Tree, Poison Flat, Carson Iceberg Lake Tahoe to Mount Whitney: Your Backpacking Guide to the High Sierras Yellow Flower
Leavit Peak in December with Snow Plume

Looking back at Leavitt Peak during a Winter Circle to Sonora Pass, up to and over Leavitt, then back down to Highway 395.


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High Sierra
Backpacking Navigation

Time, Space, Earth and Sky for the Long Distance High Sierra Backpacker





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SCRAMBLING OFF THE TRAIL Mountain Safety News & Topics TRAIL


On This Page
Land & Sky
Navigation Topics


Rise & Set
Times & Bearings

Reading Nature's
Clock and Compass

Trail Journal
Keeping Track

On This Page
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Information Resources



All Sky Map

Maps, Navigation,
and the
Real World


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 Laboratory
Basic Mapping
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.


Ever-Widening Scope
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...


Cross-Country Backpacking
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.

Define Lost
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
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.

It's astounding...
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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The Factory
Accurate Observers
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 verify information.

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.




High Sierra Backpacker Magazine
Space & Science News

All Astronomy & Astrophysics News Forums



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Accurate Timekeeping

The Rotations
Earth, Moon,
Sun or Moon

The tables we generate through the links below give us the compass points of the sun over the span of any specified time and day from any specified position.

To make this information useful we use it to determine the exact time and compass points of Sunrise, Noon, and Sunset during the first and last days of our trip.

The links below gives us those precise timings.

The bottom link gives us the compass point of the Sun at any time.

This information allows us to precisely determine the precise compass points and times of Sunrise, Sunset, and Noon observationally, with no instruments.

Sunrise, Noon, and Sunset are themselves our clock and compass without a clock or compass.

We will use the alignments of Nature, which are the real hands and face of Nature's clock and compass that all of our devices are based on. All of our devices attempt to represent that to which we should be naturally tuned.

We will use our extended time on the trail to refer directly to the sources themselves using the most fundamental instrument we have:


The references below translate astronomical alignments into the things we call time and direction, into the exact times and compass points of Sunrise, Sunset, and Transit.

Transit is when the Sun crosses an imaginary North-South line in the sky, our meridian, which precisely determines when it is Noon at our location.

The instrument for that is our own shadow.

Precise time is local and dependent on the observer's specific position.
General time is promulgated across wide zones.

The Sun's relationship to our specific position on the Earth is the backpacker's most fundamental Compass and Clock.

We will build awareness and track our local precise time and the general zone time.

We just need the information to interpret the rise, noon, and set alignments of the Sun into clock and compass readings.

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US Naval Observatory
and Moon
Sun and Moon

Information for One Day
Sun and Moon

Information for One Year

Sun or Moon
Altitude/Azimuth Table Calculator


All Naval
Data Services


Check this resource for deriving
Sun Rise, Noon, and Set Times and their Compass Points
from any location

more below

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Once we've ascertained our position of observation we enter our location into the Sun-Moon Altitude/Azimuth Table Calculator, and write down the time and compass points for Sunrise, Sunset, and Transit of the Sun from that location in our hiking journal.

We can do this for for the first and last days of our trip, and add a mid-point roughly halfway along the length of our route, and roughly halfway across the time span of our trip.

It's best we examine the Solar data for the length of our trip to determine the rate of change for Sunrise and Sunset times and their compass points over the duration of our long trips, though this differential, the rate of change, will not be a significant factor for short backpacking trips.

Note the Time and Date site clearly presents the daily rate of change of Sunrise and Set, but not from Sierra locations.
The rate of change they cite will be correct, but the actual times for rise, transit, and set will be a little off.

Sunrise and Sunset times and their compass points will change more or less per day depending on the season, but transit times (High Noon) remains relatively constant over the duration of most of our short and even our long backpacking trips.

What we've done above is specify three times a day we can observationally determine our exact time and compass orientation over the duration of our trip.

Once we identify the Rise, Noon, and Set positions of the Sun on land and across the Sky we can draw an imaginary curving line through these points, and begin telling time by the Sun's position along the arc.

This demands we develop the skills to personally figure out and roughly track basic directions and time between our thrice daily "reference moments," without a compass or clock. Our minds and bodies are sufficient for the task.

