to rely on natural tools because the more complex tools, such as GPS and "smart" phones perpetuate a socially-dependent mind set hindering backpackers and hikers from reaching their internal navigational potential.
This is very similar to how I view fires. Fires and GPS both create "cones of stupid." The cone of stupid exists where there is "perfect" clarity inside the cone, say within the cone of light around a campfire, or while looking at a GPS reading. But the fire blinds us to everything outside the cone of light. The cone of light creates a lack of visibility or knowledge outside of the cone of light, which is where the vast majority of reality happens to be.
Our small slice of perfect clarity creates almost perfect ignorance of the rest of the pie. Not Cool.
The brightness of the light around the fire blinds us to the vast majority of our environment outside our quite limited cone of light. We observe much more if we forgo the fire, and allow our expectations to accept darkness and let our eyes adjust to low light. Very Cool.
GPS creates a similar dichotomy. The precision of GPS location information creates a fragile sense of clarity. Pin-point accuracy means little without context, without personal engagement with, and an understanding of the broader logic of the terrain every position we occupy exists within. That's classic "cone of stupid." Not Cool.
We can draw knowledge of our position from "out there," by physically lining-up our maps and compass by sight with Nature itself to our position. We ourselves are the most important tool we have, as the process of us personally engaging the Natural environment with compass and map draws out untapped resources, perspectives, and unknown skills within each of us. Very Cool.
I find it nourishing to find my position personally, by drawing information from observation and applying it to the map under the guidance of compass. This process builds a direct personal relationship between backpacker and terrain.
We personally generate and
GPS tends to build reliance on digitized forms of social "point-source" information. Most GPS users cannot personally verify GPS information. The real loss backpacker's suffer is not based on the fragility and shallowness of GPS knowledge.
The true loss we experience is by intellectually engaging with an artificial "point-source" device on the trail rather than broadly engaging Nature. I find it annoying when hikers engage an electronic device when we are actually hiking through the very workings of Nature's clock and compass reflected by all aspects of the Natural World around us.
We respond by looking away, down into a machine, and pushing a button.
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An Old Job
One of human's fundamental ancient and current roles is to observe and ascertain the orientation and timing of everything to everything else. Humans have been tracking and timing the relationships between astronomical bodies, seasons, time and space in proportion to our self-reflective capacity since we reached the level of complexity necessary to start-up the notion of time... We've measured the relationships of everything to everything else, to each other, and between all of us since then.
With greater precision and less meaning as we go.
These observations of ours have identified many of the "timers" of life itself. Our observations of the patterns of weather and the seasons have identified the forces timing the cycles of fertility of all living things. Despite the fact that one of our oldest jobs as humans is to watch and time It, most of us have lost the skills and forgotten the logic and meaning behind It.
These relationships can now be easily and quickly calculated and described mathematically on a digital device, then presented on digital device-based maps. Those calculations do not express the meaning of the processes they describe. The precision, coldness, and isolation of those calculations pushes me further from the reality around me, rather than closer.
The Loss of Meaning
The only thing missing in the above digital scenario is us, and the vital importance of our active, personal engagement as the critical part of the process tying the terrain, our map, compass, time, and our observations accurately together into understanding.
Talk about putting a hood over our head!
Once we get the hood on you, we have a necktie we want you to try on...
Navigation skills are best "powered" by the knowledge and experience in your head, rather than by the battery in your GPS. I strongly suggest building personal map, compass, time, navigation and route finding skills internally, from the "ground-up," while simultaneously building personal fitness and backpacking skills, confidence, and competence.
My goal is
to see you and your kids and your friends develop yourselves into eco-competent humans capable of observing and navigating yourselves through the best and worse the four seasons of Nature can throw down while hiking the High Sierra.
Those assets will allow joy and meaning (and pain) to pour in and out of you in Nature, while giving you the best chances in any emergency or disaster situation the Natural World can throw down in the High Sierra and in your neck of the woods.
The experiences needed to generate these skills also naturally lends themselves to generating
character and ethics. Pressing a button? Not so much...
"Death by GPS"
Because of all of the above , I use no GPS, nor will any of the guide or following information incorporate or genuflect to GPS technology. My simple rational has two basis. First, many experiences I have had with GPS hikers over-relying on GPS to their great detriment. I hope their inevitable, and highly resisted, even unanticipated, transitions from dependence on GPS to dependence on personal route-finding went well!
Second, you'll really wish you actually personally possessed fundamental navigation and trail skills when the trail ends, your GPS breaks, runs out of batteries, or is otherwise disabled. You'll have to hit me repeatedly in the head with a rock to disable my navigation unit, and I will likely still find my way out. So far, anyway.
Hell, I'll know the way out, even if I can't make it.
Humanity's natural observational and analytical skills make each of us the "needle" in Nature's compass and the "hands" on Nature's clock. It is our very presence that gives birth to the relative notions of time and space.
It is a shame to forgo the experience and feeling that exercising observational, intellectual, and ultimately emotional or spiritual engagement with Nature produces, by replacing this ancient relationship with a digital readout.
I'm going out to "kiss and make up" with Nature for humanity's crimes, on Nature's own terms. Technical tools push It further away, and tightens the straps of the straight-jacket of socialized context and consumption we have put Nature into.
It seems to me that many "miracles and mysteries" of life and existence, such as, "what is life?," "what is consciousness," and the physical question of, "how is the physical reality put together," all become technically irrelevant when we practically answer these questions in the very process of precisely determining our position and vector in time and space in Nature using Its own natural reference points and tools.
That would be us. We are currently Nature's most powerful reference point and tool, and we are disconnected from Nature and badly out of balance with Nature and each other. Each of us can do our part to restore balance.
The meaning of life can clarify during these very real reference moments in time and space that we've created for ourselves. They are out there. You gotta find and focus them.
It seems a real shame to short-circut, even trivialize, this ancient process and these "timeless" relationships with digital distractions.
They do not get me where I need to go.
Step away from the button.
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