With our reference information we will be able to observe the Sun to figure out exactly what time it is and where the cardinal compass points are from the beginning to the end of our hiking day. We are going to fundamentally orient ourselves.

I have a feeling that the Motions of the Sun Simulator can be used to derive our Sunrise, Set, and Noon positions and timing, but this needs to be verified:

Motions of the Sun Simulator More astronomical links

Night Skies
The relationship between time, space, and us does not end when the Sun goes down. It deepens.
We are not just going to get some beautiful views of the night sky, but we are going to expand our daily navigational perspective into an important, informative, and very entertaining part of our seasonal and annual context:

The Night Sky.

The info blocks below have links to astronomical and terrestrial information necessary to put the day and night skies into context with our specific position on Earth. Why?

To better enjoy and understand the view, of course!

After putting our terrestrial position in context with our Sun during the day we will explore our relationship with our Solar System, our Galaxy, and push out to the known limits of the surrounding Universe at night.

The deeper we go into the mountains the further we can see into time and space.

More astronomical links

Credit for Simulators
Go Big Red


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Map Stuff

Navigation Information

Navigation Information
Map Standards
Transverse Mercator
Grid System
The Maps The Standards The System

  Map Tools

(excellent map tools too)

Map Tools

Pick Your Poison:




Map Tools Tutorials
Plotting Bearings
(Known Landmarks)

Bearing Line

Bearing Line

Map Tools



Map Tools

Map Tools
Pro Instruction


Map Tools
Pro Instruction Materials


Navigation Text
Wilderness Navigation;
Finding Your Way
Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS
2nd edition. Burns & Burns. The Mountaineers, 2004.
ISBN 0-89886-953-6

Systems Concept Information Information

Map Stuff

Navigation Information

Celestial Maps
Look Up!

Full Observational Astronomy Guide


Cool adjustable chart
Paper Sky Map

RA Coordinates on Star Chart
Adjustable Web-Based
    Print Current
Paper Star Chart
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Adjustable Earth Chart
Seasonal Explorer
Seasonal Angle of Earth to Sun
adjustable chart
Rotating Sky
Sun Motion

Amazing! Play with it!

Space Stuff

Celestial References
All Naval
Data Services
Planet Positions Data
Sunrise, Sunset, and Bearings top of page

  A Year's
Night Skies

Intro, list, RA coordinates

Constellation Charts
With RA coordinates

Seasons and the Zodiac

An Adjustable Reference

Adjustable Web-Based

All Constellations Star Chart



of the
Orion the Hunter,
Grand Image and Overlay
NASA Image with overlay.


Digital Telescope


Right Ascension
5h 30m 48s
19°21'46" NORTH

Adjust Digital Telescope's Image Size and
Field of View larger to get full effect from your monitor.

Seasonal Observer

Winter Observations
Orion the Hunter
The Winter Circle


Summer Observations
Summer Triangle
signpost for all seasons,
Earth-Sky, March 2, 2017.



Backpacker All Sky
Star Chart



Sitting in Camp
Locate Ourselves
in the

Find Coordinates for setting the
Digital Telescope:

All Sky
Star Chart




Field Use Star Wheel

Digital Star Wheel





Cool adjustable chart

All Naval
Data Services


Tahoe to Whitney
Science & Astronomy



Picture of the Day






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Our Galaxy
Text Information

Our Galaxy
Great Graphic

Our Galaxy Image
Biggest Navigable Image
46 billion pixels
Our Galaxy Image
Best Low Tech Image
Center of Our Galaxy
NASA Image


Next Galaxy Over
Informative Articles

Andromeda-Milky Way

Local Group

Local Group
Informative Technical Text

Local Supercluster

The Big Picture
Supercluster Article

Known Universe
14 Billion Light Years

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Time, Space
Temporal Information


Time Standards

"Zulu Time"
All describe the same global time system

  Greenwich Mean Time
World Time Reference
US Naval Observatory
US Naval Observatory
Master Clock Animations
National Institute of
Standards & Technology

Time Zones
are convenient but imprecise.
The British navigated their way to stealing and coordinating their global Empire by evolving the precise
global time system

still used today.

This system is really one of celestial time, which organizes all observable events in & under the Sky.

This is the info we need to really tell time:

All Naval
Data Services

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Thus Greenwich remains the center of global time,
even though the center of global empire has shifted West...
History of Timekeeping
History of Timekeeping
Global Longitude
Time System

Celestial Navigation
Time and Navigation
Smithsonian History
Royal Observatory The Time Ball Greenwich Mean Time
Adjustable World Time Zones


"Daylight Savings Time"

Between March 12 and November 5, 2017,
Between March 11 and November 4, 2018

Time in specified zones,
including California and Nevada

(The Sierra Nevada)
will be set one hour ahead, to institute
"Daylight" Time,
2 am
Sunday morning, May 11

High Sierra Backpacker's Calendar

Daylight Savings Time
Pacific Daylight Time

This changes the relationship of PST
GMT or "Zulu" Time
by one hour:

Pacific Standard Time

Time and Date.Com
Pacific Daylight Time



At 2 am on March 11, 2018, clocks in the Sierra Nevada Range will be set forward one hour to PDT.

"Spring Forward, Fall Back"

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More Time
Public & Private
Web Resources

We are looking for info about the rate of change of the compass points and timing of Sun rise and set, and therefore the rate of change of the of day's length.
Most web-resources have limited location coverage.

Note the rate of daily change of Sunrise and set times and locations!


All Naval
Data Services









US Naval Observatory

Gives data for any location you can specify with coordinates, and many specified towns and cities:

Sunrise-Sunset Data


Mammoth Lakes

Longitude 119° 2' W
Latitude 37° 39' N

HOW to Determine the FACTS
Fire up Google Earth, Use your cursor to find the coordinates of the Geographical Position you wish to know the time and bearings of Sunrise and Sunset, and enter its coordinates into the form below:

Sun-Moon Altitude/Azimuth
Table Calculator

Print out charts for daily, monthly, and annual times and locations of Sun Rise and Set.

Sunrise and Sunset
Locations Information

Time and Date

South Lake Tahoe






Tuolumne Meadows

Mammoth Lakes

Lone Pine

Equinox, Solstice
& Cross-Quarter Moments




Time Simulator

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Distance & Angular



Sexagesimal- Decimal.
(Convert decimal to degrees
and back.)




Trails and Topics

Trails Forums

Topics Forums



Navigation Forum

Comments top of Page
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in the
Real World

Now, the question is what to do with all the astronomical information linked to above. That depends on your goal. I never bring a watch, GPS, or other electronic gear into the wilderness besides camera and flashlight.

I want to have an active, engaged relationship with time across space.

The compass points and times of Sunrise, Noon, and Sunset are the opening observations of each trip's trail journal.

I take note of the lengths of day and night, the progress of the Moon's Phases, and any notable planets, stars, or astronomical phenomena.

We'll pull out our digital star chart and sky wheel to determine the configuration and progress of the night sky, then print us out a paper star chart for our trip.



My goal is to establish the position of the Sun as my basic trail clock and part-time compass during daylight. To do this I will have to record the astronomical information I mentioned above from the links above to use on the trail. That information is the header of my journal. Call it my "Land Navigation Almanac."

Though the Sun will be a clock all day long, it will only act as a compass at Sunrise, Noon, and Sunset, when local astronomical transitions reveal both an exact compass bearing and the precise time. This means that we can begin, find the middle, and end our days knowing exactly what time it is without a clock.

These "time" observations give us a precise perspective on how we are situated in the terrain in relation to the compass without a compass. Our astronomical reference data gives us the exact time and compass points of Sunrise and set.

This becomes a part of our observational aresnal, as a part of our perspective begins to include orientation as part of observation. This knowledge will allow you to see more when you look around.

With a little practice you will begin to see time, and feel how your perpetual motion alters your relationship with it's "mother of all reference points" here, our Sun.


Between Sunrise and Sunset is 12 Noon. Anywhere we stand on our planet there is an imaginary line encircling our planet that pass North and South over our heads crossing through and aligned with both the North and South Poles know as our personal meridian. It follows us wherever we go.

In every case this meridian is a line drawn above our exact position traveling North and South around the sphere of our planet encircling our planet while crossing through both its North and South poles.

That line represents our True Noon, no matter what anyone's watch says.

Noon is defined astronomically as the time when the Sun is at its highest point crossing our specific North-South meridian-line viewed from our specific location. The highest point of the Sun from any position we occupy is when it passes across our imaginary North-South meridian, defining our local Noon.
When the Sun bisects the North-South line on our compass it is 12 Noon at our local position, whatever the standardized time says. As we have recorded the local transit time from the tables linked to above, we also know what someone's standard-time watch will tell us when the Sun splits its zenith across our meridian.

But we also know the real, "local" time.

The Sun and Moon Information linked to above gives us the local "clock" time for Sun transits across our meridian every day at any location around the world. Independent of the "standardization" of time at that location, it is Noon when the Sun transits where you are standing. But, I believe it's always good to know what "Noon" means for the rest of the standardized world too.

Nothing will synchronize you, society, and Nature for you, if you don't do it yourself.

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Quick Orientations
We can use our fairly inaccurate timing of the exact second when our local Noon occurs to measure our longitude if we have a very accurate watch set to GMT.
For those of us in the Western Hemisphere we will note the GMT for the moment our local Noon occurs, and the difference between the two times tells us our exact longitude, or exactly how many hours we are West of Greenwich, England, remembering that each hour of time equals 15 degrees of the Earth's rotation.

To locate our distance from Greenwich we note the exact time (on our GMT clock) when the Sun transits Noon, note the number of hours differing from our Local Noon to GMT time, which is the number of hours we are East or West of Greenwich, depending on if our GMT time is later (West) or earlier than GMT.
Times of 12 hours or less later than Greenwich Time is in the West, 12 hours earlier than Greenwich Time puts us in the East Hemisphere.

Since each hour of time represents the Earth spinning 15 degrees, we can multiple the number of hours we are ahead or behind Greenwich Time by 15 to find the number of our degrees of longitude East or West of Greenwich.

The different times from which the same act is observed represents the distance between them.

Time equals distance on a spinning planet.

This method is limited by the accuracy of our ability to precisely measure the precise transit time of local Noon. Unless we have a sextant.

Measuring the elevation of Polaris, the North Star, above the horizon gives us our Latitude to within a half-degree.

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Time Systems
Local and Standard Systems
We are employing two "time systems" on the long trails. We measure time locally, if we are basing our daily 24-hour clock on the Sun crossing the zenith at Noon. And, we have brought the information necessary to coordinate the Standard or Daylight times with our local Noon, and maintain National and International "civilization" times.

We can determine the exact "civilization" time-zone time for when the Sun is directly above our position ("Noon") from the astronomical charts linked to above. These are different!
We do this to know both the exact real moment of local noon as well as what the official local "clock" will be reading when the Sun crossing its zenith. Knowing "civilization" time will be helpful when approaching resupply spots. I stay on Nature's Time on the trail. Noon is Noon.
My best resupply approaches are framed by the question, "can we get there before breakfast ends?" My more desperate resupply approaches involve the classic question, "can we get there before the kitchen closes?"

Recording the exact times and position of the Sun at Sunrise, Sunset, and High Noon in our journal gives us the ability to precisely determine time and direction from astronomical sources. With this information we can easily measure time after Sunrise, before or after Noon, which is very helpful to determine how many hiking hours we have on the trail before sunset.


Measuring Time
on the

The Hand of the Clock
Now that we've figured out the "standards," being the exact civil times and compass points of the Sun at Sunrise, Sunset, and the civil time of Transit (local Noon) we put this information to good use on the trail.
This starts with two facts. First, the sun apparently moves 15 degrees across the sky per hour. That is, the 24 hours of a day times 15 degrees equals 360 degrees, or one full rotation of the Earth's sphere, conventionally called a "day."

Another Way of looking at a day:
The Sidereal Day (Wiki).

Sidereal Simulator

Second, it so happens that the size of a human fist at arms length equals 15 degrees. This means that each and every one of us, little chick and big dude alike, can hold out our fist out at the end of our arm (looking at the back of our hand's width, not including the thumb) to physically measure time. It's proportional, and each of us is so scaled.

One hand-width equals one hour.

With a little practice we can easily measure how many hours the sun is located before or after noon, or how many hours it is after sunrise or before local and astronomical sunset. Local Sunset is when the Sun sets behind the nearby ridge, astronomical Sunset is when the sun apparently crosses the Western horizon from our position, whether we can see it directly or not.

We need to be able to directly locate one of three positions to tell time:
1> Position of Sunrise
2> Position of Noon
3> Position of Sunset

We can estimate the altitude of the horizon to establish "estimated" locations of the Sunrise and Sunset points along their bearing-lines even when we can't actually see the horizons. The reassuring element is that being able to easily find Noon's transit line and altitude keeps our readings of Nature's "clock" fairly accurate even when both horizons are obscured.

Motions of the Sun Simulator

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Face of the Clock

The Time Dance
I like to set-up the face of Nature's clock in my mind and the sky every morning. I call it my Time Dance. I locate and point at the position on the horizon where the Sun will rise. Then we locate our North-South line, the meridian bisecting the sky, tracking it out in our mind's eye & the point of our finger (while stepping sharply), as we are mentally measuring the Sun's altitude at Noon above the Horizon while triangulating it with the line of its rise and fall across that position. The Sun's projected location crossing the meridian at Noon is the daily center of our Time Dance. Finding the end point of the day ties it all together.
My Time Dance brings these abstractions into physical context.
I highlight them mentally as I point them out physically.

A simple, daily metaphysical junction point in motion.

After our Sunrise, Noon, and Sunset positions are "pointed out," with some fine moves thrown in reflecting the local Nature of Reality, I finish up by drawing the day's imaginary mental line, an arc really, from the point of Sunrise on the horizon over to where the Sun crosses the meridian at Noon, and down to its end point. Now We are going to finalize our perception of the line the Sun follows along its arc between these points to calibrate our fist-measuring system to determine time today. We will duplicate this process at Noon to re-calibrate our position within our know and our projected Sunrise and Sunset points, within our changing local context.
Our thrice-daily Time Dances (yes, there will be a Sunset reckoning), are necessary to keep track of each quarter of daytime's half of our clock-face.

We will add or subtract the number of hours each fist measures from the known timing of our reference point, and that tells us what time it is. You will find great accuracy with a little practice. That's why I suggest setting up the mental and physical frameworks of our clock every morning.

Telling accurate time without a watch will become second nature with use.

The Great Arc
The altitude of our imaginary arc tying the Sun's rise, zenith, and set points together today are just steps along its daily path, which is either rising or falling, either making the days longer or shorter. The rising arc is pulling the Sun's rise and set positions a bit further North on our horizons each day as the altitude of Noon climbs higher and higher, the falling arc pulls them South as the altitude of Noon declines.

The distance between our rise and set points grows larger as the daily arc rises towards the North, and it shrinks as the arc falls South. The position of the arc and the length of days is determined by where the tilt of the Earth's axis is pointing as the Earth orbits around the Sun.

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Night Skies Too
Nighttime Dance
Timespot One
Our "hand" time-measurement system also works well for tracking time at night. Unlike the specific beginning and ending points of the day provided by Sunrise and Sunset, actually keeping time into the darkness is challenging. We may have to use a couple of transitional reference points to carry our natural timekeeping across the diurnal boundary into night skies, but worry not, we will keep our time reference intact.

Night time-keeping requires a different approach to establishing our time references than the orderly Time Dance we use to begin each day. Because we almost randomly locate the first star every evening we must be ready to quickly establish both a reference point from which to measure its continuing motion and the time of observation. Thus the need for "Timespot One."

Timespot One is the moment and position from which each night's first time observation is established. This is my favorite Timespot One position. (hint:Summit City)

Star Watch
After Sunset, as twilight deepens into night we are keeping a sharp lookout to pick a star near the Eastern horizon as we conduct our normal camp activities. Our goal is to measure its height above the horizon at sunset, or as soon as possible afterward. We are estimating time from Sunset until we pick up this first star. We are human timers.

Once we find this first star we will reference its position against a terrain feature and will measure each hour after sunset by measuring the rise of this star above its start point: It will rise 15 degrees, or the width of one fist at arm's length every hour. As there is sometimes a delay between Sunset and the appearance of the first star we may have to estimate how long we waited from astronomical sunset to the appearance of the first star.

Thus if I know it is 7:10 pm at astronomical sunset, I begin to keep mental track of the time to the appearance of the first star in the East. When I spot the first star I measure its distance from the horizon using the "fist equals fifteen degrees" method, then add the estimated elapsed time since astronomical sunset to determine the current time.

From that point in time I can continue to measure time by following my selected star's movement from my selected terrestrial reference point. Our nighttime clock will reflect true time If we estimated time across the day-night gap well. If not, we will pick up accurate timing again with Sunrise.

It's hard to measure the transition to night skies on the Western horizon, as the Western sunset washes out the sky, delaying early appearance of stars in the Western skies, unless we've got a bright planet hanging out there. It that case our night timing will be pretty good, if we retain proper context.

Our nighttime observations of the relative positions of terrestrial reference points against moving celestial objects requires our observations be from a consistent observation point, which I have always christened as, "Timespot One."

It's just crazy.

A drawback of our time system drawing on natural time and space reference points is that they can be elusive or obscured. We can rely on our references being occasionally obscured by fog, clouds, and storms. We can be sitting in the bottom of a deep valley with no observable horizons. That's why we bring a compass...

More words on the Nigh Skies.

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The Trail Journal
Trail Notes

Now we have to make this astronomical information useable on the trail. Since I want to bring vital information into and out of the wilderness, I've developed a note taking system for the trail.

I want to bring some Natural History information into the wilderness as well as astronomical information. So I made myself a custom 15 page nature guide. It has information gleaned from the Sierra Club Naturalist's handbook, mostly tree and plant identification.

I actually photocopied entries out of various guide books, pasted them onto sheets of paper, then photocopy these sheets into my homemade guide.

My Trail Journal-Plant Guide
I will generally print up 15 or 20 copies on one side of 8 x 11 paper for each year. The front side is my personal guide is for identifying trees, bushes, flowers and such. The backsides of my guide give me 15 pages of blank 8 x 11 paper.

Therefore 7 single pages stapled together should suffice for a five-day segment of trail, depending on how literary we are feeling, and how much we see and feel.

Trail Journal
The backside of this nature guide gives me 15 blank pages for my journal and trail notes I can use to record information and experiences.
I have developed a system to make sense of my notes when I get back, and the astronomical information I bring in has to be usable on the trail, so I have developed a clear format for initially labeling my trail journal and notes.

I label the top of the first blank page with the name of the trip, the season, the date, and basic notes about the present and predicted weather along with any particular concerns about the trip, what kind of gear setup I am bringing.

I then carefully and legibly note the precise compass points and times of sunrise and sunset on the first day of the trip, derived from the US Naval Observatory links provided above.
For trips that last over a week in duration I record the information for the middle of the trip, and for longer hikes, the first and last days of the trip to maintain accurate astronomical information over the span of the trip. The reason for two sets of figures is that the sunrise and sunset times shift slowly every day.
I find this site helpful for explaining the daily change in the length of the day:

Fresno is the closest location to the High Sierra currently available off TimeandDate. Until they derive information for the Sierra we will have to rely on the Sunrise and Sunset information from the US Naval Observatory, above.

We will also note the "conventional" PDT clock time, and the elevation of the Sun at Local Noon in our journal. Local Noon is when the sun is at its highest daily position crossing the North-South line on our compass from our position. That is exactly Noon, no matter what anyone's clock reads.
This works out to be around 1:30 pm by "conventional" PDT clock" time during High Noon along the Sierra Crest during Summertime.
Local Noon will be one of our three daily points where we can exactly determine "conventional" PDT times, until we make the adjustment to accepting Nature's Time.

Moon phases are also helpful, as the phase of the Moon determines the character of the night.

I fold my nature guide/trail journal into quarters and keep it in a waterproof zip-lock plastic bag within easy reach inside my buttpack next to my camera.

The buttpack's pouch rides facing forward, above and covering my backpack's belt strap buckle. The strap and buckle of the buttpack are perfectly positioned above the backpack's belt strap.
I can easily pull out camera, map, my hiker and trail journal, and today's snacks.

This allows me to do lots of things while hiking, especially get instant access to my trail journal/plant guide, so I can instantly reference or record experiences. I can quickly take pictures and/or notes as I hike down the trail.

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Physical Time

Using these figures I can now figure out the exact times and compass points during Sunrise and Sunset, determine both the time of local Noon and translate that local time into Pacific Daylight Time, and easily use the fist measurement system to determine the exact time of day between Sunrise and Sunset and measure the number of hours until to sunset.

Understanding the physical nature of time allows me to estimate how many miles I can get in during the length of a day, and especially how many hours I have until the sinking Sun forces me to make camp.

All of this can be done by recording some basic information, bringing a compass, and having a fist at the end of one of your arms.

As I don't bring a phone, I also record the telephone numbers of my Sister, who is monitoring my backpacking trip's entrance and exit dates, as well as any local friends I am going to call and visit during or after the trip.

Some Basic Facts

The North Star is less than 2 degrees off of true North. This means that the North Star is much more accurate than your compass, which is typically off by 15.5 degrees at our latitude. (Call my local latitude 38 degrees North.) The reason for this is that the location of the Magnetic North Pole is offset to the East of True North from our location in North America.

High Sierra Backpacker Magazine
Space & Science News

All Astronomy & Astrophysics News


Wikipedia article about
Magnetic North
Wikipedia article about
Magnetic Declination
Geomagnetism FAQ
Geomagnetism Calculators
Find your Local Declination
Geomagnetism FAQ

Magnetic North (North on your compass) is offset from the True North Pole by an angle that depends on your latitude and longitude. The angular and mileage difference between Magnetic North to True North is indicated on every good map you use.

The height of the North Star above the horizon is almost exactly equal to your Latitude. It is within a half-degree.

Thus we can measure the accuracy of our compass at night by its offset from the North Star.


High Sierra Backpacker Magazine
Geology News

Geo Electro-Magnitism: 3D mapping of the Crust and Mantle


High Sierra Backpacker Magazine

Geology News Section


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Maps, Navigation, and the Real World

Instructional Materials

Lets get some more resources for you to check out.

Though our needs mostly revolve around maintaining understanding of our position as we travel down maintained trails, we might want to know how to exactly define a specific location on a map.

Map Tools Tutorials
(excellent map tools too)
Navigation Text
Wilderness Navigation; Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS; 2nd edition. Burns & Burns. The Mountaineers. 2004. ISBN 0-89886-953-6

I have put up an excellent series of navigation and map reading videos
on a playlist on the
Tahoe to Whitney YouTube channel.


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Last page: Astro Links                                                                                                  Next page: Trail Skills

High Sierra
Backpacking Navigation
All Time and Space
our Feet and Over our Head

The whole point of this page is to get a good degree of context between the backpacker and their terrestrial and celestial environments.

The Earth around us appears stationary. But it is not.

Not only are we, the backpackers, moving across the terrain, but the terrain itself is moving in context of the Sun and our surrounding Solar System, which is in turn gives us a revolving view of our surrounding Galaxy and Universe.

These motions create the chronological and spatial dimensions we measure to ascertain our location, direction, and pace.

We can do all of this, navigating through time and space, with little theoretical or technical knowledge of time and space. No problem. Humans have been accurate reflections of the reality around us long before we wrote down or even understood our observations.

We followed, named, and measured time and space across the night skies long before we could read or write.

The abstraction of this knowledge and experience into the written word allows us to enjoy it even more, restore it to those who have lost it, and pass it down to succeeding generations who might otherwise be ignorant of the personal relationship between the backpacker, our physical terrestrial surrounding, and movement around our Sun and Galactic Center as we wander across the Universe.

Next page
Check out the
Astronomical Links


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Frosted Backpack

Backpacking Lake Tahoe to Mount Whitney

Your guide to the High Sierra Crest, including the Tahoe to Yosemite, Pacific Crest, and John Muir Trails

Snug tent after Snow Storm
© Lake Tahoe to Mount Whitney: Crown Jewel of the Pacific Crest Trail